A ubiquitous desktop sight for more than a decade, the USB flash drive is a convenience easily taken for granted. To the untrained eye, the device appears to have undergone only minor cosmetic change since it hit the shelves fifteen years ago, but there are a few functional innovations which have slipped under the radar.
Most importantly, memory capacity. The first commercially available USB stick was able to support a modest 8 megabytes - a significant improvement on the floppy disc but nothing that would relieve users from the burden of constantly having to wipe files in order to free up space for new ones. It was a tool best employed as a vessel of transportation, simply moving data from A to B, rather than as a viable long-term storage unit. Today - despite still measuring no longer than a human thumb in length - the most expensive models promise a whopping one terabyte of memory (for context, this is roughly the same amount you would expect from a moderately priced laptop or a next-generation games console).
Obviously great news if you happen to be in a career that demands you maintain a detailed and comprehensive client database, what does this mean for the average user? Simply, more bang for your buck: a memory stick capable of holding 64 gigabytes - more than enough to support most people's needs - is now yours for as little as £30. This level of capacity could comfortably support those hefty mobile entertainment apps that would otherwise end up being deleted when not in use. Alternatively, you can use it as a way of keeping safe backed up data, ready to load back onto a PC in the event that your system is hit by file corruption or hardware faults. And you can expect a lifespan of up to a decade too, the device's robust design protecting data from the to-and-fro excursions that render disc-based memory units unreadable.
But quite apart from a race to provide the most data space, the flash drive marketplace in recent years has been awash with gimmicks - some sensible, others superfluous. Industry leaders SanDisk, for example, have released a memory stick fitted with a connector at either end; one made for the standard USB port and the second small enough to hook up to a handheld device. It is designed to make simple the process of transferring data from computer to smartphone, although it appears the actual benefit of using this over a cable amounts to little more than trivial time-saving (and a bit of extra space in your bag or pocket). On the more practical side, there is the crowd-funded Crypteks USB, which helps security-conscious users to keep out unwanted visitors - not through password authentication but by physically locking the device from the outside and blocking access to the connector until the correct combination is entered.
Even in its most basic form, the flash drive is potentially more than a mere storage unit in the right hands. Those leading the fight against cyber crime (most notably AVG, who offer the tool at no expense) have developed "rescue" software that can be stored on your memory stick and then loaded onto an unresponsive, virus-ridden PC - in turn allowing you to scan your files, receive detailed fault diagnostics and perhaps even rid your machine of any infections without forcing you to completely reboot the system and risk losing saved data. Even if you only ever need it once, this is an invaluable trick to have up your sleeve.