A brief history of USB Flash Drives

Developed in the early 1990s by Compaq, DEC, IBM, Microsoft, Intel, Nortel, and NEC, Universal Serial Bus is today the de facto peripheral interface standard. It has almost entirely replaced earlier interfaces like the serial and parallel ports. USB also relegated most external storage media like floppy and Zip disks to obsolescence, due to the utilization of the USB interface by flash and external hard drive manufacturers. USB 1.0, launched in 1996, specified 12Mbits/s “Full Speed” data transfer rates between devices and the host computer, though it did not see widespread adoption. 1998 saw the release of USB 1.1, which maintained the same 12Mbits/s transfer rate, and was the first widely adopted USB standard.

I remember happily paying over $100 for a 32MB flash drive in the fall of 1999 because I could fit an entire semester’s assignments, articles, and papers on a single gadget the size of a pack of gum – and it was also durable – my first flash drive survived three trips through the washing machine. Though it’s hard to imagine someone not recognizing a flash drive now, back then other students occasionally came up to me at the Fishbowl to ask “What is that blinking light thingy you plugged into the computer?” While the earliest flash drives were handy, they were agonizingly slow – even accounting for their diminutive capacities.

The widespread adoption of USB devices (over 10 billion in the wild) is largely due to the development of USB 2.0. The USB 2.0 specification was released in 2000, and boasts a 480Mbits/s data transfer rate. Though USB 2.0 devices rarely approach this theoretical throughput maximum, USB 2.0 is far less patience-trying than USB 1.1, and googling (or binging or yahooing) 'novelty flash drive' reveals there's a flash drive for every interest imaginable. However, in 2000 when USB 2.0 was introduced, a 20GB hard drive was ‘huge.’ Today, a 2TB hard drive costs less than $100, and copying 1,000GB+ over USB 2.0 is a not particularly exciting all-night affair.

Like USB 2.0 before it, USB 3.0 offers dramatically improved data transfer rates compared to its predecessor. Though specifications were announced in late 2008, consumer devices didn’t start ‘hitting the street’ until the beginning of 2010. USB 3.0 specifies transfer rates up to 5Gbit/s, compared to USB 2.0’s 480Mbits/s. USB 3.0 devices are downward compatible with USB 2.0 ports. Because of the ubiquity of USB 2.0 ports and relative rarity of USB 3.0 ports, this is an important consideration. Unfortunately, plugging a USB 3.0 device into a USB 2.0 port yields USB 2.0 transfer rates. Fortunately, computers with USB 3.0 ports are becoming increasingly common. Many newer laptops have at least one such port. USB 3.0 port expansion cards are available to upgrade older systems, and many newer motherboards feature two or more USB 3.0 jacks. Cases with front USB 3.0 ports are still rare, as are motherboards with USB 3.0 front port headers, but these will only become more common as time passes.

Anand reviewed an array of USB 2.0 flash drives back in 2005. He found that performance between different manufacturers and different models was quite variable. Because manufacturers often do not provide hard data regarding their drives’ performance, or sometimes provide ‘idealized’ transfer rates that don’t equal real-world capabilities, choosing between flash drives is problematic. We compare here a number of USB 2.0 and 3.0 drives in multiple ways, including synthetic performance tests and real-world use scenarios.

Testing Methods and Sample Flash Drives
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  • rickcain2320 - Friday, July 29, 2011 - link

    I really wished firewire had gained more traction in the market. I've had nothing but trouble with USB over the years, with quirky connection behavior to buggy driver sets to slow transfer speeds.
  • Rick83 - Friday, July 29, 2011 - link

    20 GB was not huge.
    In fact, in 1998/1999 I had a 30 GB disk in a relatively cheap off-the-shelf computer.
    So by 2002, 60/80 GB would have been 'huge', but 20 was becoming pretty much standard for new machines.
  • ckryan - Friday, July 29, 2011 - link

    My average system drive size never really increased all that much over the years. In 1998/1999 I had a 20GB system. When I built a new Pentium 4 system in 2003 I put an original 36GB 10K Raptor in it. I used it for quite some time. All of my laptops from the last decade always had around 40GB of very slow HDD. Then in the last two years I put small SSDs in all of my systems, until recently, when I bought and Intel 510 120GB for my main system. In many ways not having a ton of space taught me to optimize what I would put on my drive and how to make the most of it, helping me into the early days of SSDs where space is at a premium, especially in a mobile system where you only have access to one drive.

    Though now that I think about it, what the hell were people doing with all that space (besides games)? I'll have to find my old late 90's vintage system and see. My first computer was a 386sx 16, a packard bell, with a 40megabyte hdd. I could install windows 3.1 OR Ultima 7, but not both. So in twenty years I went from a 40MB HDD and 1.44MB "High Density" floppies to 3TB HDD, super fast SSDs, and enormous flash drives. Maybe it's because I'm getting older, but I seem to be waxing nostalgic a lot recently about the "Good old days" that never really were.
  • randinspace - Friday, July 29, 2011 - link

    Around that same time period I got into some pretty dubious translation "scenes" ("they're are for educational purposes") and had to go from a DELL with a 20gb HDD to a custom build packing a 60 GB drive within a mere year, but between prices being what they were and eventually abandoning my desktop for a laptop it made a lot more sense to me to rely upon DVDs for long term storage until just a couple of years ago. Now my netbook has a bigger HDD than my first external HDD did but the idea of losing so much data/material at once completely terrifies me since everybody else's projects got derailed left and right back then due to HDD failures... Actually, I wonder how often hardware failure was just an excuse by lazy/greedy translators/editors? More than health problems anyway.

    That said, video encoding techniques have somehow advanced at a rate that makes it possible to have not only better resolutions but lower file sizes than we did back then (not accounting for the likes of .flv and morons that decide to distribute .ts files and bloated Blu-Ray .isos) as long as you have a decent CPU, but instead of taking the gains and running this has somehow inspired most people to ratchet up the space taken up by the audio side for all that the last thing that makes a difference in one's experience of something in a language they can't understand (that might be subtitled in a language they only barely understand) is the difference between AAC and FLAC.

    Even in certain games the largest part of the install might be the audio, and by the same token since CDs are still hanging in there but people now have TB of storage instead of MB (sticking a CD in the drive or having your stereo nearby to listen to it) or GB (I'm glad that .rmf is far behind me but .ogg and .mp3 are still valid for most setups) there isn't a lot of incentive for most people to "limit themselves" to either highly compressed or even variable bitrate files instead of WAV (LOL, though some make an argument for the time saved encoding) and FLAC and APE and what have you (my personal favorite of the bunch is TTA but too many people fail at it for some reason).

    OK I put too much text in parentheses there, but since I wasn't using my disk space on games the short answer to your question of what people were using the space for aside from them is hoarding AV... In fact there's a really apt quote that shows up on DailyTech from somebody (either a seagate or WD executive, I think) commenting that by providing consumers with storage capacity they were just helping them watch porn or something like that.
  • Stahn Aileron - Friday, July 29, 2011 - link

    I'm pretty sure he meant relatively to portable storage solutions, not internal to a computer.

    Actually, when exactly did portable HDD's come into the mainstream?
  • hurrakan - Friday, July 29, 2011 - link


    I have a 32GB Kingston Data Traveller Ultimate 3 but it's annoying because it needs an attachment to use USB2. And as very few computers have USB3, I always have to carry the attachment.

    I wish the "Kingston HyperX MAX USB3" had been included - I would have liked to see how it compares.

    Also, it would be awesome if Anandtech conducted a benchmark of microSD cards (different brands and classes).
  • randinspace - Friday, July 29, 2011 - link

    I was thinking the same thing since I've been wondering a lot about the performance of SD/micro~/SDHC/micro~ considering the fact that just about any device with USB input will also have a card reader but the opposite isn't necessarily true, tablets and smart phones for example. Hell, even my netbook has an SD card slot.
  • HangFire - Friday, July 29, 2011 - link

    Nice review.

    Now, I'd like to see Motherboards on Bench, with SATA 2/3, USB 2/3, Gb Ethernet, and memory bandwidth benchmarks.
  • blowfish - Friday, July 29, 2011 - link

    of course the principal benefit of USB over eSATA is the ability to hot swap a USB connected device. If that's not important to you, then eSATA is very cost effective. I expect to see eSATA/USB 3.0 hard drive enclosures appear before too long though, which would allow the best of both worlds. I think many USB problems relate to power - some older motherboards can't handle all the USB ports being filled and can give erratic results.
  • mino - Friday, July 29, 2011 - link

    You hot-swap eSATA just the same. And the main reason is performance - USB3 could not EVER reach eSATA performance levels, basically because of the protocol overhead even if everything was equal.

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