Ultimate Guide to Buying Memory Cards, SD Cards, USB or Pen Drives
Pen drives, thumb drives, compact flash, memory cards (all otherwise known as solid-state storage) are today’s ubiquitous pocket-sized digital data storage devices.
They pack enormous amounts of data in unbelievably small packages.
They all share one common feature – they’re made of solid-state flash memory. They’re non-volatile memory similar to that used by your computer to process work; trapping data in flipped electronic switches rather than magnetic patterns and binary reflective pits as in hard disk and optical disk drives.
This confers two major benefits:
The first: that storing your data on programmable chips means that the drives have zero moving parts, produces little heat, consumes very little power, and is astonishingly fast in reading and writing compared to all previous portable media such as tapes, diskettes, or optical disks.
The second: that they’re so tiny, so easy to handle, and by virtue of their size are incredibly inexpensive to make. So anyone can afford one.
They’re most useful for transferring documents, images, videos and music files swiftly and inexpensively. They are small, recyclable drives that are impervious to being dropped, can take greater temperature variations, don’t mind being wet, and can easily be carried anywhere. Gigabytes you can wear as an accessory for your neck or ears, even.
• Price Per Gigabyte
• Physical Appearance
• Transfer Speed
• File Security
• Extra Options
USB Thumb Drive or Memory Card?
There are however several different formats of solid-state drives. Size does not usually correspond to capacity, since a USB thumb drive may have 8 GB of usable memory, but a SD card for cameras may be literally smaller than a thumbnail but have 32 GBs of capacity.
Neither is particularly better than the other. They’re just used differently for different devices.
Memory cards are the principal format used to store and transform digital data in small portable devices like smartphones, tablets, and cameras. They can store and play MP3 music files, video files and movies, images and personal content information like documents, lists, browser data, and etc.
There are many different types of memory cards suited (or demanded) by mobile devices. Memory Sticks, Compact Flash, MultiMedia Cards (MMC), Compact Flash (CF) and etc. fit onto proprietary slots in cameras and camcorders. Different manufacturers used to have different storage mediums, but thankfully now there is increasing acceptance of the Secure Digital (SD) card format for a variety of devices.
SD cards come in standard, mini, and micro sizes. The larger sizes have larger maximum capacities, but even the smallest micro-SD card can now pack 32 Gigabytes into something smaller than the nail on your pinky finger. 8-16 GB are standard on mobile phones.
The main reason for getting a memory card is because it’s what your particular smartphone or camera demands from you.
USB Flash Drives
A USB flash drive is interchangeably known as a thumb drive (because they’re usually the size of someone’s thumb or smaller) or a pen drive, because originally being so slim and narrow they could be carried in a pocket right where you might put a pen.
The defining characteristic of a flash drive is that it connects through a standard USB port – a port that is much too large for many mobile devices. The main benefit is that if you plug it into a PC they will be assigned a drive letter and function perfectly like an extra drive in your file system. Format it, install applications on it, store any kind of data on it, USB thumb drives are designed for conveniently sharing and backing up computer data.
They have largely supplanted burning to CDs and DVDs for sharing data, except in the case of video (which is better served by compatibility with almost any media player). However, many of newer entertainment systems now support USB ports to directly read and display video, images, or music from a thumb drive that normally works with Windows.
It’s likely you’ll find yourself needing to use a USB flash drive if you wish to transfer things from mobile to computer or from PC to PC. 16-32 GB drives are common, and more expensive devices gor for 128-256 GB capacities. Flash drives are also often useful in booting up an Operating System for repairing a computer.
Solid State Drives
A new development in personal computing is using a Solid State Drive (SSD) instead of a regular hard disk. SSDs operate much just massively higher capacity flash memory, but often much much faster. They are also much much more expensive per gigabyte compared to regular hard disks, but are increasingly the de facto choice for performance-hungry systems.
They look just like regular 2.5” laptop drives, and as such may be outside the scope of this article. However, they represent the highest available capacities for flash-based storage systems, with up to Terabyte (1, 000 Gigabytes) usable storage!
- Price Per Gigabyte
Of course, the amount of storage you may gain is the first concern. The question is mainly – one large capacity device, or multiple small devices?
Cameras and smartphones don’t usually need so many gigabytes, specially if you’re in the habit of charging from micro-USB port and transferring files to a computer. On the other hand, any device that will capture video or browse the Internet needs as much space as it can get.
The price differential between SD cards and thumb drives are narrowing, and while a bit more expensive you can use an SD card as a regular flash drive through a memory card to USB adapter. However, the higher base capacity of a flash drive is usually better for the sake of transferring and storing large amounts of data and software applications from computer to computer.
- Physical Appearance
SD cards are tiny and have uniform appearance. This is a big plus because they need to fit on many different mobile devices. This is a negative because that makes them comparatively more fragile and so very, very easy to misplace. SD cards are better off left inside devices than your pocket.
The main advantage of a pen drive’s larger size is that the hard plastic casing protects it from being dropped, getting wet, and melting in the summer heat. There’s enough grip for your fingers in inserting them into hard-of-reach USB ports, and enough room to perhaps write down reminders what sort of data it contains (mark it as HOME VIDEOS or INSTALLER/GAMES on a strip of scotch tape, for example).
More than that however, the external casing has a wealth of security and novelty options. Metal casings for better protection? Sure. Pen drives that look like cartoon characters? No problem. Any color other than black? Of course. How about looking like jewels and precious metal baubles so that it’s good to wear on the neck as for both utility and a fashion statement? No problem.
- Transfer Speed
If you’re using a USB flash drive on an everyday basis, the rate of transfer is an important factor to remember. Low-cost drives struggle to transfer at more than megabytes per second, and expect to wait for up to an hour if transferring directories with comparatively many, many small files or large files measured in gigabytes.
Look for pen drives that are USB 3.0 compatible. These drives may read and write up to 150 MB/second, and are backwards-compatible with USB 2.0 ports.
- File Security
Flash drives are infamous for being vehicles for viruses and malware, specially when used with public computers. Since they are so easy to misplace, data of a sensitive nature like business contracts, personal and professional monetary registers, student and professional presentations, essays, or pictures of your whole family should be protected.
Many USB pen drives now come with some degree of pre-installed security software to protect your data. These can include password-protection, file encryption, or even fingerprint scanning technology. Write-protection to keep viruses from infecting your drive will allow you to share and access data, but of course will also prevent data transfer to said drive without a password unlock.
- Extra Features
There are certain other features to be found in more expensive flash drives. X-Boost allows faster booting of your operating system. The previously mentioned pre-installed encryption software or thumbprint scanner. Some specialist thumb drives now also function through WiFi, or serve dual purpose as data storage and WiFi adapter for that computer.
An indicator light showing that the pen drive is working is a basic feature you may like. An advanced feature that may prove very useful is that some pen drives come with a standard USB connector for plugging into your computer, and a micro-USB connector for your Android phones and tablets. It is perhaps the most convenient way to transfer files between PC and tablet, since you’d forgo the use of cables, adapters, and detecting drivers. You can now keep your smartphone active and writing data at the same time as transferring files.
Flash memory does degrade over time. Larger capacity drives degrade at a faster rate than smaller drives, though this is no longer an issue with new manufacturing processes.
Don’t fear over-using your flash memory drives or cards. Each individual electronic bit switch is good for millions of read and writes, comparable to years of constant usage of a physical hard disk with magnetic platters. They’re still the best portable storage medium, specially when compared to DVD/BluRays that oxidize and scratch/break easily or portable hard drives that are vulnerable to shock and vibrations.
Flash storage do not degrade with age, unlike magnetically-fixed media. An unused flash drive or memory card for backups will likely still have your data perfectly preserved decades down the line.
But what if you want more?
Flash drives and memory cards are convenient, but you may also use a portable hard drive to secure your data. Even the largest capacity memory card will fill up surprisingly quickly, so you could either keep multiple spares on hand… or store the data in a hard drive with massive terabyte capacities, so that you can keep shooting without pause.
In that case, why not also read up on our Discerning Consumer’s Guide to Buying an External Hard Disk?
Note: If you bought a USB device or you are about to buy a USB device, please let us know your experience by leaving a comment below. Thank you.
About: Carlo Marco
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