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What Is a Thumb Drive?

USB thumb drive.
USB Drive with cap.
Thumb drives replaced the need for bulky zip drives.
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  • Originally Written By: A Kaminsky
  • Revised By: Andrew Jones
  • Edited By: Niki Foster
  • Last Modified Date: 03 April 2014
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A thumb drive, also called a "flash drive" or "jump drive," is a portable solid-state data storage device. It is re-writeable and preserves information without a power supply. Thumb drives will fit into any USB port on a computer. They can also be "hot swapped," which means a user can plug the drive into a computer and will not have to restart it to access the thumb drive. The drives are quite small, about the size of a human thumb — hence, their name — and can safely be tossed into a pocket or purse without fear of damage.

Solid State Memory

In the late 1990s, manufacturers were challenged to find practical ways to store growing amounts of data on very small portable devices. Hard drives had become quite small, but they were still relatively heavy, and did not work well if used while being moved. This was a problem for someone using a laptop in a car, or listening to early MP3 players while jogging. The solution was to replace the hard drives with flash memory, which consisted of integrated circuits that could keep their information, even when not powered. Flash memory chips are extremely light-weight, have no moving parts to break, and work perfectly on the move.

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The Arrival of the Thumb Drive

This same technical solution was applied to finding a replacement for floppy disks. CD-RWs and Zip™ drives seemed cumbersome for someone who simply wanted to quickly save some important documents to take with them on a business trip; they were too large and too delicate. IBM came out with the first thumb drives in 2000. Encased in a hard plastic shell, and taking advantage of the newly available USB interface, they were ideal to toss in a pocket or bag. Their use caught on quickly, and as the need for portable data storage grew, these little gadgets skyrocketed in popularity and capacity.

Capacity

The capacity of the first IBM DiskOnKey® thumb drive was quite modest at 8 megabytes. Year by year, however, the maximum size grew exponentially. While once these devices were mostly used to carry text documents or a few images, it is now practical to use them for storing large spreadsheets, full-length feature films, and entire music collections.

Thumb Drives vs. Memory Cards

Another competing product is closely related to the thumb drive: the flash memory card. Both use solid state memory, but each has its own advantages and disadvantages. All thumb drives are USB devices, which makes them generally compatible with most desktop and laptop computers. Memory cards, however, are much smaller and come in a greater variety of shapes and formats that make them fit many mobile devices, such as digital cameras, e-readers, and cell phones. These cards are compatible with computers as well, but require the use of a USB card adapter, or a computer with an integrated card reader, which not all computers have. Some people also find that memory cards are so small that they are easily lost when not installed in a device; jump drives, being a little larger, are better suited for carrying around.

Reliability

A flash drive is a relatively reliable storage medium. It is not vulnerable to magnetic fields, and the outer plastic shells protect it well when rattling around in a pocket with keys and spare change. There are limitations, however. Most can survive about 10,000 overwrites, but the USB plugs generally begin to fail after about 1,500 insertions. Furthermore, it is unknown how long the memory itself will last, even if only written once. Even the highest end units only come with a 5-year warranty, and some experts warn against planning to store them for more than about ten years. Beyond that, it is very important not to remove a jump drive while data is being saved to it; otherwise, the entire drive could become unreadable.

Security Concerns

Some feel that thumb drives pose security threats since they are easily concealed. Users could copy proprietary information to them at work, for example, or upload malware from them, all undetected by the system administrator. Likewise, people can easily carry them in or out of the building without arousing suspicion of security guards. On the other hand, they can also help to improve security. System administrators can upload anti-virus software to an infected computer from a thumb drive, for instance, and some modified drives are used as electronic keys.

Design

Through the thumb drive generally comes in a standard size and shape, more and more are being marketed in a variety of forms to fit people’s daily lives. Among the simplest ideas are jump drives that double as key chains, or which hook to lanyards that hang from the neck or wrist. Even more clever versions abound, though, including some that are built into bottle openers, cigarette lighters, and pocket knives. Another popular idea is the disguised flash drive. Some are concealed within lipstick tubes, costume jewelry, or even made to look like a pack of chewing gum. Aside from practical concepts, there is a nearly endless list of novelty models given away as promotional trinkets at conferences and marketing events.

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Discuss this Article

anon242766
Post 46

What is inside of a thumb drive, what makes it work? Is it a microchip? Thanks!

anon223727
Post 45

The thumb drive was invented by a Singapore based company TREK technology which partnered with IBM to sell them commercially.

anon179660
Post 44

who came up with the flash drive?

anon176211
Post 43

does a thumb drive connect to internet service to give faster service? my problem is in videos. It keeps freezing up.

amypollick
Post 41

@anon150397: You can see my earlier comment, and this is much the same process. However, if you're using a PC, here's the drill.

Make sure your computer is up and running. Then, plug your thumb drive into a convenient USB port. Your computer should recognize the drive and will either pop up a window asking you what you want to do, or you can go to the "Computer" tab in your start menu and you can see it in the list of drives.

If you get the window, click on "view all files" or similar. When the files pop up, just click on the ones you want to transfer and drag them from that window to your desktop. That's all there is to it. Treat it like a disk drive or CD drive or another folder. Drag and drop will copy the files on to the hard drive of your new machine. Good luck!

anon150397
Post 40

I need help. I have saved documents to my flash drive and now I do not know how to save them to my new computer. I am tech challenged so I need step by step help. thanks.

anon135130
Post 39

I leave mine plugged in all of the time and have always been safe. However, if you have a lot of power surges at one time, turn the computer off.

I failed to turn the computer off and now I cannot find what I had stored on my thumb drive. I am now trying to check this out. But as far as leaving it on, I did that for a couple of years and nothing happened until we had about six or seven power surges in a row and now I cannot get my thumb drive to work. So if you start to having power outages, turning it off is a wise thing to do.

anon132321
Post 38

i bought a cheap one and it won't save anything. can you help me?

amypollick
Post 37

@Anon98174: I'm going to assume you're using a PC. If this is the case, then you will need to insert your thumb drive in the USB port and open the file listing to see if your folders are there.

As for space, all you need to do is, with the drive in the USB port, right click on the drive listing in "Computer" (where all your drives are listed) and then click on "properties." It should tell you exactly how much space is left on your drive, and you can delete files (or not) at your discretion. I hope this helps.

anon98174
Post 36

I bought a 2.0 thumb drive and wanted to know that when it's full, does it tell me? Or do I delete the first things I put on there? Also, I was taking my folders of pics and selecting them all, then right clicking to send to drive E. now how do I know if they stored? Thank you.

anon93883
Post 35

the difference between a cheep drive and and expensive one is how long it will last. the cheap ones are made of cheap materials and will break within several years, one to five, whereas the more costly ones will usually last 5 to 10 years without risk of breaking. it's all your choice.

anon89514
Post 34

What is the difference between getting a cheap jump drive and a more expensive one? why is the expensive one more expensive?

anon75616
Post 33

Once the files are on my flash drive, how do I install them on a hard drive on my computer that has been erased due to corruption?

anon68398
Post 32

I have been trying to backup a bookkeeping program to my thumb drive but I can't get it to open it after it is backed up. what am I doing wrong? I have Microsoft office on there and it works fine.

anon65589
Post 31

i don't know why, but my computer's thumb drive port doesn't read any thumb drives. i need help. Thanks

anon62045
Post 30

I have a thumb drive but don't know if there is anything on it. Can I find this out?

anon58498
Post 29

Do you think the 64 gb thumb drives found on ebay for less than $30 are legit?

anon57161
Post 28

Can I use a thumb drive to go on a fishing trip?

anon56088
Post 26

No way! It will delete all your info! It's happened to me!

anon52218
Post 25

Can I use a thumb drive to set up quicken books on (program and records), so that my entire bookkeeping records are resident only on the thumbdrive? So they are portable and can be worked on from any computer?

anon43538
Post 24

what are the risks of using a thumb drive?

anon42340
Post 23

Anon42245: First, on the desktop, or in your start menu, click on "my computer" or "computer." Then, look at the drives listed and the letters beside them. You'll see your C drive, which is your main hard drive, probably a D drive and the E drive which is probably your CD player. Now, insert your flash drive, with the "my computer" window still up. You should see an extra drive appear in that window, with the next letter in the alphabet beside it. This is your flash drive. Double left-click on this drive and a window should pop up. It will probably be empty. Now all you need to do is to drag the files you want to save into this window. When the file names appear in the window and you close the window, your files are on the flash drive.

That's all there is to it. Try this and post back if you have more questions. Hope this helps!

anon42245
Post 22

I recently had my computer crash and lost all of my data. I heard about and purchased an 8GB SanDisk FlashDrive. However, since I'm practically computer illiterate ;-) and 63 yrs. old, I do not know how to make it work. I put it into the USB port, but nothing happened. Please tell me what to do. I don't want to lose everything again. Thanks in advance.

anon41010
Post 21

My thumb drive will not store the data that is copied to it. What must I do?

anon27797
Post 20

Can you use a thumb drive to download movies to be seen on any computer, laptop, and netbook pc? Also if you don't have quickbook downloaded onto your PC laptop and netbook, can you download all your inforamtion onto the thumb drive and bring it up on this?

anon17318
Post 18

Isn't thumb drive also known as pen drive?

spasiba
Post 17

anon12487 - Other names for thumb drives include: flash drives, jump drives, pen drives, key drives, and USB drives.

jgrahamucla - I think technically it is possible to configure a computer to be able to read and copy the data on a thumb drive but it's unlikely anyone would go to such lengths. Your safest bet is to get another jump drive (they're cheap now) and only put the data you need for that client on it. It might be a little more time consuming but it also might be worth the peace of mind.

jgrahamucla
Post 16

Are thumb drives safe to use at my client's office (on their machines) - I have sensitive data on my thumb drive and do Not want the client or their IT folks to be able to access any data I used by way of the Temp files, Cache or anything off of their hard drive? Thank you, J

anon12487
Post 15

What is the other name for the thumbdrive?

anon9722
Post 14

I have enjoyed using my 'thumb drive' now when I plug into USB port, nothing happens. It used to be listed on computer window as 'e drive' that choice is not there. My granddaughter uses that port with her cord to do her digital pictures and put on CD. Did that delete my device? faye

anon9033
Post 13

Thumbdrives are fun.

anon8975
Post 12

Hello! I have a Pleomax 8 gig thumbnail drive that won't come up on my Windows 98 Dell computer. Someone told me I needed to install a driver on my thumbnail drive to make it compatible with 98. Is that the answer? If so, which driver do I need and where can I download it? I'd appreciate any help. Thank you.

anon6673
Post 11

The size of the thumb drive can be from 256MB to 32GB depend on what you are storing. For storing High Quality pictures from your digital camera a 2 GB thumb drive would be enough.

anon6004
Post 10

Can you give me an idea as to what size thumb drive memory would be needed to store several hundred photographs? assume they are downloaded from the digital camera in standard format.

thanks

dee924
Post 9

I am not very knowledgeable about computers, but received a thumb drive with memory card for a digital camera. When I plug my memory card into the drive after taking pictures, can I plug the drive in instead of plugging in the camera? Can it also be used for music for an mp3 player?

te464
Post 8

How can you tell whether a thumb drive needs power or not? I have 2 old thumb drives, one will work in any USB port and the other sometimes says the drive requires more power than the port provides.

anon2597
Post 7

Is USB drive and Thumb drive the same?

Dayton
Post 6

Yep! That's exactly how I use my usb thumb drive--laptops don't have floppy drives anymore, so I can move files from computer to computer easily with a thumb drive.

anon1802
Post 5

Can a thumb drive be used to add, save and delete files from time to time in the same way as they can be done on a floppy? Thanks!

Dayton
Post 4

Jud,

Thumb drives are very useful for storing pretty much anything you want. If you'd like to store pictures, the only consideration is the amount of memory the drive has and the amount of storage your photos require. If you find a thumb drive does not store as much as you like, I would recommend an external hard drive--they are very reasonably priced and very easy to use.

Good Luck!

Jud
Post 3

Can you use a thumb drive to store pictures on?

snowball1934
Post 1

Can Thumb Drives be left plugged in a USB all the time without removing them?

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