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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  • sxr7171 - Tuesday, October 4, 2005 - link

    Time to get a Lexar JumpDrive lightning. This may not be important to a lot of people, but a USB drive IMHO needs to have a loop for a keyring. It is the most convenient way to carry the thing and always have it with you no matter what. I guess this applies more to people living in the city and not needing a car and the big bulky car keys/remote that come with that.
  • TheInvincibleMustard - Tuesday, October 4, 2005 - link

    Speaking of, is there some reason the Lexar isn't on the RTPE? I mean, it did just win an Editor's Choice and all, so you'd hope it would be one of the drives listed in the newly-announced Flash Storage section ... :(

  • Pete84 - Tuesday, October 4, 2005 - link

    Bummer, OCZ's dual channel USB stick didn't get in.
  • jkostans - Tuesday, October 4, 2005 - link

    Someone didn't read the article......
  • SpaceRanger - Tuesday, October 4, 2005 - link

    Are USB drives able to be made Bootable?? I know that systems can recognize USB Floppy Drives, and boot from those, but I was wondering if you could take a USB Flash Drive and make it a bootable device.
  • Phantronius - Tuesday, October 4, 2005 - link

    depending on the flash drive and the motherboard BIOS, yes you can do it.
  • Phantronius - Tuesday, October 4, 2005 - link


    I love my OEM made from some pretty lady in china USB 2.0 stick, its saved my ass so many times for my work, especially in data reterival and spyware removal.
  • Souka - Tuesday, October 4, 2005 - link

    I've had the Memina Rocket for a couple months now....before they even announced it (thanks to NewEgg)....write spead defintly kinda bite with small files especially, but usually I put drivers and stuff there once, then read mutliple its a good match for me.

    PQI's I got over a year ago, and completely made everyone jealous.... for once, mem were bragging theirs is smaller than someone else's. :D

    I still use a SanDisk Titanium.....only a 512mb module, but still works well.

  • Souka - Wednesday, October 5, 2005 - link


    meant to say...

    PQI's I got over a year ago for my office, and completely made everyone jealous.... for once, men were bragging theirs was smaller!! :D

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