USB Flash Disks: Say Goodbye to Floppy Disks

by Annie Yu

In the past, when people need to transfer files from PC to PC, the type of portable data storage media that first come in their minds are floppies, CDs and Zip disks. Floppy disks are the least expensive of the three but they only provide about a megabyte (MB) of storage. What's more, floppy disks are easy to break and susceptible to magnetic fields and dirt. Rewritable CDs are not practical for frequently saving data because of the time it takes to burn data and the inconvenience for notebooks without built-in CD drives. Zip disks require a Zip drive in every computer you use, something you cannot risk when you're travelling. So what durable storage device could provide greater portability while at the same time give you instant access to your files via any computer without the need of an additional drive? The answer is a Universal Serial Bus (USB) Flash disk, a portable device the size of a chewing gum pack that conveniently plugs into any computer with a USB port and stores data on flash memory chips. The all-in-one unit requires no batteries, no external power, and no additional cables or adapters.

USB ports are now standard in nearly every desktop and notebook computer made in recent years. The USB Flash disk works well with most PC (Windows 98 and above), Mac (Mac 9.5 and above) and most Linux machines (Linux kernel version 2.4.0 or later). However, Windows NT currently does not support USB. Therefore, USB flash disk cannot run on NT systems. For Windows 98, a driver needs to be installed. For some brands of USB flash disk, you need to install a driver if you want password protections. When plugged into a PC's USB port, flash disks appear on the desktop like an extra hard disk drive (e.g. g:). You simply drag files to and from the flash disk, which can then be removed and plugged into any other computer's USB port to transfer data. On Macs, a folder icon representing the flash disk will appear on your desktop. You may then read or write as if the flash disk is another folder on your computer.

Although Flash disks cost more than other removable storage formats, they are durable, convenient and small enough to be put into a pocket or attached to a key chain and able to store larger files than floppy disks. Even the smallest 16-megabyte flash disks hold more data than 10 floppy disks, while larger 64- and 128-megabyte disks hold significantly more. Flash disks are now available up to 2-gigabyte. Furthermore, they can be repeatedly written for tens of thousands of times while CD-Rs can only be written once.

As can be seen, Flash disks are indeed ideal for storing and transferring files. USB ports are made accessible in every public terminal supported by the Computing Services Centre (CSC). Whether you are a staff or student, USB Flash disk is surely your good companion for computer related teaching and learning activities. Just think about the amount of disk space you could use to store your PowerPoint lecture notes, research papers, assignments and projects; the time you could save by simply dragging and dropping files from one folder to another and the convenience of bringing your electronic files while you are on the road. If you are still not convinced, just take a look again at the following checklist on why you should use USB Flash disks.

its small size is convenient for carrying files anywhere
it can be used on Windows, Macs, and Linux. No formatting for PC or Mac necessary
no software necessary for most systems
a mobile hard drive for your computer
Long Life
10 years
resistant to scratches, dusts, breaks, or mechanical failure
one 16 MB USB flash drive is equivalent to 10 floppy disks

Moreover, when you decide to get one, look for a USB Flash drive that supports USB 2.0 for higher performance. Like all other removable devices, users should also note the following best practice:

Always check against virus before and after use, especially if the computer is not owned by you.
Remember to safely remove your flash disk after use.
Use flash disk with password protection when handling sensitive information.
Memorize the password if you are using password protection. There is no way to recover the data if the password is forgotten but to reformat the flash disk.
Make sure the USB flash disk stop working (enough wait time after LED flashing stops) before unplugging it from the USB port.

Data storage may be just the beginning for flash disk makers. Several disks now offer the ability to store encrypted data, and some are being bundled with application software such as e-mail browsers or Adobe PhotoShop. In fact, we can now see flash disks combined with MP3 players, voice recorders and digital cameras. Its market potential is beyond our imagination.


  1. USB Frequently Asked Questions from