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Exploring USB Flash Drives- from cradle to contemporary genre

Kevin Nouse

The new millennium ushered in with a bunch of amazing possibilities and developments and when it comes to some of the most phenomenal century-defining development- USB Flash drive surely commands massive kudos and appreciation. Popularly known as pen drive or thumb drive, these little flash drives have revolutionized data storage and portability, showing us a more powerful and way better alternative to traditional CDs and floppy drives. They speak of a handy data storing device (around just 1.1 oz), equipped with flash memory & integrated convenient USB interface. These devices are usually removable & rewritable several times. All major operating systems like Linux, Windows, OS X & Unix-like systems are compatible with USB Flash drives. All PCs and laptops today are manufactured with in-built USB ports where you can plug-in the USB Flash drive to gather and transfer data. As the old adage goes-"All great things come in small packages" – and so are the USB Flash Drives.

The article below discusses everything you would wish to know about USB Flash Drives

History of the USB Flash Drives

Though there have been steaming debates about the creator of USB Flash Drives, yet many claim that Pua Khein-Seng, a veteran electrical control engineer from Malaysia, was the actual man behind the thumb drives. Revered as the "Father of Pen Drive", Khein-Seng was the one who incorporated world's 1st USB single chip flash controller. He founded the Taiwan-based Phison Electronics and had supposedly produced 1st USB Flash Drive of the world with the system-on-chip technology. However, Singapore's Trek Technology & China's Netac Technology have made competing claims.

1st generation USB Flash Drive

The 1st commercial USB Flash Drive forayed into the market in the year 2000 through IBM and Trek Technology. Under UBM it was sold under the name of "DiskoNKey" across North America while Trek started selling the device as "ThumbDrive". IBM's model was manufactured and developed by Israel's M-Systems. The first commercial model was released with 8 MB storage capacity that was 5x more capable of the conventional floppy disks (1440 KB). It featured USB 1.1 connectivity.

2nd generation USB Flash Drive

The 2nd generation USB Flash Drive hit the floors in 2003 with a more powerful USB 2.0 connectivity, carrying 480 Mbit/s transfer rate. Reports on history of pen drive show 64 MB storage capacity & later 128 GB with the second generation USB flash drives.

3rd generation USB Flash Drive

The 3rd generation model came with a better USB 3.0 which phenomenally heightened data transfer to up till 5 Gbits. It came to the commercial market in 2010. By 2014, 32- 64 GB pen drives started coming up. The more advanced models were equipped with 1 TB capacity.

4th generation USB Flash Drive

The 4th generation USB Flash Drive speaks of type-C USB 3.1connectivity with 530 MB/s read/write speed. It was announced something around 2015 March.

Make and Technology of USB Flash Drive

Pen drives come with a little printed circuit housing circuit elements inside a plastic casing, fitted with standard-A USB plug at the end- it's the USB connector that establishes the connection between the drive and the PC/laptop. A handy removable cap protects that USB connector. The standard USB Flash Drives generally bank on a USB type-A connection which enables the connection with the port on PC.

The 5 main components of USB Flash Drive:

  • USB Standard-A Plug- it extends physical interface to host computer.
  • NAND flash memory chip- it plays the main role in storing data.
  • USB mass storage controller- you have a tiny microcontroller with small volume of on-chip RAM & ROM.
  • Crystal oscillator- it produces the drive's vital 12 Mega Hertz clock signal & controls its data output via phase-locked loop.
  • Cover- usually made of metal or plastic, it is meant to safeguard the electronics making up the device from mechanical stress & short circuits.
However, there could be some additional components as well-
  • Jumpers & test pins- these are useful for testing while manufacturing flash drive or while loading the code in its microcontroller.
  • Write-protect switches- they help to disable or enable data write-up into memory.
  • LEDs- they are to indicate data reads/ writes or data transfers.
  • Free second space- provides room for 2nd memory chip.
  • USB connector cap- for additional protection to the connector from dirt and damage.
  • Transport aid- a convenient hole for lanyard or key chain.
  • Memory card slot- Some of the USB Flash Drives come with memory card space for expandable storage.
Why are they so small?

One of the most frequently asked questions about USB Flash Drives is that how come these devices are so tiny. Well, these drives deploy solid-state advanced flash technology that can store your data sans using the elaborate moving parts- which are otherwise common with the larger PC hard-drives.

Benefits & usage of USB Flash Drives

There is a great bunch of cool things you can do with USB Flash Drives-

Data storage & transfer

The primary function of USB Flash Drive is surely data storage & transfer- be it personal, commercial or confidential. You can carry anything in it, ranging from text documents to images to video clips to audio data.

Excellent data backup

USB Flash Drives speak of non-volatile which signifies that you do not need any external power to preserve the data stored in the device. Moreover, the device is highly durable and is strong enough to stand tall on the face of extreme pressure and temperature. It is also water resistant. Thus, unless you lose your pen-drive, you can be assured that your data have got an amazing backup. Moreover, pen drives are way cheaper and assure much more data housing capacity compared to other backup solutions.

Application carrier for COFEE

In recent times, USB Flash Drives are used as application carriers for Microsoft's COFEE (Computer Online Forensic Evidence Extractor) application. This application suite is meant to search & extract the digital evidence from computers that are confiscated from the suspects.

Runs different portable applications

One of the best bits of USB Flash drives is that they can run various portable applications for you. You have several important portable applications today like OpenOffice, Thunderbird or Mozilla Firefox and with USB Flash Drives you can carry them and work with them wherever you go- no matter how far you are from your own PC/laptop.

Boots your OS

These tiny yet powerful devices can boot up your whole OS, be it Linux or Windows. There are several articles online that will help you to understand how to boot your OS with a pen drive.

Amps up Vista performance

If you work with Windows Vista, a pen drive can be handy to amp up its performance, courtesy the great ReadyBoost technology. The technology uses the drive's storage space as extra memory cache to accommodate your hard disk's memory cache. Besides, flash memory speaks of better responsiveness compared to hard disk, ReadyBoost's memory cache can dramatically enhance system responsiveness.

Audio player facility

This is one of the most cherished benefits of USB Flash Drive. You can load your favorite audio files into the flash drive device, plug it in your system & run the Windows media player to enjoy the songs. In fact, a good lot of companies today have come up with digital solid-state audio players that are nothing but our regular flash drives equipped with a sound output & breezy user interface. Some of them double up as both data storage devices & music players. Most of these players are generally fitted with permanent rechargeable battery so that you can always charge them and cherish your music when the power drops.

Promotional gifts

USB Flash Drives are immensely functional devices and hence a good lot of brands today are taking pen drives as promotional gifts. It's something that people use almost everyday which means regular exposure of the brand's logo on the drive's body.

Marketing medium

USB Flash Drives are presently being used as cool marketing mediums. It's an intelligent step no doubt and there is a fair share of artists who have released their music & promotional samples on pen drives. The first time a band used pen drive for marketing its album was in 2004. It's a German band Wizo and the trend is being followed by top music stars like Kylie Minogue. There is also the record of an entire compilation album released in pen drive. It was in the UK in 2007 and the album was released by Kiss Network.

Connects to versatile devices

The USB Flash drives do not only run on computers and laptops. But the modern home Hi-Fi & car stereo systems too have got slots for USB Flash drives so that you can easily transfer video or audio files from the drive to these systems.

Usage in gaming arena

Some of the modern arcade games use flash drives to transfer the high scores, dance edits, screenshots etc. Also, players can store the custom songs in these devices & play them while playing the game.

Latest developments in USB Flash Drive technology

Let's have a look at the latest trends in USB Flash Drive technology:

Solid encryption facility

The modern USB Flash Drives are developed with encrypted memory & customized encrypted PIN to ensure complete security of your data inside. And it rings true, even if your pen drive gets stolen. The custom encryption security PIN installed on the device will thwart any intrusion into the data by an intruder. This way, you can be assured of 100 percent protection for your pen drive data no matter where it is and which device it's inserted to.

Anti-virus backup

The good news is that these days you even have USB flash drives equipped with robust anti-virus tools that will keep the viruses and malwares at bay. We all have heard of incidents where a perfectly healthy pen drive got infected with virus as it was inserted into a virus-affected computer. But thanks to the anti-virus support today, you can be assured of no such worries now.

Cloud Armor

This is certainly one of the most phenomenal developments to be elated about when it comes to the latest enhancements in pen drive technology. The cloud armor backup would be especially useful when you wish to access the data in your pen drive but can't get hold of the device physically. Let's say somebody has stolen your thumb drive. Yes, you can talk about the encryption facility that will keep your data safe from the thief but that can't get you access to your data. However, the cloud facility in USB flash drives will store your data in the cloud, so that you can get hold of it from simply anywhere- independent of the physical device.

USB Flash Drives today

Recent advancements in the flash drive scene have been able to lessen cost of flash drive components through integration of different flash drive functionalities in one single chip- which has consequently reduced part-count & overall cost of packaging. The contemporary market shows a steady growth in the consumption of pen drives and continuous endeavors of the manufacturers to better the product have further added fillip to the growing usage of these devices. The developers today have recently presented super spacious state of the art USB Flash drives with a jaw dropping 256 GB storage capacity. As per reports on USB flash drive forecasts, users are falling for the higher storage capacity of the flash drives and the trend is more prominent among teens & middle-aged populace.

In this contemporary data driven world, a convenient & massive storage and carriage of data is of utmost importance. No wonder, USB Flash Drives with their whooping data storage as well as breezy transfer and easy portability, are just indispensable today. And yes, with Christmas round the corner, a custom USB drive would even make a much sought-after holiday gift for a near one if you are in need of cool ideas for Christmas presents.

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