Nine USB 3.0 Flash Drives For Road Warriors

The best ultra-portable USB 3.0 storage products from 16 to 128 GB square off in a grand comparison. We found wildly disparate transfer rates ranging from 200 MB/s down to a snail’s pace. At the end, though, two products rose to the top of our list.

Intel recently announced its Thunderbolt technology, previously known as Light Peak. The interface offers 10 Gb/s upstream and downstream bandwidth, and aims at facilitating the connection of many peripheral classes to your computer. Monitors, printers, and even all types of storage devices can use a single cable type now.

But the technology's potential is far from being realized. Thunderbolt will not be interesting until the end of the year at the earliest, due to a lack of devices. At first, drives, devices, and controllers will all be more expensive than the USB 3.0-based hardware currently conquering the mass market, and the fact that Apple's MacBook Pro is the first real Thunderbolt-based platform makes the new interface somewhat exclusive.

USB 3.0’s 5 Gb/s bandwidth already looks outdated in the lightning flash that is Thunderbolt. But the fast storage devices on the market today prove that this is not the case at all. We brought nine of those products to our test lab for a broad comparison. Among them are some very fast models that should satisfy the most time-pressed road warriors, and all without Thunderbolt.

Trends in Mobile Data Storage

USB thumb drives are storage sticks generally the size of a cigarette lighter that, nowadays, range up to 128 GB or so, though we know that higher capacities are coming up shortly. We observe that many of these devices offer performance levels that no longer lag so severely behind SSDs running natively over SATA.

Read data rates of up to 200 MB/s are already possible via USB 3.0. Some devices fall off significantly when writing because of the physical characteristics of MLC NAND flash memory, though they can usually match the write transfer rates of older 2.5” hard drives. This means that, in everyday life, it is increasingly possible for large amounts of data to be copied to a USB drive at really pleasant speeds.

The Cloud vs. the Flash

The current hype surrounding cloud computing suggests that data in the future shall be stored exclusively on the Internet. Applications like online storage, online backup, and online office software (Google Docs or MS Office Live Workspace) make this future somewhat tangible. At some point, it may no longer be important to know where our bits and bytes are stored.

But until total broadband Internet access becomes available, accessing files and programs stored ”in the cloud” is not possible in real-time for many users, making cloud storage solutions only suitable for data that doesn’t have to be accessed very quickly. In home and small business computing, the trend is still to store data locally on hard drives or NAS servers, and, only if necessary, to turn to online solutions.

Security and Quick Access Are Most Important

It's not just us, either. Most users prefer to keep their important data (correspondence, password management programs, scans of ID cards or bills, insurance documents, contracts, messenger history, email data files) safe and under their direct control. It is also increasingly common to protect this type of data with encryption using software like TrueCrypt. It allows data to be stored safely on the device of your choice. For this type of application, thumb drives are naturally appropriate digital companions. They are small enough to fit on a key ring, but large enough for the aforementioned types of data, and now, finally, fast enough for enthusiasts.