Unlike most computer memory, which needs a continuous flow of power to keep working, flash drives do not need any power to maintain the information they're holding. In fact, flash drives have no power source of their own and can only work when plugged into a computer, digital camera, memory card reader, or video game.
Best of all, you can get extra file storage space without having to open up your computer to install an internal device.
How to use a flash drive
A flash drive is easy to use. It simply plugs into your computer's USB port. A USB port usually be found on the back of a desktop computer or on the side of a laptop.
If you've purchased your computer within the last couple years, it probably has a USB 2.0 port, which is much faster than the older 1.0 or 1.1. Although they look the same, to take advantage of the speed of USB 2.0, both the flash drive and the port need to be compatible. If you have a USB 1.0 or 1.1 port, working on large files stored directly on the flash drive may be less convenient.
If your computer's running Windows 2000, XP, or Vista, or Mac OS X or later, it should automatically recognize the flash drive and allow you to save or remove files. You don't need any software to make it work. When you save a file by choosing “Save As,” you'll see that your flash drive appears as an option.
Make sure before you unplug the drive from the USB port to click the Safely Remove Hardware icon in your Windows System Tray (Windows), or the Eject icon in your Finder window (Mac). This ensures no programs or applications are using the flash drive, and will keep your files from becoming corrupted.
Why you need a flash drive
Flash drives provide a convenient way to temporarily store files, music, and photos. Here are some common scenarios where a flash drive would be helpful:
- You're working on a project or presentation using several different computers. Carry your flash drive from the office, to the library, or to your home.
- You're traveling and don't want to risk losing the presentation you've worked on for months. Flash drives provide an easy way to back up your hard work.
- You've done your homework but don't have a printer at home. Bring your flash drive to school and print it in the library.
- You want to listen to your MP3s at work, but aren't allowed to store them on your work computer. Put them on your flash drive!
How to buy a flash drive
Flash drives are available with different storage capacities ranging from 128 MB up to a few GB, and they're available at most computer and electronics stores.
You can usually get a 2GB drive for around $25 and a 4 GB drive for about $50.
If you can afford it, try to buy a larger storage capacity. They're the same size as the smaller capacity drives, and you'll probably make use of it over time.
If you're interested in how a flash memory works, check out this article in "How Stuff Works."
For reviews, analysis, and recommendations on where to buy flash drives, see Consumer Search's flash drive analysis.
For more information about the latest flash drive technology, read PC Magazine's Consumer Electronics Review.