USB Flash Drives

Many students, faculty and staff are now using USB flash drives on campus. Since the manufacturers of these devices vary, some of these devices will easily work with university computer system and some won’t. Below is information about purchasing drives and using them with university computer systems.

Note to Instructors: Please inform students that not all USB flash drives are compatible with university computer systems. Before student use flash drive with a university computer system, have them test the device to insure compatibility with the system.

What is a USB flash drive?

USB flash drives, also know as thumb, key, or jump drives, are small and portable alternatives to removable media such as floppy or zip disks. A variety of manufacturers make these devices with different sizes and features. Currently, these drives are manufactured with a capacity that ranges from 8 megabytes to 2 gigabytes. In addition to holding a large amount of information (for ~$30, a 128 megabyte USB flash drive can be bought that has the same capacity of 88 floppy disks and is still slightly larger than a standard 100 MB zip disk), USB flash drives use solid state media so they have no moving parts inside and thus are much more reliable than floppy or zip disks.

Purchasing a USB Flash Drive

There are several important factors to consider when purchasing a USB flash drive:

  • Drive Size

If you will be dealing with large files or a large number of files, make sure that you buy a USB flash drive that has the capacity to handle these files (at least 128 MB).

  • Drive Speed

It is best to purchase a drive that is USB 2.0 compatible (or a “hi-speed” drive). USB 2.0 is backwards compatible with USB 1.1, and it allows for much faster data transfer rates.

  • Security Features

Some USB drives provide built-in security features that allow you to put a password on the device so sensitive documents cannot be accessed by anyone other than yourself. These drives can typically be partitioned so that part of the drive can be accessed securely and the other part is password protected. The drawback to this security feature is that the software needed to read the secure partition must be loaded onto the computer before use. Another security feature includes switches that can be tripped to prevent overwriting data.

  • Other Features

Some USB flash drives come with a variety of features, the most popular of which is a built-in MP3 player. While both documents and MP3s can be stored on these devices, it often triples the cost of the device to get something with an MP3 player and they don’t have a huge capacity. Other features to look for are included accessories. Some companies include lanyards or holes for key chains so the device doesn’t get lost. Another accessory to look for is an USB extension cable (male A to female A) so that it will be easier to plug the device in.


Using USB Flash Drives

Most USB flash drives are plug-and-play devices. This means that you can simply insert them in a USB port on your computer and the device will automatically be detected and mounted. On older operating systems, such as Windows 98, or with older USB flash drives, you may need to install drivers in order to get them to operate properly. If you have any problems using USB flash drives, please call the TAC.

Note: It is suggested that anyone using a USB flash drive puts a small “readme” text file on the flash drive with their name and contact information so that if it is lost it can be returned.

The following steps are for connecting a USB flash drive to a Windows XP workstation:


1. Locate a USB port on either the front or back of the workstation. There are typically two USB ports right below the mouse and keyboard ports on the back of the workstation, and some workstations also have USB ports on the front of the workstation.


Rear USB Ports


2. Insert the flash drive (or an extension cable) into the USB port.


Front USB Port With Flash Drive


USB Flash Drive With USB Extension Cable


When plugging the drive into the port or the extension cable, please make sure that it is oriented properly. The drive can only be inserted one way as evidenced by the picture of the connector below. Make sure that the two plugs match up when trying to plug in the flash drive.


Typical Male USB Connector


3. The flash drive should automatically mount itself. To find and view the drive, en Windows Explorer or My Computer (the drive letter may differ from the one pictured). Simply open the drive by double-clicking on it. Files can be copied to or from the drive, just like a floppy.


Mounted Flash Drive

Since it’s possible that information could be lost if a USB flash drive is unplugged while in use, it’s best to stop the device by right-clicking on the “safely remove hardware” icon in the system tray before you remove the device. The system tray can be found in the bottom-right hand corner of the screen. If this is not a viable option, you can also safely remove the drive after shutting down the computer.


“Safely Remove Hardware” Feature Icon

If the drive does not connect properly, try restarting the workstation. Also, if you are using the drive on a Windows 98 workstation, make sure that the drive doesn’t need drivers. If it does, they can typically be found at the manufacturer’s web site.


If you encounter any other problems or need advice, contact the Technology Assistance Center at (231) 591-4822.