If you are like me, you probably remember the early days of personal computers when a PC was a monolithic monster which took up huge desk space and created enough heat to warm a small apartment. My first computer was a Commodore VIC-20 with an audio-cassette drive. I can remember how excited I was upgrading to the Commodore 64 because I finally had a 5 ¼” floppy disk drive. Then came my first Windows based computer with a 3 ½” disk drive. That gave way to a computer with a CD burner. But now I look at the laptop I am typing this on and none of those are here anymore. Even the CD burner has been replaced by a DVD burner. The rise of the USB flash drive (or thumb drive) has made all of these obsolete.
Flash drives are now ubiquitous. People carry them in their pockets, bookbags, and purses; they are hooked to keychains and lanyards; even elementary school kids carry them and many college classes are now listing them as a required supply. But what are USB thumb drives and are they here to stay?
Thumb drives were first patented in 1999 with the first commercially available drive available a year later in 2000. The basic concept has stayed the same, but the design has changed depending on the individual company. Many USB flash drives now feature some kind of hole or cutaway on one end of the drive to allow for a connection to a keychain or a lanyard. The original models featured caps to cover the actual USB plug, the only piece which is exposed on the drive. Some still do use caps, but due to customer complaints about losing the cap, many are now featuring different designs including retractable plugs. Some companies are now even offering thumb drives in different shapes (cars, trucks, guitars, Lego blocks, and even Star Wars characters) or incorporated into different products such as elastic wristbands or ball-point pens for easier carrying.
Flash drives generally have a shelf life of about ten years, but prices have come down so much and memory sizes have increased to the point that many hardcore computer users now own multiple drives. The first thumb drives had more memory than first generation hard drives and have grown exponentially since then. Standard sizes included 4GB, 8 GB, 32 GB, and 64 GB, with 128 GB also being an option if you need that much storage. One company even boasts a 1 TB (terabyte, or 1000 GB) thumb drive for people who back up everything. One area that many people don’t even consider when buying a USB flash drive is transfer rate. Many just look at the drive size without realizing that some drives transfer data at a faster rate than others.
Some wonder what is next for data storage. Certainly portable hard drives are an option, but they often feature slower transfer rates and lack the portability of thumb drives. Others are now looking at online data storage services such as Dropbox, but this may be problematic if you don’t have an internet connection to access your data. With that in mind, USB flash drives seem to be here to stay.