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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  • webmastir - Friday, July 29, 2011 - link

    great write up, thanks! Reply
  • Kelemvor - Friday, July 29, 2011 - link

    Absolutely. Hit on all the topics. Thanks. And they really aren't all that much more expensive. Reply
  • sbrown23 - Friday, July 29, 2011 - link

    It was good, but I would like to have seen a testing of Linux distro running from the flash drive to get an idea of performance in that type of scenario. Load each up with a Linux distribution, boot each one and run a couple of benchmarks (heck even include boottime, etc.) Reply
  • pvdw - Thursday, December 01, 2011 - link

    Definitely. The biggest use I get out of flash drives is for tech support, so I find random reads and writes sorely lacking. :( Reply
  • xygot - Friday, July 29, 2011 - link

    This is a nice article for USB 3.0 using flash drive. However, I'm more interested in benchmark between USB 3.0 and eSata using external hard drive. Is there a benchmark on the way?

    This is what holding me for now if I need to upgrade to USB 3.0 or stay on eSata.
    Reply
  • Zenthar - Friday, July 29, 2011 - link

    I would like to see that as well. Given the $/GB of those thumbdrives, I would also be curious to see external USB 3.0 SSDs. Different needs will warrant different solutions.

    For backups for example (mostly sequential read/write), it would probably be more cost/efficient to get an external 2.5 HDD. If you want something to install and run applications from, then perhaps you will get better performance out of an external SSD.

    The extra size of external HDD/SSD could be a bit annoying, but this usually translates to lower possibility of losing or washing the drive.
    Reply
  • Gigantopithecus - Friday, July 29, 2011 - link

    Hi xygot - I don't plan on adding a USB 3.0 vs eSATA performance comparison to the article. However, I can report that using a USB 3.0 HDD dock with a Western Digital WD20EARS on both ends of the transfer, for MP3 files, I get sustained writes of ~30MB/s and sustained reads of 50MB/s. Hope that helps! Reply
  • ckryan - Friday, July 29, 2011 - link

    If you want to use a mechanical HDD, just stick with eSata. You won't be limited in any aspect of the HDD's performance. But I think there are some newer eSata and USB3 docks on the way, or possibly already on the market. Why not both?

    In my eSata II testing, I've found that a 7200rpm desktop drive has almost identical performance in an enclosure as it does with the Sata ports on the MB. As for USB3.0, I have two motherboards that support it, but no usb 3.0 devices. So I can't really speak to 3.0's performance except to say it's not like your HDD will run faster in a USB3 enclosure than it does in your computer.

    As for the few USB3 external HDD, it's always been my preference to roll my own with an enclosure and my own HDD.
    Reply
  • Sweeo - Saturday, July 30, 2011 - link

    Well for me I would go for USB 3,how many comps/other divices got eSata ?
    USB 3 backword compatable
    The thing is "other devises"
    Reply
  • doylecc - Monday, August 01, 2011 - link

    Adding eSATA is easy if you have a desktop. The adapter is inexpensive; this one costs less than $5 and provides two eSATA ports:

    http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N8...

    The eSata adapter socket mounts on an expansion card bracket that installs in any unused expansion card opening in the back of your computer.

    Performance-wise, eSATA will allow you to extract the full performance from any mechanical hard drive. The faster SSDs need SATA III (6GB/sec) or USB 3 bandwidth for full performance.

    Of course, if you have a laptop, you're limited to the built-in ports.
    Reply

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