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USB Flash Drive Uses

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Personal data transport

The most common use of flash drives is to transport and store personal files such as documents, pictures and videos. Individuals also store medical alert information on MedicTag flash drives for use in emergencies and for disaster preparation.

Secure storage of data, application and software files

With wide deployment(s) of flash drives being used in various environments (secured or otherwise), the issue of data and information security remains of the utmost importance. The use of biometrics and encryption is becoming the norm with the need for increased security for data; OTFE systems such as FreeOTFE and TrueCrypt are particularly useful in this regard, as they can transparently encrypt large amounts of data. In some cases a Secure USB Drive may use a hardware-based encryption mechanism that uses a hardware module instead of software for strongly encrypting data.

System administration

Flash drives are particularly popular among system and network administrators, who load them with configuration information and software used for system maintenance, troubleshooting, and recovery.

Computer repair

Flash drives enjoy notable success in the PC repair field as a means to transfer recovery and antivirus software to infected PCs, while allowing a portion of the host machine's data to be archived in case of emergency. As the drives have increased in storage space, they have also replaced the need to carry a number of CD ROMs and installers which were needed when reinstalling or updating a system.

Application carriers

Flash drives are used to carry applications that run on the host computer without requiring installation. While any standalone application can in principle be used this way, many programs store data, configuration information, etc. on the hard drive and registry of the host computer

The U3 company works with drive makers (parent company SanDisk as well as others) to deliver custom versions of applications designed for Microsoft Windows from a special flash drive; U3-compatible devices are designed to autoload a menu when plugged into a computer running Windows. Applications must be modified for the U3 platform and not to leave any data on the host machine. U3 also provides a software framework for ISVs interested in their platform.

Ceedo is an alternative product with the key difference that it does not require Windows applications to be modified in order for them to be carried and run on the drive.

Similarly, other application virtualization solutions, such as VMware ThinApp can be used to run software from a flash drive without installation.

A range of portable applications which are all free of charge and able to run off a computer running Windows without storing anything on the host computer's drives or registry is available from portableapps.com; unlike U3 programs which run from a special U3-compatible USB stick, the PortableApps menu will run from a standard device, but does not use the Windows AutoRun feature.

Computer forensics and law enforcement

A recent development for the use of a USB Flash Drive as an application carrier is to carry the Computer Online Forensic Evidence Extractor (COFEE) application developed by Microsoft. COFEE is a set of applications designed to search for and extract digital evidence on computers confiscated from suspects[13]. Forensic software should not alter the information stored on the computer being examined in any way; other forensic suites run from CD-ROM or DVD-ROM, but cannot store data on the media they are run from (although they can write to other attached devices such as external drives or memory sticks).

Booting operating systems

Most current PC firmware permits booting from a USB drive, allowing the launch of an operating system from a bootable flash drive. Such a configuration is known as a Live USB.

While a Live USB could be used for general-purpose applications, size and memory wear make them poor choices compared to alternatives. They are more suited to special-purpose or temporary tasks, such as:

  • Loading a minimal, hardened kernel for embedded applications (e.g. network router, firewall).
  • Bootstrapping an operating system install or disk cloning operation, often across a network.
  • Maintenance tasks, such as virus scanning or low-level data repair, without the primary host operating system loaded.

Windows Vista ReadyBoost

In Windows Vista, the ReadyBoost feature allows use of some flash drives to augment operating system memory.

Audio players

Many companies make small solid-state digital audio players, essentially producing flash drives with sound output and a simple user interface. Examples include the Creative MuVo and the iPod shuffle. Some of these players are true USB flash drives as well as music players; others do not support general-purpose data storage.

Many of the smallest players are powered by a permanently fitted rechargeable battery, charged from the USB interface.

Music storage and marketing

Digital audio files can be transported from one computer to another like any other file, and played on a compatible media player (with caveats for DRM-locked files). In addition, many home Hi-Fi and car stereo head units are now equipped with a USB port. This allows a USB flash drive containing media files in a variety of formats to be played directly on devices which support the format. The files may be ripped from CD or purchased or downloaded online, and there have been some cases of pre-encoded music sold or given away for promotion on USB flash drives:

In arcades

In the arcade game In the Groove and more commonly In The Groove 2, flash drives are used to transfer high scores, screenshots, dance edits, and combos throughout sessions. As of software revision 21 (R21), players can also store custom songs and play them on any machine on which this feature is enabled. While use of flash drives is common, the drive must be Linux compatible, causing problems for some players.

Brand and product promotion

The availability of inexpensive flash drives has enabled them to be used for promotional and marketing purposes, particularly within technical and computer-industry circles (e.g. technology trade shows). They may be given away for free, sold at less than wholesale price, or included as a bonus with another purchased product.

Usually, such drives will be custom-stamped with a company's logo, as a form of advertising to increase mind share and brand awareness. The drive may be blank drive, or preloaded with graphics, documentation, web links, Flash animation or other multimedia, and free or demonstration software. Some preloaded drives are read-only; others are configured with a read-only and a writeable partition. Dual-partition drives are more expensive.

Flash drives can be set up to autorun stored presentations, websites and articles immediately on insertion of the drive by saving a file called autorun.inf with an appropriate shell script in the root directory of the drive. [18] Autoloading this way does not work on all computers; the U3 drives described above load more reliably.


Some value-added resellers are now using a flash drive as part of small-business turnkey solutions (e.g. point-of-sale systems). The drive is used as a backup medium: at the close of business each night, the drive is inserted, and a database backup is saved to the drive. Alternatively, the drive can be left inserted through the business day, and data regularly updated. In either case, the drive is removed at night and taken offsite.

  • This is simple for the end-user, and more likely to be done;
  • the drive is small and convenient, and more likely to be carried off-site for safety;
  • the drives are less fragile mechanically and magnetically than tapes;
  • the capacity is often large enough for several backup images of critical data;
  • and flash drives are cheaper than many other backup systems.

It is also easy to lose these small devices, and easy for people without a right to data to take illicit backups.

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