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Using USB Flash Drives and External Hard Drives to Store and Transport Data

written by: John Garger•edited by: Rebecca Scudder•updated: 7/12/2010

USB Flash Drives and External Hard Drives are two choices when backing up and transporting data from one computer to another. Each has its own advantages and disadvantages.

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    Like floppy disks of the past, computer users need a storage device that allow for the backup and transportation of files from one location to another. There are several choices available, each with its own advantage and disadvantages. USB Flash Drives and External Hard Drives are two of the most popular devices for backup and file transport.

    Before the discussion continues, one important distinction should be understood. Although it has become a common word in technology lingo, a JumpDrive is the proper name of a trademark owned by Lexar Media Inc.. Much like Kleenex and Band-Aid, the trademark name JumpDrive is often used when the common term USB Flash Drive is more appropriate. A JumpDrive is nothing more than a USB Flash Drive made by Lexar. For the remainder of this discussion, the common name USB Flash Drive will be used.

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    What are USB Flash Drives?

    Universal Serial Bus (USB) flash drives are solid state, persistent memory storage devices that connect to a computer through a USB port. Solid state means that these storage devices have no moving parts. Persistent memory means that unlike Random Access Memory (RAM), flash drives retain their memory when the power is cut from the device (it is disconnected from the computer).

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    Advantages of Disadvantages of USB Flash Drives

    The biggest advantage to using USB Flash Drives is their extremely small size. Most flash drives are less than three inches in length and often weigh less than one ounce. Unlike other types of drives, they are powered directly through a computer’s USB port eliminating the need for an external power source. Flash drives come in a variety of memory sizes ranging from 512k up to 128 Gigabytes (GB). Of course, the more memory they are capable of storing, the more expensive the drive. However, most flash drives around the 4 to 16 GB size can be purchased for well under $50. An important advantage of using USB Flash Drives is their portability. At such as small size, they can be carried around on a keychain, on a neck lanyard, or even in one’s shirt pocket.

    USB Flash Drives do have some disadvantages. Although some drives can carry up to 128 GB of memory, this is not enough for some people needing to carry around large amounts of data. The solid state technology used in flash drives is prone to static electricity. Even a small electrical charge can cause the loss of data on a flash drive. For this reason, flash drives are not recommended for long-term or mission-critical data. They are best suited for use as a convenient transport medium rather than a permanent storage device.

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    What are External Hard Drives?

    External Hard Drives are the same kind found inside computers. However, in order to work, they require some kind of case in which to connect the drive. Some External Hard Drives come with this case already build around the drive while some external cases come empty allowing the user to decide which drive to connect inside.

    External Hard Drives connect to a computer through USB ports, eSATA ports, or IEEE 1394 interfaces. IEEE 1394 interfaces are sometimes known by their brand names such as FireWire (Apple Corporation), i.LINK (SONY Corporation), and LYNX (Texas Instruments Corporation).

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    Advantages of Disadvantages of External Hard Drives

    External Hard Drives combine all the conveniences of a real hard drive with the portability of a mobile storage device. Since they are real hard drives, they are available in the same sizes as internal hard drives. Although some External Hard Drives connect to a computer through a USB port, they also have the option to connect to the much faster eSATA and IEEE 1394 interfaces.

    Much like their internal cousins, External Hard Drives are less likely to lose data to static electricity because hard drives are specifically designed for long-term storage. In addition, External Hard Drives can often be removed from their casing and installed into a computer in an emergency such as if an internal drive has failed.

    Because of their power needs, External Hard Drives require external power reducing the convenience of using them as a portable storage solution. They are also much larger than flash drives often topping off at four pounds with dimension around 8 inches long by 5 inches wide by 1.5 inches wide. This is hardly a device that can be carried around in one’s pocket or around a neck lanyard. In addition, due to their weight, size, and the fact that they have sensitive moving parts, they are highly subjected to damage if dropped or bumped. Given that the whole package (hard drive and external case) can cost well over $100, users must be more careful than with much cheaper flash drives.

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    Conclusion

    Both USB Flash Drives and External Hard Drives store computer data for transport from location to location. Whereas flash drives offer ultra-portability of non-critical data, external hard drives are suited for long-term storage at the expense of portability. In addition, flash drives are often limited to a USB interface where external hard drives offer faster data-transfer choices.