What is a USB Flash Drive – Computer Terms in Plain English

In this audio lesson & transcript, I’m going to take a question from Mark. He writes and asks, “What’s a flash drive?”   Transcript of computer lesson begins: A flash drive is a type of storage device for a computer. A storage device is the broad or general term for anything that is used to store data or files. A hard drive in your computer is a storage device. An old floppy disk is a storage device. A CD-ROM or DVD is a storage device, and so is a flash drive. A lot of people call flash drives by specific brand names. They think that is the correct name for them. Sometimes they’ll refer to them as a thumb drive, jump drive, go drive, key drive or any number of things. These are actually all brand names or partial brand names that people have mistakenly thought was the correct general term for that type of device. A flash drive is a little piece of solid state storage. That means there are no moving parts. From the outside, it looks basically like a uniform block. If you dig inside of it, there’s what’s referred to as a disk, but it’s not a disk shape, unlike a hard drive. Inside of a hard drive, there is a physical disk that looks like a disk. Even with floppy disks, I’ve heard people over the years say they aren’t disks. Technically they are. It’s square on the outside, but if you rip open an old floppy disk, you’ll find a disk inside. It would actually flop. It’s not rigid. Basically, a flash drive uses something called flash memory. That’s solid state, so there are no physical moving parts unlike with a hard drive. That has a physical disk, like I mentioned, which spins much like an old record or a CD does when it’s playing. That has a little thing called a read/write head that moves around and reads information from the disk and writes information to the disk. There are a lot of physical moving parts. That uses more electricity than something that’s solid state. It also usually takes up more space than something that’s solid state. The big advantage of flash memory is that it’s very small and lightweight, and it doesn’t use much power. You get these little devices that can store an increasing amount of information, or data, on them. They only take up a very small amount of room. Any mobile device like an iPhone or any smartphone typically has some kind of flash memory in it. It wouldn’t make any sense to try to put a miniature hard drive in them. While there are hard drives that could fit in there, it would use way more battery power and run the battery down really fast. There’s also an increased chance of damage to the disk and loss of files by impact. One of the liabilities of the hard drive is that because it has spinning and moving parts, if something hits it or it gets dropped, it can damage the drive, and you can lose files. There are safeguards in modern hard drives that make it so they very rapidly will stop the disk spinning to minimize the risk of that damage, but it’s still one of the downsides of them and one of the reasons they’re not used in mobile devices. The big advantage with flash drives is that they’re very small, light and portable. In terms of dollar per megabyte or dollar per gigabyte, they are significantly more expensive than hard drives. The difference in price is getting less and less as time goes by, and you’re getting more and more storage space on these little flash drives. I remember probably in 2002, I spent something close to $400 on a 1 gigabyte flash drive. These days in 2011, not a decade on from them but getting close, I don’t think you can even get a 1 gigabyte flash drive because it’s such a small amount. The smallest amount you can get is at least 8 gigabytes. I’m not sure. I haven’t looked at this recently. It may be 16 gigabytes by this point. You can get that for a few dollars. That’s just how it is. It’s pretty crazy, but that’s a pretty typical thing with computers. I hope that makes sense. It’s basically another method of storing files. Typically, you can just plug flash drives into a USB port on your computer and drag and drop files. You’ll be able to then unplug it, plug it into another computer, and it’s a way of transferring files back and forth. It also is a way you can back up your files to make a spare copy of them to protect them. That’s pretty much what a flash drive is. You might have heard of them as jump drives, thumb drives, go drives or what have you, but those are all examples of flash drives. It’s not, in other words, the generic term for a flash drive. Basically, that’s what a flash drive is. It’s a small storage device that’s easily carried around. You can put it in your pocket, plug it in, move files on and off a computer, unplug it, and put it back in your pocket. I hope that makes sense. You can learn more about USB flash drives and how to use them on these easy video lesson courses: