How does a USB memory stick work?

Written by stephen lilley
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How does a USB memory stick work?

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The Basics

A USB memory stick is a storage device equipped with flash memory and can be plugged into a universal serial bus (USB) port on any desktop or laptop computer. Flash memory means that data can quickly be written and rewritten to the device multiple times. USB memory sticks were designed to be much smaller than floppy disks (and to hold much more data) and are more portable, as many can be clipped onto a keychain or lanyard. The smallest-available USB memory stick holds 64MB (which is still 45 times the amount of data a regular floppy disk can hold), and the largest holds 128GB (almost 100,000 times the amount of data a floppy disk can hold).

File System

The vast majority of USB memory sticks are formatted with the FAT 32 file system. This is an industry standard, and therefore makes the sticks compatible with anything with a USB port. The FAT 32 file system also makes it easier to recover any data that has been lost or corrupted. If for some reason FAT 32 doesn't fit your needs, however, the drive can be reformatted from within your operating system to whatever file system you choose.


One disadvantage of a USB memory stick is that in general they cost more per gigabyte of storage than any other type of portable storage unit. However, you cannot purchase any other portable storage device in as small of a capacity as you can get with a USB memory stick. Quite simply, this means that while you'll be paying more for GB for a USB memory stick, no portable hard drive comes with a small enough storage size that it would be cheaper.

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