Today I am planning to write a post about a type of storage drives that has been used by many of us in our daily computer work. This particular type of storage drives is easy to handle and to switch between different computers, while it can also provide enough space for basic needs like installing an OS, store personal data stuff, and its read/write speeds may be satisfying sometimes, although they aren’t as fast as in other top storage devices.
USB drives (or external drives) are very useful for basic purposes, and we can say that many of them (the so-called USB flash drives, we’ll see later) are among the most lightweighted PC storage devices, along with M.2 NVME SSDs.
Although they differ in storage space and data retrieval speeds, but we cannot deny the importance of these sticks. So let’s see what these USB devices are, and also explore some top rated USB drives for 2019, so that you’ll know what’s the best that this technology can offer now!
What are USB devices?
Like many other tech acronyms that make sense, USB has its own meaning – it’s Universal Serial Bus.
This is a hardware interface of type “Plug and Play”, which means that the computer is able to communicate via USB with many external/peripheral devices like mice, keyboards (when they’renot wireless, of course), external disk drives, printers, and even non-PC devices like tablets, digital cameras, joysticks, webcams, smartphones or music players (that receive power from the computer via USB connectors, for their batteries). There are quite many devices that are connectable via USB, and storage drives are just one of these categories!
In this article we will see something about two types of USB drives, or let’s call them USB storage drives: external hard disks and flash drives (the latter are also called sticks, pen drives, thumb drives, flash drives).
Universal Serial Bus was firstly announced by Intel in January 1996, and by now this technology has made progress – the latest USB versions in our PCs are USB 3.0 and 3.1.
Let’s see how speedy the different USB generations are, at a glance:
- The so-called USB 1.0 generation had two versions: low-speed and high-speed. The first, low-speed USB 1.0-gen provided 1.5 megabits (less than 200 KB) per second for data transfers. The high-speed USB 1.0 generation was instead able to support 12 megabits (around 1.5 megabytes, 1 byte = 8 bits) per second for data transfer, i.e. read/write. Yes, this was so slow, but it happened many years ago, we should think about the year 2000 and how fast PCs were at that time. After all, a 200 MHz CPU with “one single” core and thread was a good deal in those years, and 1.44 MB floppy disks were also intended for daily use! There was also a USB 1.1 version, an update from September 1998 that fixed some issues in 1.0. Are you still using USB 1.x anywhere?
- The USB 2.0 standard was called hi-speed USB, and it came to life around 2000, based on the work of several huge companies like Intel, Compaq, Lucent, and not only. This standard is pretty old, but we can still find ports for it on modern motherboards and cases (I can confirm it by personal experience too, all the six computers at my home have some USB 2.0 entries). USB 2.0 provides data transfer speeds of up to 480 Mb/s = 60 MB/s. Remember that data speeds are given in two fashions: bits per second and bytes per second, with appropriate multipliers prefixed. And every character (be it a letter, a digit, or somewhat else on an English keyboard) is supposed to occupy a “byte” aka 8 bits. Well sometimes a character takes more bytes, we are not diving into this fact right now, but just to know there’s a difference between Mbps and MB per second!
- The USB 3.0 standard bears its own alternated name, SuperSpeed USB.It was announced towards the end of 2009, and the first certified devices were released next year. Its speed, performance, power management, and bandwidth are all better than in the 2.0 standard. It is stated that USB 3.0 provides two unidirectional data paths, that give the devices the ability to send and receive data simultaneously, which clearly is a progress. Its maximum transfer speeds are around 5 gigabits per second (Gbps) or ~640 MB/s. Pretty impressive, isn’t it? This data transfer capacity is similar to what SATA-III SSDs can do. Well, when I installed an operating system (Arch Linux) on an USB 3.0 64GB pen drive, there were moments it moved quite slow and didn’t convince me… but that was my particular case. The USB 3.0 speed specs look powerful and attractive, and we are not finished: after the next-gen 3.1 came out, USB 3.0 was subsequently renamed “USB 3.1 Gen 1” for marketing purposes. So let’s know the things clearly and not make confusions!
- Lastly, the USB 3.1 generation (aka 3.1 Gen2, see above) was announced on July 31st, 3013, it’s also called SuperSpeed+, and at this time it is the latest USB standard. We have no knowledge of any USB 4.0 thing (just like there’s no SATA 4). Its transfer rates double those of the “Gen 1” version, being up to 10 gigabits per second, or over 1200 GB/s. This means that the most powerful and up-to-date USB drives should be as fast as some low-to-mid-range PCI-E NVME drives. It is the peak of USB!
USB makes use of the concept of backwards compatibility, so if we plug a USB 3.1 (either generation) device into a USB 2.0 port or viceversa, we will be able to use the drive, but we will be limited to the actual speed powers of that port or device. It’s like the case of SATA / PCI-E drives.
We must acknowledge that the actual speeds of USB drives vary by model too – so although a certain USB drive belongs to a given generation above, its real transfer speed may not be, say, exactly 10 Gbps for a USB 3.1 “Gen 2”. When looking after a USB storage drive on the Internet (or on a physical store), besides seeing the USB generation the drive belongs to, we should also check for its actual speed.
External USB hard disk drives
Not all hard disk drives are “internal” or SATA. There are also some HDDs that are not intended to be mounted inside a personal computer, but rather used as an external drive, thus easier to move from a PC to another, and easy to connect too.
Although modern SATA drives provide a feature that’s called “hot plug”, meaning we can plug/unplug an internal HDD while the PC is running (unlike the old times when such a practice meant burning the disk), this is not that easy to do – it’s a manual setting in BIOS, that can be enabled/disabled, and I am not a fan of connecting/disconnecting an internal HDD “on the fly” anyway.
By contrast, USB hard disks can be just “mounted to” and “unmounted from” the PC operating system straight away. Still, it’s not extremely fast – the best practice is to right-click the disk and select the Eject option, rather than simply taking the drive off – this applies also to USB flash drives! – and thus respecting the “Safely remove hardware” rule. It is better and safer to disconnect them after giving a short warning to the OS we are going to do so!
But obviously, it goes faster than when having to plug in/unplug a regular HDD. We put our fingers on the USB cable that connects the external HDD to the PC and plug it in / take it off. No PC restart or SATA cables handling is required.
External HDDs provide a lot of storage space, pretty much like internal ones – some dual configurations provide up to 24 TB as of today! You can store lots of data on these disks, just like on regular HDDs, and easily move them between different computers.
Generally these drives are NOT used as operating system drives, although booting from an USB disk / pen drive is not impossible – but it will be likely slower, and even more complicated given the fact that these disks are portable. Maybe one computer recognizes an external disk as a boot drive, while another PC will not recognize the same drive as such… but this OS booting matter is a complicated subject and it’s not the theme of this article.
Depending on how external USB HDDs draw their electrical power, we get two types of drives: Desktop external USB drives (which need also a connection to a power outlet, besides the USB interface) and Portable external ones (they only need the USB cable). The Desktop USB hard disks, however, may support the “Hot Swap” feature, meaning they can be disconnected and replaced while the system is running – although having a separate cable for the outlet makes things a bit more complicated – you have some extra stuff to take when moving a Desktop external drive to another PC.
Because of their mobility and exposure outside the PC case, external HDDs’ data is more vulnerable: such a disk can easier fall on the floor, be stolen or be spilt coffee on. These disks are more prone to mechanical damage, so we have to handle them like treasures :). I have myself five portable USB HDDs at home (either 1TB or 2TB if I remember well, I didn’t choose to go for extremely large capacities when using portable disks).
These disks need dedicated USB cables to connect them to the USB peripheral ports of the PC, and as we saw above, the so-called Desktop external HDDs also need an outlet cable. Modern PC cases come with USB 2.0/3.0 front panel ports, and motherboards have a lot of USB ports (known as rear USB ports) too. And the front USB ports can be used too, since they are connected to the very same motherboard via special USB cables. We may have over 10 different USB ports in a personal computer, while the total number of SATA or M.2 ports is usually smaller / much smaller! USB is more accessible and easier to use, draws less power and it’s still able to provide a large storage space!
USB flash drives
Like I said earlies, this type of USB storage devices bears an entire suite of alternative names or nicknames: we may refer to them as sticks, memory sticks, pen drives, thumb drives… And that memory word is intentional, as the “flash”part is too: these devices use flash memory for their storage space, similarly to how SSDs are built – and maybe in a next article I will tell you something about USB external SSDs as well: yes, those pieces exist too.
USB flash drives are very small and lightweight, from this point of view they are liken to M.2 SSD drives (well, not as fast as those, let’s admit it). We can store personal data or backups on memory sticks, and also installing & booting an OS from such a device. But I would recommend an USB device that belongs to the latest USB generation (3.1) for the sake of speed, in case you want to install your Linux, Windows , or even the Mac OS X system there. Speaking of Mac on USB, there’s something interesting here:
The first USB flash drives from history are said to have made their appearance in 2000, as 8 MB (yes, that was very little, but again it was 2000). Today their capacities start from 8 GB and we may even see a terabyte on a flash drive, expecting for more TBs in the next years… well, the largest memory stick I have used at home by now has 64 GB (actually it’s called 62 GB, after the usable amount). And my first USB stick from 2008 had 2 gigabytes. Everyone of us (USB users) has an own experience.
Multi-level cell (MLC) flash memory is the most popular among USB drives, but its downside is that there are only a few thousand program/erase cycles (meaning how much times we can write or delete data on them). Some USB drives provide MLC memory, ensuring a larger number of possible data modifications, but the more times we have a data flow on a USB flash drive, the more probably it will degrade, so we should not modify data intensively on a USB stick.
USB flash drives do not require batteries or reboot, have no internal moving parts, are small and lightweight, and are not platform-dependent. But the fact that we cannot write & delete from them a limited number of times is a drawback, that’s for sure. And their portability makes memory sticks more vulnerable to data leakage. Also, there are malware risks, but scanning them with antivirus programs is a safe action.
USB disks and flash drives can be used for transferring important data between Desktop PCs and laptops! If you want to make such a transfer from your desktop computer to a laptop, then use a USB drive and you are set up. No reboot is required! Just make sure to “Safely remove hardware” when ejecting the USB device, and also that it mounted correctly when plugged in.
Some of the best USB drives available
Now that we have an idea about what these USB HDDs and pen drives are and do, let’s see some best examples that are on the market right now, and let’s start with the hard disks, that have lots of space!
The Seagate Expansion Desktop 10TB External HDD (STEB10000400) offers, as its name tells us, ten terabytes of storage space. Its USB 3.0 interface empowers this disk with data speeds up to 160 MB/s. It is definitely not the maximum speed of USB 3.0, but 160 MB per second is still a good speed. You can get this behemoth of a HDD for a very generous price, less than $200 – and its dimensions are 6.93 * 4.75 * 1.44 inch (17.6 * 12.06 * 3.65 cm). It is a little heavy (2.09 LB or 948 g). But an internal SATA HDD would weigh some more.
Being a Desktop piece means it needs an outlet too, and it shops with an 18-watt power adapter.
You can see this product here (NO affiliate links at this moment):
The WD 14TB Elements Desktop External Hard Drive comes with even greater storage space that makes it look like rather suitable for data centers. There are fourteen terabytes! This Western Digital portable masterpiece also belongs to USB 3.0 generation, has a data transfer speed of (up to) 140 MB/s, and all this space is contained in a physical volume of 16.58 * 13.5 x 4.8 cm, while its weight is just 871 grams. Given that we are dealing with a mechanical hard disk, it has a spinning part whose speed is 5400 RPM (not a top speed, but don’t forget that this is USB, and after all there’s a gigantic 14TB space).
This is obviously another “Desktop” external USB disk, so you need an extra power outlet to be free and dedicated to this top USB HDD. Let’s be understanding about this, its capacity is a “Top” too :)!
Also, its price is quite affordable, there are some internal 14TB models that have about double its price.
Take a look at its looks here:
I assume that Desktop external drives need to draw outlet power because of their great storage space, so let’s see also an external USB HDD that is manufactured as “Portable”.
The WD 5TB Elements Portable External Hard Drive belongs basically to the same family as the 14TB desktop HDD above, if we take only the “Elements” part :). It weighs only 231 g (great difference with respect to the other disk!), and they say it is compatible with Mac systems too (besides Windows, but I am optimistic and I think we may try them on Linux also). Its dimensions are 11 x 8.2 x 2.1 cm, and the data speed is 130 MB/s. Being portable doesn’t exempt this disk from having a spinning part, whose speed is also 5400 RPM!
Its interface is USB 3.0 and if you want it, you can get a nice price and see how the disk looks like here:
We stay in the USB HDD zone because I want to show you another top-tier external disk configuration that’s able to make us stare at its specifications – it is a Dual one, meaning there are two different, identical HDDs that are involved in a single connection, called a RAID (Redundant array of independent disks) array, more exactly a RAID 0 configuration.
The WD My Book Duo 24TB USB 3.0 RAID Array features two Western Digital Red hard disks, each of them having 12 TB of capacity and using the USB 3.0 interface. They are configured as RAID 0 (meaning the data is stripped across both drives, unlike in RAID 1 that uses mirroring, i.e. writing data identically on both drives, this way offering on the second disk a backup copy of the data on the first). So you get the possibility to use 24 TB of data (different data, since RAID 0 performs no mirroring) via USB, and the sequential read speed is up to 360 MB/s.
You need Windows 10 (well, 7 would work as well, but it’s becoming obsolete) or Mac OS X starting from the 10.9 version. I cannot exactly tell whether it’s possible or impossible to use this RAID USB 3.0 configuration on Linux too, but in my opinion there has to be a workaround for this. And soon there will also a 2*14 = 28 TB RAID configuration!
See more info on this configuration here:
Wow, isn’t it so amazing?
Well, now let’s move forward to USB flash drives, that may not be so spacey (in terms of both storage and physical dimensions), but still able to store lots of data and boot operating systems. Let’s keep in mind that we should not overuse flash drives when writing and deleting!
Let’s start with the PNY Pro Elite 1TB USB 3.0 Flash Drive, a pen drive that stores a terabyte of digital space in a so little physical space! Its USB 3.0 interface is really used at an “Elite” or Professional level, closer to the maximum of 5 Gbps: up to 400 MB/s for sequential reads and 250 MB/s for sequential writes, which makes this memory stick trustable also for installing and booting an OS from it! Not as fast as a SSD, but also not too slow.
You could store lots of thousands of MP3 songs on such a pen drive (let’s be realistic though, it would be hard to gather all that stuff and we keep present in mind that write/delete limitation). A very generous space for a very affordable price (below $200)! If your preferred movies are stored in the 4K Ultra HD format, their total duration to be stored on such a USB drive gets close to two days and one half (i.e. more than 59 hours).
There are also USB flash drives with greater capacity, like 2 TB.
The DataTraveler Ultimate GT USB Flash Drive is available in two capacities: 1 TB and 2 TB. So we can get a 2 TB pen drive from the well-known DataTraveler brand, which obviously empowers us to “travel” a lot of data :). According to the Kingston site, the dimensions of this little behemoth are 75.18mm x 27mm x 21.02mm, and its USB 3.0 (3.1 gen 1, the new market name) interface provides read speeds up to 300 MB/s and write speeds up to 200 MB per second. So the write speed is always somewhat smaller than the read speed, since the W operation demands some more work from the transistors than the R does. We shouldn’t be surprised to see that read speeds are always better!
This DataTraveler Ultimate model, no matter whether it’s 1TB or 2TB, is said to be compatible with an entire bunch of operation systems: Windows, Linux, OS X, and even Chrome (is any of you using Chrome on the PC?). And Kingston also provides a nifty 5-year warranty for them! In comparison, there are some external USB HDDs with only one year of warranty, but we should also remember the differences between a HDD and a flash memory device (SSDs are also flash memory-based). Having no mechanical/moving parts means being more durable!
See the Kingston top-tier USB stick here:
Let’s also see a USB stick from the latest 3.1 “Gen 2” generation, after all these examples that belong only to the 3.0 / 3.1 Gen 1 family.
The Samsung 256GB FIT Plus USB 3.1 Gen 2 Type-A Flash Drive does not have a very large storage space, but at least it is part of the newest USB generation. This Samsung memory stick was designed for travel purposes, and it is rated to handle read speeds up to 300 MB/s (well, it’s weird that they don’t list the read speed also, while this speed is also only about one quarter of the maximum 10 Gbps USB 3.1 can provide). So you go on holidays and take a USB like this one with you!
It is stated to be water-resistant, shockproof, magnetproof (that’s good, it means there should be no problem if you forget this stick in the same pocket with your walkie-talkie or smartphone), temperature-proof, X-Ray proof. Its dimensions are 22.9 x 17.8 x 7.6 mm (0.9 * 0.7 * 0.3 inch), and it weighs 3.1 grams (the package is just 0.04 LB). Remember that the first HDD in history weighed over a ton… for only five megabytes!
We can observe this Samsung masterpiece here:
Our last example of an external HDD that’s compatible with the USB 3 interface is going to be from the LaCiE suite of products. LaCiE is a French hardware company whose mission is to make external storage drives – and there is plenty of interesting stuff!
So let’s see one.
The LaCiE Rugged Raid Shuttle is a beautiful 8TB, USB 3.0-compatible hard drive that is optimized for speed, capacity, and data redundancy with RAID versions 0 and 1.
It has a more-than-generous eight-terabyte storage space that needs a USB 3.0/2.0 or a USB type C port on your computers, and it also features encryption (self-encrypting+password) for protecting your portable hard data. Please do NOT forget your passwords!
Another particular thing, that makes this drive beautiful, is its orange&white design (a rectangular flat form with orange edges and a white inside area, in the middle of which appears the symbol of the LACIE brand. As a matter of fact, there is a large number of LaCiE products (the Rugged ones), be it HDDs or SSDs, that look this specific way!
Rugged Raid Shuttle is supposed to have a nice transfer speed on laptops: up to 250 MB/s. For a USB 3.0 HDD, that is very good!
Its dimensions are 173.96 * 151.96 * 28 mm, and it weighs 960 g. You can hold it in the palm! It is drop, rain, dust, and crush resistant. Of course that does not justify us abusing it on purpose, in order to see how resistant it really is :).
It comes with a 3-year limited warranty, as well as with a Rescue Data Recovery Services plan, easing your way to recover your data in that unhappy case when your portable hard disk drive fails. How could anybody not like such a HDD?
This high capacity comes with a cost: you may spend $500 or more for this disk. With its lovely design and the other generous features, it may be a good idea for a Christmas present at the end of a working year!
Explore this RAID Shuttle beauty here:
and check for its price here:
There is a great variety of USB devices, included – but not limited to – PC components, which also include, without limiting to, storage devices like USB hard disks, SSDs, flash pen drives.
Real USB speeds are not the fastest in the PC storage field, not even when we take examples from the latest USB generations, but we can still have a great performance, transferring data with speeds of hundreds of megabytes per second and benefitting from pretty large storage spaces, along with portability.
We also face some drawbacks, like a shorter endurance when writing data, and additional risks when porting the drives, so that we need to handle them with care and prevent abusive workloads (well, that applies to any PC component). Advanced USB drives can even offer us some data center storage, like 2*14TB for around $800 US, which makes USB disks cheaper than internal HDDs – their price per gigabyte is lower, and we can easily use them for transferring data between computers with different systems. The top rated USB drives are astonishing!
This is not all about USB storage drives, by example I have not treated USB SSDs and this is a pending task for a future post.
Please feel free to leave your opinions below and share this content! I may also update the post with more information.