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Definition: USB drive

(1) An external storage or optical disc drive that plugs into the USB port. See portable hard drive.

(2) A small solid state storage module that plugs into the computer's USB port. Emerging just before the turn of the century, the USB drive comprises one or more flash memory chips that hold up to 2TB of data. Initially holding only eight megabytes, the ever-increasing capacities of USB drives have all but rendered writable CDs and DVDs obsolete. See flash memory.

Backup, Data Transfer and Bootable
USB drives are used for auxiliary storage, backup and data transfer between computers. They are also widely used for disseminating marketing information. Printed with logos on the case, people often keep the drives for backup after erasing the vendor's files. USB drives can also hold an operating system and be used to boot the computer (see bootable disk). See sneakernet.

Windows and Mac Compatible
USB drives are commonly formatted to be compatible between Windows and Mac computers. The FAT and exFAT file formats provide this compatibility (see FAT32 and exFAT.

Known By Many Names
Debuting at the turn of the century, a USB drive is commonly called a "flash drive" as well as many other monikers. Any combination of the words "USB," "flash," "key," "drive," "jump" and "stick" are used (see USB drive names).

Transfer Speed
Drive transfer speed is rated in megabytes and gigabytes per second (Mbps, Gbps) if even mentioned. Transfer speed is often not advertised because USB drives are used for backup and data transfer, not routine processing where speed may be an issue. When USB drives first arrived, vendors used CD-ROM ratings whereby each "x" equaled 150KB per second. For example, a 90x drive meant 13.5MB/sec (90 x 150KB). See CD-ROM drives and solid state.

Long-Term Marketing Mileage
Vendors give away custom-printed USB drives preloaded with promotional material because people keep using them. In 2000, the first 128MB flash drive sold for about $30. In 2023, a 4GB drive (32 times 128MB) costs from $2 to $8.

No Bigger Than the Plug
In 2010, Verbatim launched its Tuff-"N"-Tiny line, only two millimeters thick. Although the contacts are exposed (top left), the units are water and dust proof.

Steampunk Drives
A 19th century USB drive... of course. These drive cases are hand crafted. See steampunk. (Image courtesy of WillRockwell, www.etsy.com/shop/WillRockwell)

Fun and to the Point
Bevy makes devices that hold a user's photo collection, and this rather appropriate USB drive holds its promotional material.

One Terabyte USB Drive
In 2013, Kingston Technology introduced the first 1TB drive, which increased to 2TB in 2017. Imagine telling someone in 1997 when floppy disks were still used that in 20 years, a handheld device would hold the equivalent of one and a half million of them.