The Performance Equation

USB flash drives are really quite simple devices. There are three parts to each USB drive that can actually impact performance: the flash controller, the flash memory itself, and the PCB on which the former two items are mounted. We're not talking about extremely high speed transfer rates here, so layout isn't as difficult or critical as it is with things such as motherboards, but it is a factor in influencing performance, albeit the least visible one.

Pictured here is the PCB of a USB flash drive. The left-most chip is a Samsung NAND flash device, and the other chip is a USBest flash controller. The connector on the right is a standard USB connector.

The problem with USB flash drives, however, is that the controller and the flash memory are rarely constant within the manufacturing of a single drive. In order to keep costs down and maintain a steady supply, most manufacturers obtain their controllers and memory from multiple sources, so buying one drive doesn't necessarily mean that you'll get the same combination of controller and memory that we test here.

Luckily, for the most part, this only applies to the lower end and mid-range flash drives. Even then, manufacturers guarantee some minimum level of performance, generally described somewhere on the packaging itself. But because of this variation in chip suppliers and/or types, performance will vary more than what we're used to between models of the exact same product. The higher end performance-optimized drives don't usually have this problem because the manufacturers put performance on a higher pedestal, thus they will always choose the same high performing chips to be used in these offerings. The manufacturing quantities are also much lower for the high-end, high-performance units, so having multiple sources for the controller and flash memories isn't as important.

Not only do manufacturers use different controllers/flash memories for the exact same product, but they do so at various storage sizes of that product line. For example, a 512MB USB flash drive from Company X may use a completely different controller than a 2GB drive of the same product family. Obviously, the flash memory itself is going to be different across different storage sizes, but do keep in mind that unlike hard drives, greater storage density does not necessarily mean greater performance; in other words, although different sized drives may perform differently, it isn't because of the size of the drive, but rather the actual components used on that particular drive.

There are a number of cases where the 512MB versions of a particular USB flash drive are faster than their 1GB and 2GB brethren, and other cases where the opposite is true. So, while we did our best to compare performance of equal sized drives in this roundup, note that the performance that you'll see here doesn't always map to larger drives. It is worth mentioning that although different sized drives do perform differently, the differences in performance are usually not enough to change dramatically the performance standings that you'll see in our charts.

Index Dual Channel Flash Drives
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  • sprockkets - Thursday, October 6, 2005 - link

    Although not reviewed here, I got the A Data key from simply because they say it works with Linux on the package. I know any key will, but they are the only ones to have the guts to say it. Thanks for admitting Linux exists. Lifetime warranty too.
  • jgh - Wednesday, October 5, 2005 - link

    here is a link for another link, to an app that can make many (but probably not all) usb drives bootable and a couple of other hints/tips.">link

    O.T. - for some reason i get a message that says i do not have permission to access this forum when i tried to create a new login with my e-mail address. did i get banned or something? i have only posted once (it was about the gta:lcs website). i also cannot log in with the origianl user name and password.

    p.s. - it is o.k. to post links like this right?
  • Toolsac - Tuesday, October 4, 2005 - link

    I just wanna say thanks to anand for bring us all so much info on every nook and crany of computing. When ever I am getting ready to upgrade or have a problem with my computer, Anand can help me. THANKS GUYS YOU ROCK!!!
  • GameManK - Tuesday, October 4, 2005 - link

    also curious about the memorex drives like the m-flyer
  • hoppa - Tuesday, October 4, 2005 - link

    Cool article, and a nice summary of the market (the intro stuff), but seriously, who really cares that much about the perfomance of these things when the entire thing can be written or read in <1 minute anyway. I do love benchmarks though (born and will die a stat-whore)!

    I have a suggestion for the article: can you post a single picture of all the drives (preferably with a key). I'd like to see what they all look like but I wasn't too crazy at all about clicking through 20 pages. In fact, I only made it through 4.

  • vexingv - Friday, October 21, 2005 - link

    its an iomega 256mb and claims to be usb2, but is ridiculously slow compared to a generic 64mb drive i have. i've tried transferring about 20mb worth of portable firefox on the two drives side-by-side and the iomega drive took close to 5 minutes while my other drive took less than a minute.
    these benchmarks are really useful for that purpose of finding drives w/ faster flash memory controllers.
  • Souka - Wednesday, October 5, 2005 - link

    REad the article....less than 1 min? Read it....not happening.

    Write times had the biggest delta....upto 20x speed difference....

    So would you rather watch your drive write data for 3.5mins, or almost an hour?

    Far as "clicking through 20 pages" Click once on the "Print this Article"....then you just use page down(or equivalent button) to scroll through
  • Chriz - Tuesday, October 4, 2005 - link

    This was a good roundup, but I was also curious on some other drives that can be found on Newegg. Mainly interested in the Apacer drives and also the Memorex M-flyer...which got a good review in Maximum PC because of the retractable USB connector which seems convenient to me, but I am really not sure on the performance compared to other drives.
  • intellon - Tuesday, October 4, 2005 - link

    And why was iPod Shuffle excluded? Is it cuz of security matter/ bigger size/ higher cost? Cuz I use half of my shuffle for transfering files to and from - work, home and school.
  • jkostans - Tuesday, October 4, 2005 - link

    Because its an mp3 player. There are plenty of ipod shuffle type players out there which aren't included, some smaller and more compact. I'm sure they would be with the slowest of the slow.

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