Thumbs Up: Flash Drives That Deliver

The latest USB flash drives have significantly more storage capacity, faster data-transfer speeds and better security features than ever before. But experts say the models that have the most capacity, the fastest speeds and the best security features aren’t worth the extra money for most consumers.

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If we know one thing about a USB flash drive, it’s that it’s as easy to lose as it is to use. The thumb-size storage device that allows you to share data by plugging it into a computer’s USB drive commonly is lost or destroyed accidentally (think: going through a washing machine), according to recent reports. So for most consumers, it makes little sense to shell out big bucks for a USB flash drive.

Nonetheless, manufacturers pack in the most storage capacity and security technology as well as the highest data-transfer speeds that are possible on new models to make products that benefit them (price) more than they benefit consumers. These features are more than what most consumers need, experts say. Our take: Most consumers don’t need to spend more than $30 for a USB flash drive.

CAPACITY AUDACITY. Today you can buy USB flash drives that have as much as 1TB (terabyte, or 1,000GB) of storage capacity, which is the amount of storage that you typically will find on the latest home computers. That’s a stunning amount, because it’s 125 times more than the 8GB maximum capacity that was available on a USB flash drive 6 years ago. Having 1TB of storage capacity allows you to put more than 2,000 hours of audio or more than 3 million images on a USB flash drive.

But that amount of storage capacity also comes at a stunning price. At press time, multiple reports indicate that you could expect to pay as much as $3,000 for the first 1TB USB flash drive, which is scheduled to arrive in summer 2012 (although the company that will market the device, Victorinox Swiss Army, hadn’t announced pricing). That’s a remarkable premium to pay for the tiny size when you consider that you can pay around $100 for a portable hard drive that has 1TB of storage capacity.

Dee Nguyen, who is an analyst with IHS, which is a market-research company, says other companies likely will introduce USB flash drives that have at least 1TB of capacity in 2012. But Nguyen says those models will be more about status than consumer demand. Otherwise, the most capacity that you can get on a USB flash drive is 256GB, which can cost as much as $966.

In reality, most consumers need no more than 4GB–32GB of storage on a USB flash drive. Those are the most common sizes that are sold today, experts tell us. For instance, a 16GB USB flash drive can hold approximately 4,000 images (at 12 megapixels per image) or approximately 1 hour of high-definition video. But if you use a USB flash drive to store and transfer word-processing documents, spreadsheets or other work-related materials that typically have much smaller file sizes, you don’t need more than 4GB.

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The good news is that prices for USB flash drives that have the most common capacities have dropped dramatically. For example, an 8GB USB flash drive costs as little as $8 today. You would have paid at least $300 for an 8GB model 6 years ago, according to our analysis.

SPEED THRILLS. Meanwhile, data-transfer speeds increased, thanks to the introduction of models that are compatible with the faster USB 3.0 ports that are on computers. You can connect any USB flash drive to a computer that has a USB 3.0 port (or even a USB 3.0 flash drive to a computer that has a USB 2.0 port), but you’ll need a USB 3.0 flash drive if you want to realize the maximum speed that can be reached by connecting via a USB 3.0 port.

Based on our research, we found that a typical USB 2.0 flash drive moves data as fast as 25MB per second, while a typical USB 3.0 flash drive increases the average data-transfer speeds to as fast as 155MB per second. (Those numbers can vary dramatically based on several factors, including flash-drive capacity.)

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