A brief history of USB Flash Drives

Developed in the early 1990s by Compaq, DEC, IBM, Microsoft, Intel, Nortel, and NEC, Universal Serial Bus is today the de facto peripheral interface standard. It has almost entirely replaced earlier interfaces like the serial and parallel ports. USB also relegated most external storage media like floppy and Zip disks to obsolescence, due to the utilization of the USB interface by flash and external hard drive manufacturers. USB 1.0, launched in 1996, specified 12Mbits/s “Full Speed” data transfer rates between devices and the host computer, though it did not see widespread adoption. 1998 saw the release of USB 1.1, which maintained the same 12Mbits/s transfer rate, and was the first widely adopted USB standard.

I remember happily paying over $100 for a 32MB flash drive in the fall of 1999 because I could fit an entire semester’s assignments, articles, and papers on a single gadget the size of a pack of gum – and it was also durable – my first flash drive survived three trips through the washing machine. Though it’s hard to imagine someone not recognizing a flash drive now, back then other students occasionally came up to me at the Fishbowl to ask “What is that blinking light thingy you plugged into the computer?” While the earliest flash drives were handy, they were agonizingly slow – even accounting for their diminutive capacities.

The widespread adoption of USB devices (over 10 billion in the wild) is largely due to the development of USB 2.0. The USB 2.0 specification was released in 2000, and boasts a 480Mbits/s data transfer rate. Though USB 2.0 devices rarely approach this theoretical throughput maximum, USB 2.0 is far less patience-trying than USB 1.1, and googling (or binging or yahooing) 'novelty flash drive' reveals there's a flash drive for every interest imaginable. However, in 2000 when USB 2.0 was introduced, a 20GB hard drive was ‘huge.’ Today, a 2TB hard drive costs less than $100, and copying 1,000GB+ over USB 2.0 is a not particularly exciting all-night affair.

Like USB 2.0 before it, USB 3.0 offers dramatically improved data transfer rates compared to its predecessor. Though specifications were announced in late 2008, consumer devices didn’t start ‘hitting the street’ until the beginning of 2010. USB 3.0 specifies transfer rates up to 5Gbit/s, compared to USB 2.0’s 480Mbits/s. USB 3.0 devices are downward compatible with USB 2.0 ports. Because of the ubiquity of USB 2.0 ports and relative rarity of USB 3.0 ports, this is an important consideration. Unfortunately, plugging a USB 3.0 device into a USB 2.0 port yields USB 2.0 transfer rates. Fortunately, computers with USB 3.0 ports are becoming increasingly common. Many newer laptops have at least one such port. USB 3.0 port expansion cards are available to upgrade older systems, and many newer motherboards feature two or more USB 3.0 jacks. Cases with front USB 3.0 ports are still rare, as are motherboards with USB 3.0 front port headers, but these will only become more common as time passes.

Anand reviewed an array of USB 2.0 flash drives back in 2005. He found that performance between different manufacturers and different models was quite variable. Because manufacturers often do not provide hard data regarding their drives’ performance, or sometimes provide ‘idealized’ transfer rates that don’t equal real-world capabilities, choosing between flash drives is problematic. We compare here a number of USB 2.0 and 3.0 drives in multiple ways, including synthetic performance tests and real-world use scenarios.

Testing Methods and Sample Flash Drives
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  • coyote2 - Saturday, August 06, 2011 - link

    Are you talking about 6GB/s eSATA III?

    USB3 is so much faster than the last eSATA, I'd be surprised to hear it's "protocol overhead" could make it perform slower.
    Reply
  • theangryintern - Friday, July 29, 2011 - link

    I have the ADATA S102, got it a few months ago. So far I've been very happy with it. At home where I have a USB 3.0 controller card and an SSD boot drive, copies to and from the ADATA are screaming fast. At work, even on USB 2.0 it's still pretty fast Reply
  • PotablePots - Friday, July 29, 2011 - link

    I was actually hoping that this article would look at portable application performance. I use a ton of portable application software and finding a flash drive that will give the best performance when running applications is something I could use AT's help on. Most of my portable software comes from PortableApps.com. I use mostly Portable Chrome and OpenOffice but also GIMP and Blender on occasion. Reply
  • Aikouka - Friday, July 29, 2011 - link

    Zach, is it possible that you can list some value to help identify how much data you're transferring to these devices in the real world tests? For example, while I may copy PDFs to my thumb drives at times, I don't necessarily copy over hundreds of megabytes worth. I normally spend the most time waiting when I'm copying really large files to a thumb drive such as a movie I shot on my HD camcorder. Reply
  • Gigantopithecus - Saturday, July 30, 2011 - link

    Hi Aikouka - The details of the real world scenario tests are on the second page. For the PDFs, the test copied 3,364 PDFs totaling 3.20GB. As I said, there are as many real-world usage scenarios as there are flash drive users! I personally, on a near daily basis, will copy hundreds, if not thousands, of PDFs onto a flash drive to perform a dump on a colleague's computer (hmm, that doesn't sound good - but you know what I mean, ha). That is if someone asks me about topics x, y, and z, I'll simply say read these, and give them a bunch of articles. I addressed your interest in large file transfers with the 100MB Iometer benchmark numbers and the real-world DVD ISO file read/write performance times. Those should give you a clear picture of which drives read and write bigger files, like those shot on your HD cam, the fastest. Reply
  • justcommenting - Friday, July 29, 2011 - link

    Hey,

    I don't mean any offense, but I thought the writing style with this post was below normal Anandtech standards. The introduction skips details on what USB 1.1 changed that saw the widespread adoption and jumps around between discussing USB flash devices and USB hard disk devices without distinction between the two.

    I appreciate the various graphs, but I don't think the author did a very good job of explaining why certain drives pulled ahead in various scenarios, why that might matter, etc. Instead, graphs felt tossed into pages with little more than a description of the picture underneath.

    Like the pages before it, the conclusion is also a tough read due to general poor sentence / paragraph structure. I love Anandtech articles because of the highly technical content and the well-phrased, well-researched, and well-backed opinions put forth. I'd pay for it if I could, but preferably with stronger articles than this one. :)
    Reply
  • Pozz - Saturday, July 30, 2011 - link

    indeed and less exclamation marks would be a start :)

    still, very interesting article
    Reply
  • MaximillianSterling - Friday, July 29, 2011 - link

    Nice random U-M reference.

    Ah, the VERY long nights spent there. Although I preferred the Media Union.
    Reply
  • Gigantopithecus - Saturday, July 30, 2011 - link

    I hoped someone would catch that. ;) Lotta really long nights there, brother! Reply
  • Goi - Sunday, July 31, 2011 - link

    I would've liked to see what controllers and NAND flash chips were being used in the different flash drives. I know some are using USB 3.0<->NAND flash bridge controllers, while others are using SSD controllers with a separate SATA<->NAND flash bridge, or perhaps using a NAND device with a SATA interface. It would be interesting to find out how these design decisions affect performance. Reply

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