What is a Thumb Drive? A Ubiquitous Storage Device

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Most people especially computer users carry and depend on USB flash drives or thumb drives everywhere on a quotidian basis. After launching the USB thumb drives, the previously used external drives like CDs, DVDs, floppy disks have gone nearly obsolete. But, many don’t even know how these compact and lightweight gadgets work, their history, extensive use, their benefits, limitation, and many other facts. If you are inquisitive to know what is a thumb drive, let’s go ahead and we will help you to dig around.  

What Is a Thumb Drive

Definition of a Thumb Drive

A thumb drive has multiple names like a USB flash drive, data stick, jump drive, pen drive, keychain drive, or memory unit. It is a small, solid-state, plug-and-play portable drive that uses a USB connector to connect to devices and acts as a data backup tool. The solid-state construction indicates that there are no moving parts in the design like a hard disk, rather like an SSD. These portable drives connect to devices like computers through the USB port and help to share and store data on computers.

They maintain a USB mass storage device class standard to adapt to modern operating systems like Linux, Windows, MAC, and others. Apart from computers, they can be read by Xbox One, PlayStation 4, automobile entertainment systems, DVD players, and many handheld devices like tablets, smartphones.

Definition of a Thumb Drive

History of the USB Thumb Drive

Before launching the USB thumb drives or USB flash drives, people depended on recordable CDs and DVDs to store and share data. In April 1999, Amir Ban, Dov Moran, and Oran Ogden of M-Systems, which is an Israeli company currently known as SanDisk, first developed USB thumb drives. They announced it in September 2000 and sold 8 MB USB flash drives in December 2000 in the united states by IBM.  

History of the USB Thumb Drive

Size and Weight

This removable and rewritable drive is called a thumb drive because of its human thumb-like size and shape which is smaller than an optical disc. The thumb drives are designed with the length within an inch and the depth and width in a fraction of an inch. USB thumb drives have an average weight of less than 1 ounce.

Size and Weight of a Thumb Drive

Data Storing Capacity of a Thumb Drive

The minimum data storing capacity of these drives is 256 megabytes where many of them can store up to a couple of gigabytes of data. There are several USB Thumb drives or flash drives that can store data up to 1 TB but they are not frequently used. Thumb drives are also used for BIOS setup or bootable windows or firmware setup options, and they can be encrypted for security reasons too.

Data Storing Capacity of a Thumb Drive

Structure of a Thumb Drive

A usual thumb drive is internally made of a USB connector, a storage controller, a crystal oscillator, and a NAND flash memory chip. That means data is stored through an integrated circuit memory chip which is insulated electrically. Usually, they are manufactured externally with plastic, metal, rubberized, or aluminum casings around the integrated memory chip. 

The USB connector is usually protected by removable caps and some of them are designed to be retracted inside the body. Most thumb drives or USB flash drives use a standard type-A USB connector and draw power from the computer through the connector.

How Does it Work?

Flash memory implements an electrically erasable programable read-only format to read or write data. When the drive is plugged in, the supported driver instructs the port to query the thumb drive due to the plug-and-play nature. Then a command is transferred to perform a read request.

In the case of writing data on the thumb drive NAND chip, the file is first converted into a binary format, and then it is sent to the USB port to send the data further to the chip. USB thumb drives spread the data that forms the files all over the memory chip.

How Does a Thumb Drive Work

Benefits of a Thumb Drive

  • Unlike floppy disks, thumb drives are immune to electromagnetic interference.
  • Unlike CDs, they are not harmed by surface scratches, mechanical shocks, and dust. They are also waterproof.
  • They are easily portable for their compact size and lightweight. So, one can keep a thumb drive even in a key chain.
  • As USB thumb drives have no mechanically moving parts, they are much durable. So they are expected to last 0 to 100 years under normal usage.
  • They don’t need any reboot after they are attached to a device.
  • They operate by extracting device power so no need for batteries or external power supplies.
  • They are not dependent on the launching platform.
  • Though file transfer speed depends on the USB connector version, the data read-write speed of the thumb drive is faster than other old external disk drives speed.
  • Some of the USB thumb drives offer password protection and downloadable drives. So, these types of drives offer better protection of data.
  • The memory type of a thumb drive is non-volatile.

Limitations of a Thumb Drive

  • USB thumb drives are designed to handle a limited number of write and erase cycles. Some of them limit usage by defining 100,000 writes/erase cycles and the number depends on the memory chips used.
  • Data leakage is a major problem of thumb drives as they are easily portable and hard to track.
  • There is a possibility of a security breach due to malware when the drive is connected with an infected system.  
  • Data recovery is quite tricky as individual pieces of data are found in several locations of the chip.

What is a Thumb Drive Used For?

  1. Transfer files, applications, and software between devices faster.
  2. To back-up important files like pictures, videos, music, or documents.
  3. To run portable versions of applications
  4. For computer forensics and law enforcement.
  5. To update motherboard firmware
  6. For booting operating systems
  7. To store operating system installation media
  8. Provides windows ReadyBoost for Windows Vista and later versions
  9. As audio players in some cases.
  10. For brand and product promotion
  11. In some arcade games.

How do you use a thumb drive?

  1. To connect a USB thumb drive with your device, for example, a computer, you have to first insert the drive’s USB connector into a front or back USB port or USB hub of the computer. Most of the USB connectors are one way, so if you have trouble inserting the drive, rotate it 180 degrees and try again.
  2. Once it is inserted inside, the computer will notify a new device is connected and assign a drive letter to it. If you go to the “This PC” or “File Manager”, you will find the thumb drive appeared labeled as “USB Drive”, “Removable Disk”, “Flash Drive” or with the manufacturers’ name.
  3. Now you can copy and paste any files from the computer to the thumb drive or vice versa. Also, you can directly send or drag-and-drop the files there.
  4. Finally, you have to eject the drive from the toolbar and remove the thumb drive safely.

Reputable USB Thumb Drive Manufacturers

Reputable USB Thumb Drive Manufacturers
  • SanDisk
  • Kingston Technology Corp
  • Hewlett Packard Enterprise
  • Lexar Media Inc.
  • Transcend
  • HP
  • Sony Corp.
  • Corsair
  • Moser Baer
  • Seagate Technology
  • Imation
  • Verbatim Americas LLC
  • Toshiba Corp

Future Replacement

Development of technology is in burgeon, and so, no device can serve alone for long, a better option always appears sometimes. Though thumb drives are extensively used at present, cloud storage is replacing thumb drives eventually. If internet coverage becomes available in every corner of the world, cloud storage evidently will replace USB thumb drives someday.  But still, they complement each other. There are other higher forms of technologies like DNA storage which may replace traditional storage forms soon.

Reputable USB Thumb Drive Manufacturers

Wrap Up

USB thumb drives or USB flash drives are extensively used nowadays. The main reason for their expanding popularity is their compact size, durability, fast data transfer, low price, huge storage capacity, and ease of use. But, cloud storage can take place of these thumb drives soon. With the limitation of internet connectivity, cloud storage can only complement USB thumb drives for now.

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