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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  • BadThad - Monday, August 1, 2011 - link

    Good job, nice little test!

    For my purposes a simple 4 or 8MB USB 2.0 drive is fine. Most of the files I need to move around are small and it's only a couple of seconds for read/write ops. As often as I lose these or they just outright die, I can't see spending more than $10 or so on a flash drive.
  • 7Enigma - Monday, August 1, 2011 - link

    I assume you mean GB? :) And I'm with you there. I have an 8GB and only occasionally wish I had a 16 or 32 and most of the time it's because I'm too lazy to remove unneeded data.
  • casteve - Monday, August 1, 2011 - link

    Thanks for the review. I use thumb drives for archiving data. Create a ZIP or RAR file and place it into a truecrypt folder. With USB 2.0, it's faster to compress using the internal drive and then transfer onto the external drive's truecrypt folder. With 3.0 thumb drives, maybe the transfer rate is fast enough just compress on the fly. It'd be nice to see this proved out.
  • epobirs - Tuesday, August 2, 2011 - link

    I've got a Corsair Flash Voyager 16 GB USB 3.0 unit. They've been down around $20 or less AR recently. It's definitely faster (and about 33% longer physically) than its USB 2.0 equivalent but I wonder it would have fallen in this lineup.

    I carry a bunch of drives for my job and have been retiring 8 GB and smaller units and replacing them with 16 GB models now that the cost per gigabyte is the same, around $1, in promo specials. The Corsair is enough faster that I'll now buy only USB 3.0 drives as good deals appear, preferably 32 GB models.

    I might be satisfied when I have a dozen terabytes in my cargo pants pocket but I won't know until I get there. My definition of a decent software and video library to take with me everywhere keeps growing and the cloud does not strike me as a reliable substitute yet or possibly ever.
  • jagaimo - Wednesday, August 17, 2011 - link

    USB 2.0 has a maximum bandwidth of 480Mbits/s, or 60MBytes/s. On a good number of these benchmarks, even the USB 3.0 parts don't hit that speed.

    e.g., 100MB Sequential Write Performance - Native Interface. The Adata S102 32GB USB3.0 unit only hits 38MB/s. It's still short of the USB 2.0 speed limit.

    I guess my point is this... The 480Mb/s bandwidth of USB 2.0 isn't the limiting factor. It seems like it's something else. Is there a reason why we don't see 60MB/s transfers on the 2.0 devices?
  • MGSsancho - Tuesday, September 6, 2011 - link

    That's 640mbs total in both directions. It is really 320mbs in each direction.
    http://www.usb.org/developers/docs/ see the specs
  • jonathan1683 - Saturday, September 17, 2011 - link

    I would have liked to see 32 GB ones in the mix, but they might be in another article. I have a 16gb flash voyager and it always takes forever reading it initially. Sometimes a couple minutes just to initiate a directory listing. Does anyone know if this is common or maybe I have a defective unit? I notice I don't have this issue on windows XP it's only on win7.
  • tkafafi - Tuesday, March 20, 2012 - link

    I think the writeup did a great job of providing the experimental data. I'm just wondering what is the explanation for the results seen on the mixed usb2/usb3 systesm, as they were surprising for sure.

  • j7n - Friday, September 20, 2013 - link

    Early USB flash memory wasn't "agonizingly slow" in comparison to floppies and rewritable CDs, especially if you account for the time needed to verify the recording on those discs because they were so unreliable. A USB 1.1 port could practically do around 600-700 kB/s, which is at least fifteen times that of a floppy.
  • hizoka - Thursday, December 26, 2013 - link

    Silicon Power USB 3.0 Flash Drive, Read/Write Speed Up to 90/60 Mbps
    16 GB 10.99 $ FREE Shipping
    32 GB 19.99 $ FREE Shipping
    64 GB 35.98 $ FREE Shipping
    in Amazon

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