Hardware

10 cool things you can do with a USB flash drive

Your USB flash drive can do a whole lot more than just move data around. Greg Shultz introduces a variety of creative ways to put that drive to good use.

Your USB flash drive can do a whole lot more than just move data around. Greg Shultz introduces a variety of creative ways to put that drive to good use.


Transporting your data is probably the most common use for a USB flash drive. But there's a world of other things you can do with these handy pocket-size drives. Here are 10 ways you can use that USB flash drive to do more than just move data.

Note: This article is also available as a PDF download.

1: Run portable applications

In addition to storing your data, you can run portable applications from a USB flash drive. For example, OpenOffice, which is a complete office suite that includes a word processor, spreadsheet, presentation tool, drawing package, and database, is available as a portable application. Mozilla Firefox and Thunderbird are also available as portable applications. When you combine the office suite with the ability to surf the Web and check email, you'll be able to take your most vital computing applications with you wherever you go -- right in your pocket.

If that's not enough, you can choose other applications to install on your USB flash drive from PortableApps.com (Figure A). You can even install an entire prepackaged suite of applications that includes such things as an audio player, games, an antivirus utility, and a handy menu system.

Figure A

The PortableApps.com suite comes with a menu system to allow you to easily access your portable applications.

2: Boot an operating system

If you want to do more than just run your own applications, you might want to consider booting an entire operating system from your USB flash drive. You can boot either Windows or Linux from a USB flash drive; however, the process is not an exact science and you may be in for a technical adventure.

Fortunately, there are some guides you can follow. To learn how to boot Windows XP from a USB flash drive, see the article Creating a bootable USB flash drive for Windows XP. To learn how to boot a version of Linux from a USB flash drive, see the article Puppy Linux teaches an old dog new tricks.

3: Connect to a wireless network

If you have a wireless network, you can use the Wireless Network Setup Wizard in Windows XP or the Windows Connect Now (WCN) feature built into Vista to save wireless network configuration information to a USB flash drive. You can then use your drive to quickly and easily connect another computer or a WCN-compatible device, such as a router or printer, to your wireless network. To learn more about using the Wireless Network Setup Wizard, see the Help And Support Center, which is accessible from Windows XP's Start menu. To learn more about using the Windows Connect Now feature, see Windows Help And Support, which is accessible from Windows Vista's Start menu.

4: Create a password reset disk

A password reset disk can really come in handy if you forget the password to your user account on a Windows system that is not a part of a domain. If you find yourself in that situation, you can use the password reset disk to reset your password and quickly get back into your user account. In Windows Vista, you can use USB flash drive rather than a floppy disk as a password reset disk (Figure B). For details on how to do so, see the article Create a Vista password reset disk using a USB flash drive.

Figure B

You can use your USB flash drive as a password reset disk.

5: Boost performance

If you're running Windows Vista, you can use a USB flash drive to speed up your system with the ReadyBoost technology. ReadyBoost can use the storage space on a USB Flash drive as an additional memory cache to aid the memory cache on your hard disk. And because flash memory is more responsive than a hard disk, with its physical moving parts, the memory cache provided by ReadyBoost can significantly improve system responsiveness.

Using ReadyBoost is easy. You just insert your USB flash drive into your Vista system and follow the onscreen prompts to configure and use ReadyBoost. If you want more details, check out the article How SuperFetch and ReadyBoost work together.

6: Manage it

If all you really want to do with your USB flash drive is transport data, and you're running Windows XP, you can do so more efficiently with the Microsoft USB Flash Drive Manager (Figure C). Once you have installed this manager, you can easily copy files to and from your drive, back up and restore the entire flash drive to and from your hard disk, change the drive label, and even create an autorun.inf file to launch Drive Manager automatically when you plug in the drive. To learn more about and download the USB Flash Drive Manager visit the Microsoft TechNet Magazine site.

Figure C

The Microsoft USB Flash Drive Manager provides you with a host of features, such as drive backup.

7: Use it as an MP3 player

Would you like to be listening to music when you're using a computer at the office, but you don't have an MP3 player? If so, you can use a USB flash drive as an MP3 player along with Windows Media Player and a set of headphones. Just copy your MP3 files to your USB flash drive, plug it into your computer, and direct Windows Media Player to build a library of the songs on your drive. You can use all of Windows Media Player's playback features, such as playlists and favorites, to easily customize your music listening experience. And best of all, you won't have to worry about running low on battery power.

8: Password-protect it

If you use a USB flash drive to transport sensitive data that you would prefer to protect from prying eyes, should you lose the drive, Rohos Mini Drive (Figure D) can safeguard that data. This security tool allows you to create a secret partition on the drive and then password-protect/encrypt that partition, thus protecting any documents you copy to that partition via the utility's file manager. You can download (and read a review of) Rohos Mini Drive at Download.com.

Figure D

Using Rohos Mini Drive, you can secure sensitive files on your USB flash drive.

9: Run a Web site from it

If you are a Web developer, you may be interested to know that with Server2Go, you can easily run a Web server that supports Apache, PHP, MySQL, and Perl right from a USB flash drive. You can use Server2Go right out of the box without any installation. It runs on all versions of Windows, supports most common browsers, and is completely free. To a developer, the benefits of having a portable Web server on a USB drive are numerous. For example, imagine being able to carry a live Web site demo into a sales pitch meeting. For more information about this package, visit the Server2Go site.

10: Lock your PC

Have you ever seen a movie in which a person in some secret government installation simply inserts and removes a card to log in and log out of a PC? If you thought that idea was cool, you'll definitely want to investigate Predator (Figure E). Once installed and configured, this little freeware utility will allow you to turn a USB flash drive into a key you can use to lock and unlock your computer.

Figure E

With Predator, you can use a USB flash drive as a key to lock and unlock your computer.

While the USB flash drive is connected to your computer, everything works as it normally would. Once you remove the USB flash drive, your computer is locked down -- the keyboard and mouse are disabled and the screen darkens. To unlock your computer, you just plug in the USB flash drive and the computer will be unlocked and you can begin using it. To learn more about Predator, and/or to download it, visit the developer's Web site.


Finally: 10 Things... the newsletter!

Get the key facts on a wide range of technologies, techniques, strategies, and skills with the help of the concise need-to-know lists featured in TechRepublic's 10 Things newsletter, delivered every Friday. Automatically sign up today.

About

Greg Shultz is a freelance Technical Writer. Previously, he has worked as Documentation Specialist in the software industry, a Technical Support Specialist in educational industry, and a Technical Journalist in the computer publishing industry.

74 comments
Roxy Quicks
Roxy Quicks

Having a flash drive is more then just having extra storage. You can manage other programs, listen to music, store important information, etc etc. If you are a college student or student in general a flash drive is a MUST have and more then likely it is a required item per professors. I did some research and found a site that has multiple flash drives and they are all at great prices. Check it out! http://www.libertyoffice.com/SearchResults.aspx?id=1305

tech9guru
tech9guru

I love your blog and the great follow-up articles. I appreciate you sharing this information. I am sure there are more cool things we can do with our USB flashdrives and I hope to hear about them from you. I am in the flashdrive business also. What do you think about the new USB 3.0 Express RC8 powered by the SandForce? See it and others at http://www.usbflashdriveonline.com/

gr8prasad
gr8prasad

I just happened upon this article which gives a wonderful perspective about the use of a USB flash drive. There were some which I already knew about. But some are quite an interesting use. some more tools are available at http://etoolsonline.com/my-rig/

Micou72
Micou72

I just saw a great gift idea at www.myminiheads.com and I wanted to share it. They craft personalized USB flash drive figures which will look like the real person. All details can be customized by the customer. Has anyone tried it out and what is your impression?

The Management consultant
The Management consultant

Opensolaris USB verson.....carry your whole OS with you......plug and work on any usb with no viruses.....life can be so easy?

vidhyarthi
vidhyarthi

Tie a thread to it and use it as a pendant. :D

jayr6203
jayr6203

.wow..this is so great...this really will help me alot.

rbngan
rbngan

I have run VMWare's ESXi on usb stick. It is interesting. I did this during building and testing of servers for production. It was very easy to do and you could plug into most any computer and have a virtual server running. I maked a copy on a 2nd usb and the server settings are backed up on a usb drive. It ran a little slower that live on the hard drive. I thought was during production the flash drive would fail before the hard drive. I have not and do not think I will implement in production, but it was cool.

asdcasd
asdcasd

bakwasssssssssssssssss

mail4tag
mail4tag

I wonder how long it would take to discover or produce these 10 cool things on your own. How do you know what you don't know, start with the newsletter.

lilymom3
lilymom3

can i copy an older Mac hard drive to a flash drive and then copy to new computer (also a Mac)?

Computer Dave
Computer Dave

From democrakey.com: Imagine carrying a portable security suite with you wherever you go. Walk up to any computer, quickly scan it for viruses, and then defeat any internet access blocks to view any website you want anonymously. Sweeeet... ~Dave

TRichFCAR
TRichFCAR

There is no limit too technolgy!!

sesay
sesay

well i think dis is crasy really thksi love it sesay umar

vamsikrishna.kvk
vamsikrishna.kvk

can we start windows 2008 from USB flashdrive for Virtual machine?

The 'G-Man.'
The 'G-Man.'

PREDATOR requires the current user to be an Administrator, to be fully operative. This poses no problem if you run Windows XP, because in this case users are administrators by default.

sunil.sharma
sunil.sharma

create a desktop.ini file in your drive , paste the following text --------- [ExtShellFolderViews] {BE098140-A513-11DO-A3A4-00C04FD706EC}={BE098140-A513-11DO-A3A4-00C04FD706EC} [{BE098140-A513-11D0-A3A4-00C04FD706EC}] Attributes=1 IconArea_image=1.jpg ------ copy the desired jpg file and rename it 1.jpg. now when you plug this drive , the background will be your picture.

Gis Bun
Gis Bun

The most important thing you can do with a USB key.... Transfer files. :-)

mgray
mgray

Gee here I was all excited until I kept seeing words like: "Windows", "Vista", PC... as a Mac user, I have to wonder how much is still applicable? I'm not super technically-oriented but do use my USB flash drive. MMGray

mstieneker
mstieneker

Another cool thing you can do is if you have movies in Divx or avi format and have one of the new DVD players that has a USB port, you can put movies on it and watch on your TV/Home Theater

nvgtoga02
nvgtoga02

Anyone know a way to multi-boot floppy and cdrom images (iso) from a single flash drive? Most useful for old BIOS update and other proprietary utilities that still only seem to come in floppy formats, as well as the usual suspects for drive utilities (ie; UBCD4win, ERD Commander, Acronis/Ghost/DriveXML, etc). Ultimately I'd love to scrap all my scattered boot media in exchange for a single, multi-boot device that can support adding additional images as I need them. Any ideas appreciated,

techrepublic.com.com
techrepublic.com.com

Interesting post, but I'd be shocked if people hadnt figured out #7 on their own, and I'm curious as to why for #8 you suggest Rohos over Truecrypt for securing files?

1bn0
1bn0

Interesting looking utility. Especially given the unreliable nature of USB Flash drives. USB Flash backup and the autorun are the two most common quetions I get asked about using USB drives.

anshumanravi
anshumanravi

great,specially running a server from usb.... being a web developer i found it really informative...

newonp
newonp

Good but what if the USB flash crashes?! :-(

lfete
lfete

Yes it is really great, I pretend to have all my registry/cleaners on it : ccleaner (you can download this at their homepage) Glary utilities comodo system cleaner Wise registry cleaner This you can get all as portable and make the computer run as new, I never had trouble with them of any kind of computer. Moostly I did use them for win Xp but they are compatible also with the new version of windows Revo Uninstaller, you can get also as portable and are very useful because it is not leaving the registry with left over files the uninstaller has "forgotten". For Revo I use the default mode (moderate) to uninstall the programs. One thing on Revo I did disable the feature to make a System Restore point on every uninstall. Revo uninstaller are completely safe I never had any problem with it on all win 2000

sk.dunnage
sk.dunnage

Broad Spectrum Application discoveries must be repositioned in suitable backyard at a depth minimum of 1 meter for a period no less than 2 decades. The Law of Dunnage.

boweb
boweb

If this is the extend of usage for these devices, then maybe it is time for the next generation. I must say, I am a bit disappointed to see this short list of functions. Or should I say infrastructure.

ajump20
ajump20

You can also install apps using UBCD4win (http://www.ubcd4win.com/). Boot up using the UBCD4win disk and then just execute the installation program and select a target directory on the USB. It creates a system root directory on the usb drive and installs everything needed right there. The portableapps approach might be easier, especially for the larger apps that are listed, but the UBCD4win installation approach works fine.

chrisbedford
chrisbedford

...mac users thought they had "cool" all sewn up and then this article comes out. Who cares what you can do with a USB on a Mac? And anyway, if it can be done, you have to get Steve Jobs' permission, and then Apple have to write the manual (and sell you the software through iTunes)

ewinnick
ewinnick

I looked into doing something similar... do a search for grub4dos multiboot USB. I successfully boot BartPE, WinPE, and a few recovery disks. It takes some work but totally worth it if you want to condense a bunch of boot-able media. Hope this helps.

boweb
boweb

..It tried multi partitioning on usb sticks, with no luck I may add. Tried the same with some SD cards. One boot partitions was the max.. The goal was to use it the same way you would have, for support purposes. But having multiple sticks is better then CD's ... I know you can use an mini drive, but that's just not the same if you look at size of 8-16Gb sticks. You can use an PE system, and extract all the iso you need to maps. But it is kind of slow..

Greg Shultz
Greg Shultz

...however, I see lot's of people sitting in front of computers in their cubes with MP3 players. As such I thought that I'd include #7 as a nudge. After all, the saying ...it's as plain as the nose on your face... exists for a reason. I chose to suggest Rohos because it is what I've been using lately and I like it. Furthermore, because it is so is easy to use it might appeal to a larger audience. Now, don't get me wrong, I think that TrueCrypt is also an excellent product packed with a ton of great features. For those not familiar with TrueCrypt, check out the CNET editor's review: http://download.cnet.com/TrueCrypt/3000-2092_4-10527243.html

Dave Pusey
Dave Pusey

You still need a computer, so it would be far simpler to just install apache/php/mysql directly onto the computer.

marcos_madera@hotmail.com
marcos_madera@hotmail.com

If you read the predator?s webpage will find this information: Type the password of your choice in the "New Password" field. You will use it to unlock your session if you lose your USB key. You must enter at least 6 characters, letters, figures or signs. The password is case sensitive (uppercase and lowercase letters are different).

Greg Shultz
Greg Shultz

...the Microsoft USB Flash Drive Manager, which includes a backup feature designed specifically for USB flash drives.

edroman
edroman

There's a revolutionary concept called BACKUP! You MUST have a backup of your flash drive in case it crashes. Thanks.

boweb
boweb

..that applies in what way to USB stick usage?

WLaddR
WLaddR

Except for Predator, which is a Windows only app, there's really no reason most of these ideas won't work just as well on the Mac platform. After all it must be superior to raise this kind of response from an "IT Consultant" obviously in fear of his job.

boweb
boweb

.. I went over all the suggestions trough the years, but the are still all to cumbersome and slow for my needs. This is 2009 and stick been around for over an decate! PE does work, that is true, but to slow. What would be great is an simple and "fast" bootmenu application( no grub) that can mount iso files from an partitioned usb stick..

IndianaTux
IndianaTux

I had Winamp Lite version also loaded on the USB drive with my mp3s (If you want to do this, just search the winamp.com forums). I could customize the skin/interface and playlists and use it on my home PC and work PC without getting a warning from the security group about having "non-standard" software installed (ha ha). Then I bought an mp3 player, which is much easier in my opinion.

MeadowsPV
MeadowsPV

For those still using Win2K, Many of the utilities function, except the wireless configuration section [obvious as to why - grin]

sk.dunnage
sk.dunnage

Well, I don't have any thoughts about "stick usage". Notice that my comment was in reference to the Limitlessness of Technology comment above my indented to indicate response to the above.

ffries
ffries

Go check out hak5.org episode 524. This might be what you are looking for.

Editor's Picks