USB flash drive reviews

Which flash drives will withstand the rigours of daily life?
 
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01 .Introduction

USB flash drives are a relatively cheap, compact and convenient form of data storage, but reliability has never been their strong point. Despite having no moving parts internally, they can be infuriatingly fickle and sometimes fail for no apparent reason (see our test, Pocket storage review and compare for more information).

They're also relatively slow, compared to a hard drive, so they're mostly used for temporary data storage and transfer. And their very size advantage can actually work against them – they're small and easy to lose.

However, new technology is making them more robust and secure. Some devices now come with built-in 'military grade' hardware encryption. There's also a whole class of “ruggedised” devices designed to take just about anything you can throw at them. These impact, dust and water-resistant devices cost more, but should outshine their generic cousins in performance and toughness. So, we put them to the test.

Models tested

We bought and tested 18 USB flash drives with 16GB capacity from 14 manufacturers and included low-cost top-selling standard models, as well as “ruggedised” models where available. We put them through a series of tests to see how well they would withstand the possible rigours of daily life. What we found was quite surprising, with some of the standard devices putting their supposedly tougher cousins to shame. USB flash drives tested in this report are:

Buffalo RUF2-PS series
Clickfree Clickfree Traveler
Comsol FlashIT secure
Corsair Flash Voyager
Corsair Survivor
Kingston Datatraveler Ultimate 3.0
Kingston DataTraveler Vault Privacy Edition
Lacie CooKey
Lacie XtremKey
Lexar Jumpdrive Firefly
OCZ ATU
PQI Intelligent Drive i812
Sandisk Ultra Backup
Shintaro Key Pocket Disk (8GB)
Shintaro Rotating Pocket Disk
Sony Microvault Click
Transcend JetFlash V70
Verbatim Store 'n Go Micro USB drive

Video: USB-drop-test

We pit rugged USB drives against standard models in a series of torture tests - with surprising results.

 

 

 

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Our recommendations for this test take into account performance, reliability and toughness, plus our assessment of value for money. We’re recommending only those drives that actually survived complete (not those that had squashed USB connectors and needed fixing manually, as this may not always be possible). So, only one of our top 10 performing drives makes our preferred list: the Kingston DataTraveler Ultimate 3.0. This was also the only USB drive at time of testing to support USB 3.0 (see Table for both USB 2.0 and 3.0 figures for this drive). Note that its performance was scored on its USB 2.0 results only, for direct comparison with the other drives, but it still topped the chart. And while a little pricier than some, it managed to survive our ruggedness testing even though it’s not classed as ruggedised.

Six other drives also survived our testing, but required a little manual intervention to get them working – a flat-bladed screwdriver was needed to open up each USB connector before they could be plugged into a PC. However, their data survived intact. See the Durability table on the next page for a full listing.

Though the Comsol FlashIT secure drive was a good performer and survived all our tests, it was also the second-most expensive drive on test. However, it does have automatic hardware-based encryption for security and is highly recommended where data security is vital. Similarly while the Kingston Data Traveler Vault Privacy scored high on the chart, and survived all the ruggedness testing, it was also the most expensive unit on test by a wide margin. The Corsair Survivor is listed in our table as surviving the toughness tests, but this was the third unit tested. The two previous units died during performance testing (see Survivors that didn't, next page), so this model didn't make our recommended list.

5 CHOICE buys

Kingston Datatraveler Ultimate 3 0

Scored 89/100 | $11489%

Good points:

• Fastest drive even under USB 2.0
• Even faster using USB 3.0
• Survived our toughness tests

Bad points:

• Becomes quite warm when used with USB 3.0

 

Lacie CooKey

Scored 70/100 | $8770%

Good points:

• Online backup software included
• Solid metal construction
• Survived our toughness tests

Bad points:

• Nothing to mention

 

PQI Intelligent Drive i812

Scored 70/100 | $6170%

Good points:

• Small size
• Survived our toughness tests
• Lifetime warranty

Bad points:

• Slow at copying multiple small files

 

Shintaro Key Pocket Disk

Scored 65/100 | $4265%

Good points:

• Solid metal construction
• Hollow part of key could be clipped to a carabena or chain
• Survived our toughness tests

Bad points:

• Does not ship with a carabina or chain
• Maximum capacity only 8GB

 

Lexar Jumpdrive Firefly

Scored 61/100 | $4361%

Good points:

• Very compact
• Cap surprisingly strong and protective
• Survived our toughness tests

Bad points:

• Cap can be chained, but the key itself can't

 
 

How we test

Our testing includes two stages: performance benchmarking and a toughness test. We test the performance of each drive by copying two folders - each 5GB in size, but one made up of small files and one containing large files - and time the results. We test each device three times. After each test, we restart the PC to prevent file caching between tests. All the USB Flash Drives on test came pre-formatted with the FAT32 (File Allocation Table 32-bit) file system.

 

For the toughness assessment we simulate the sort of potentially damaging scenarios a USB Flash Drive could encounter in daily life. Due to their tiny size, USB Flash Drives tend to get carried in pockets and on keychains. They also tend to get dropped, left in clothes that go through the wash; left locked in a car (where interior temperatures can exceed 60 degrees C); and possibly even dropped on a road or in a car park and run over – a scenario that happened to one of our testers recently! 

 

We put all the drives through a simulation of these possibilities. We drop test them repeatedly from 1.5m; put them through a washing machine cycle (complete with detergent) followed by a clothes dryer cycle; bake them in an oven for an hour at 60 degrees C; and then finally run over them with a small car.

 

Surprisingly, some of the cheaper drives survived all this and some of the “ruggedised” models did not. Of those that survived, some had squashed connectors which, once plied open with a flat-bladed screwdriver, worked ok again. See the Durability table below for full results. 

 

 Durability table

 

Survivers that didn't

When a product is packed in an ultra-rugged casing and called Survivor, you would expect it to be pretty tough on the inside as well as the outside. However, despite the boastful name, the Corsair Survivor 16GB device proved far less robust than expected. Two Survivor 16GB models “died” during the initial file transfer performance tests - done before any durability testing. The unexpected demise of the first drive prompted us to purchase a replacement from a different supplier, but it also perished during initial file-transfer tests.

To make sure this wasn't an endemic problem, we then bought a third 16GB model and this time the file transfer tests completed. The performance testing results in our table represent this third 16GB model.

Calls to Corsair's support line didn't yield a satisfactory resolution to the issue and, at time of writing, we have not received an official response to our request for an explanation. Our testing shows that it's not just the external casing that must be “rugged” - the internal chipset can still fail during everyday usage. 

 

What about ExFat?

Though all the drives on test are formatted with FAT32 by default, we wanted to see how the performance would be impacted - if at all - by formatting a 16GB USB Flash Drive with the relatively new ExFAT file system. ExFAT, or Extended File Allocation Table, was introduced with Windows Vista to replace FAT32 (File Allocation Table 32-bit) and help handle larger file and volume sizes. The benefits of ExFAT are seen more easily on large volumes (over 32GB) but for this test, ExFAT made hardly any difference to our test drive, being a bit faster in some areas but slower in others.

 

 

 

Instructions

Comparison table list

  • By default ALL tested products are listed. You can select up to five items to view in a side-by-side comparison. 
  • Additional columns can be viewed by using the Next/Previous buttons. 

Using the filters

  • Use the filters to show only products that meet your specific requirements or which have the specific features you're interested in. Selecting filters automatically updates the Comparison table list. 
  • The number shown in brackets represents the number of products that will be shown if you select that filter. You can view additional filters by selecting the Show more filters button. 

Compare products

 
Table Allowing the user to select a number of products dependant on their filter options.
Items to compare

Select up to 5 items below.
Then click the compare button

Compare
 
Price ($)Overall scoreWrite test, 5GB small files (h:mm:ss) averageRead test, 5GB small files (h:mm:ss) averageWrite test, 5GB large files (h:mm:ss) averageRead test, 5GB large files (h:mm:ss) averageDimensions (HxWxD, mmWeight (g)Stated capacity (GB)Usable capacity (GB) (B)Advertised as ruggedisedWarranty (years)WebsiteGood PointsBad PointsBrand
                 
Datatraveler Ultimate 3.01148907:53 / 06:0703:08 / 02:0703:19 / 01:2302:38 / 01:0374x22x1626Kingston
XtremKey898412:0003:0604:0202:3775x22x2262Lacie
Traveler988115:0203:2207:2702:5880x54x422Clickfree
DataTraveler Vault Privacy2037919:2203:1806:3102:4978x22x1215Kingston
FlashIT secure1727822:0003:1205:0402:4954x17x811Comsol
JetFlash V70617617:5604:4907:0704:3461x22x1113Transcend
Survivor497329:4803:2106:4902:5085x23x2343Corsair
Microvault Click607321:0703:3912:1203:1464x17x99Sony
Rotating Pocket Disk457120:4405:1806:0105:0357x19x1116Shintaro
RUF2-PS series777020:1505:4309:0305:2021x17x83Buffalo
CooKey877032:0203:0809:3202:3957x26x314Lacie
Intelligent Drive i812617043:1403:1308:3902:4733x12x65PQI
Ultra Backup717026:4904:4607:3904:2373x22x1113Sandisk
Store 'n Go Micro USB507023:4505:2206:3505:0431x12x21Verbatim
Flash Voyager486832:5903:3012:0003:0474x23x1417Corsair
Key Pocket Disk426528:4805:2311:4804:5661x27x511Shintaro
ATU47631:07:5804:0507:5003:4182x22x917OCZ
Jumpdrive Firefly436126:4205:2316:3105:0550x21x109Lexar
Compare

USING THE TABLE

Price paid: in November 2010.

Performance       Based on the average recorded time for read and write tests, using 5.1GB of multiple files (various sizes).

Specifications      Dimensions, the size of the device, rounded up to the nearest millimetre (mm); Weight, the mass of the device, rounded up to the nearest gram (g); Stated Capacity, the stated capacity of the device (GB); Usable capacity, the capacity available under Windows (GB); Default file system, all portable storage devices in this test featured the FAT32 file system by default. Ruggedised, specifically designed to reliably operate in harsh usage environments and conditions.

TABLE NOTES :

[A]     All performance tests were conducted using the FAT32 file system. Performance ranking was based on using results of testing using the USB 2.0 connection. Overall Score is weighted equally between read and write tests.

[B]     Usable capacity is determined after attaching the devices to the test system (running Win 7 Professional 64-bit), straight out of the box. Some may have different capacities due to the included software and formatting.

[C]     The only device with a USB 3.0 interface. It was tested using both USB 2.0 and USB 3.0, but  the performance score was derived from the USB 2.0 results. USB 3.0 timings are included to show the difference between the interface types.

[D]     Definitions of Lifetime may vary, check the documentation wording carefully.

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