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What Is The Lifespan of a USB Flash Drive?

The lifespan of a USB flash drive relates to three factors. In general terms, a flash drive will last much longer than you think and here are some details to help you understand the answer.

The three factors related to the life span of a USB flash drive are:

  • How the drive is made
  • Wear leveling technology
  • How the drive is treated

Flash drives are a commodity product and (generally) driven by lowest price. With that in mind there are plenty of shortcuts a manufacturer can use to save time and money. What is important to understand, is knowing the quality of product you are going to use.

How the drive is made

A flash drive is made up of five primary components: The PCB (printed circuit board) the flash memory, the USB controller, the components and the soldering which holds everything together.

Printed Circuit Board (PCB)

Most promotional memory products (flash drives given away at trade shows) will use a two layer printed circuit board. Two layer boards are bad for use with any USB device, including a flash drive. The USB specification requires four layers for a product to be made to specification. A four layer board will include the, much needed, grounding plane of the PCB to insure transmission without interference from the trace lines. A two layer board is at a much greater risk of not performing as it should. If you received a USB at a trade show, don’t consider that device for “long term” or “important” storage options.

This is an image of a four layer USB flash drive by Nexcopy with Micron memory with write speeds of 12MB/s

USB flash drive PCB with NAND memory

Flash Memory

Flash memory used in the production of USB drives stems from a sea of unknown factors. Flash drives are the bottom of the barrel when it comes to NAND memory as part of the BOM (bill of material). All the good quality NAND memory is used for more expensive products like phones, set-top boxes, communications hardware, etc… and the manufacturer of USB flash drives, is typically, the last tier of manufacturing consumption. With that in mind, one trick the flash manufacturers use, is down-sizing the memory wafer (NAND chip). Let us provide an example: Toshiba is the world’s largest memory manufacturer, and after production of say a 64GB chip, they test it. If the quality of the silicon cells in the chip are below a certain percentage, the chip gets downgraded to a 32GB chip. They test it. If the memory is still failing QC, it gets downgraded again. The process continues. So if you are dealing with a 512MB USB stick, you are dealing with the worst part of NAND memory chip. Very unreliable. The quickest way to test the quality of flash memory is test the write speed. For USB 2.0 product, if you see a write speed of 9-10MB/second or better… its’ good quality. For USB 3.0 if you see a write speed of 18-20MB/second or better you are dealing with good quality. A slow write speed means the silicon of the chip is having a harder time making the phase change (positive or negative) to save data to the memory chip.

USB Controller

The USB controller is the chip on the flash drive with all the brains. The USB controller is the gate keeper between the host computer and the USB stick. The chip allows the host computer to read or write data to and from the flash memory on the flash drive. Because the USB controller is the brain of the flash drive, it’s important to have a controller that performs well and is reliable. One of the most important features of the USB controller is wear leveling. This is also one of the most important aspects for defining the lifespan of a USB flash drive. More about wear leveling in a bit. For now, the important point is understanding the compatibility of the USB controller to that of the flash memory. The NAND memory market is very fast pasted. New technology is always developing. For this reason, the firmware inside the USB controller is very important. The firmware “marries” the flash memory to the device and creates a usable flash drive. There are many flavors of firmware for a single controller and it all boils down to how often the USB manufacturer updates those firmware tools. It is very possible to load firmware that is not optimized for the NAND memory used in the production of the flash drive. It’s also very possible the firmware is set for a different objective, for example, the firmware was set to be optimized for capacity rather than read/write speeds. The amount of control the USB factory has with these firmware tools is mind-blowing. The firmware tools are used to configure the USB stick to exactly what they want. In summary, there is no real way to test the quality of the USB controller and it’s firmware other than having an intimate knowledge and relationship with the actual manufacturer of the USB flash drive. The point to explaining the function of a USB controller is to show what a large impact it has on the overall performance of the drive.

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How Does USB Copy Protection Work?

In this article we will detail how the Nexcopy USB copy protection solution works. Before we start there are important definitions we must all agree upon. As in today’s market place there are multiple vendors using the wrong definitions to explain copy protection.

Copy protection is different than encryption; although copy protection does use a form of encryption in the overall solution.

Encryption is scrambling up data and requiring a password to piece all the data together and display it. Once the password is entered the data can be viewed. The potential security issue is the user who entered the password can now do anything they wish with the files, print, save, share, etc.

Copy protection is different in two ways. First, there is no password required to view the data. Second, the files cannot be saved, printed, shared, streamed when viewed by even the most trusted user.

The later, copy protection, is what most people want when it comes to multi-media files like PDF, video, audio and HTML pages. Most users want the data to be seen by as many people as possible, yet the data cannot be saved, shared, streamed, printed or screen captured.

So with that in mind, let us review how the Nexcopy solution works for USB copy protection.

Here are six bullet points regarding features Nexcopy provides which others do not:

  • Copy protected content plays on both Mac and Windows computers
  • There are no Admin rights required to play the content
  • There is no installation required on the host computer
  • The content runs 100% from the flash drive
  • The USB stick is write protect, so files cannot be deleted or changed
  • The solution is both hardware and software, ultra-secure

The Nexcopy USB copy protection solution runs with the assumption the content owner does not want to share the data with even duplication service companies. It is assumed the content owner wants total control of the data before, during and after the USB duplication process.

Here are the steps for using the Copy Secure drives as the content owner:

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How To: Scan USB Flash Drive With Windows Defender (Automatically)

You never know where a flash drive has been.

It’s always best to scan a USB flash drive.

Did you know Windows Defender can be setup to scan a USB stick automatically, when it’s plugged in? Below are the steps to make that configuration setup.

By default, Windows 10 does not have this setting configured. We are not sure why, as USB sticks and downloads from internet sites are probably the two most vunerable ways to get a computer infected. Our only guess, is the scan process of a USB stick can take some time, and for a user to have that step done with each connection, could reduce the user experience.

This tutorial will take about three minutes to setup. I would suggest read the rest of this article and when done, go back and perform the few steps required to make the Windows Defender scan for USB flash drives.

We are going to make a Group Policy to scan USB flash drives using Windows Defender.

Let us run the Group Policy editor.

Press the Windows Key + R

Type gpedit.msc and press Enter or OK.

Look for the Administrative Templates under the top Computer Configuration directory, expand this directory (folder)

Scroll down to Windows Components, expand it

In that directory scroll down more and look for Windows Defender Antivirus, expand it

Finally, look for the Scan folder and click that folder.

On the right side of the dialogue box you will see additional settings, search for the Scan removable drives and double click that setting

This setting is disabled by default. Please click the radial enable button to enable this setting for your Windows computer.

Click Apply in the bottom right and then click OK.

That is it. Your Windows computer will now automatically scan USB flash drives using Windows Defender.

Alternatively, you can insert a USB stick and right click the drive letter and select Scan with Windows Defender but the problem here, is the USB could have already done it’s virus work before you had a chance to scan for malicious code.

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USB Firewall For Connecting USB Devices

The average user inserts a USB stick into their computer from a trusted source. However, there are companies and situations who receive USB flash drives or USB hard drives and they are not certain if the device is infected.

Globotron is a company based in New Zealand who designed the product. The product is called Armadillo and is an open-source USB firewall.

Some research has shown, as many as 29 different types of USB attacks can happen from plugging in mass storage devices (like USB flash drives and USB hard drives) or also HID devices (human input devices like keyboards and mouse).

The USB stack which is the low level code used in the host computer, is very complex and over time researchers and hackers have discovered ways to compromise a computer system through these vulnerabilities.

The Armadillo is an open-source device which is a firewall between a USB device and computer. The firewall isolates the firmware of the USB device so as not to infect your PC if the device has been infected with malicious firmware. You just need to plug in Armadillo between your computer and the USB device using the provided micro-USB cable. Armadillo is an upgrade over USG, the original or first-generation USB hardware firewall device.

The Armadillo has bot detection. This means if the USB firewall device detects malicious codes are being entered via keyboard or mouse (HID devices) the device will block transmission and a red LED indicator light will turn on.

The Armadillo has the ability to temporarily make your USB read only. This is valuable if the computer is infected and you need pull information (recovery software) from the USB stick and want to insure virus’ do not infect the flash drive. The USB is read-only, but it is read/write when not connected to the Armadillo.

Note: If you need a USB stick that is always write protected at the controller level, yet need to temporarily turn off the write protection for data changes, the Lock License drive from Nexcopy is your solution.

This last point about the Armadillo is a bit strange, but we like it. The body is sealed with glitter epoxy so it is easy to identify if the box itself was tampered with. Very creative!

The Armadillo USB Firewall is available from Globotron for $150 USD and ships from New Zealand.

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Three Options For Recycling Flash Drives

The last two decades have ushered in an enormous number of electronics. Prices get lower, users upgrade, society reapes the benefits of these advancements. This explosive growth in electronics has led to an escalating burst for EOL (end-of-life) electronics and e-waste. When electronic devices are left in traditional landfills toxic materials can be released into the soil and environment.

With new cheap devices, society has reaped tremendous benefits. This explosive growth in the electronics industry, however, has led to a rapidly escalating issue of end-of-life (EOL) electronics or e-waste. In landfills or primitive recycling operations, toxic materials can be released from old electronic devices into the environment.

E-waste is growing, and with that surge comes the need for effective electronics recycling programs. As of 2018, e-waste is now the fastest-growing waste stream in the world, with an estimated waste stream of 48.5 million tonnes in 2018, valued at 62.5 billion US Dollars.

The amount of e-wast from USB flash drives is unknown from the above statistics, yet it’s not entirely necessary to make flash drives part of the e-waste equation. There are options for recycling USB flash drives.

Option One:

Run antivirus software from a USB flash drive.

If your computer is infected with malware, running an antivirus within Windows may not be enough to remove it. If your computer has a rootkit, the malware may be able to hide itself from the antivirus software. The only proven way to ride your system of a nasty virus would be starting your computer from outside the Windows environment and start the cleaning process from there.

This is where bootable antivirus solutions come in. They can clean malware from outside the infected Windows system, so the malware won’t be running and interfering with the clean-up process. The HowToGeek website did a nice write-up on this topic. If this is a tool you need, don’t e-waste your USB flash drive, rather make a bootable antivirus software stick.

Option Two:

Run Linux from a USB flash drive.

As of 2020 the percentage of Windows computer users is still an impressive 88%. Mac users are 10% and Linux users are the remaining 2%. Have you ever used Linux? It’s actually a fantastic operating system and at least something to play around with if you have spare USB media. Rather than e-cycling your USB stick, you can download a Linux operating system and give it a run. The process is not difficult and (nearly) any non-technical person can download and install Linux on a flash drive.

Slax is a well know Linux package. The instructions for download and installation are straight forward and simple. It is highly recommended to try this version of Linux as your first exposure to the operating system.

Several benefits of running Linux from a USB include trying the operating system without investing money in new hardware, or making changes to your current Windows operating system.

Learning to run Linux from a flash drive will give you an advantage in the event of a computer failure. For example, a computer gets bogged down with a nasty virus and you need to access some files quickly. There is no time for a lengthy cleaning process (scanning a hard drive can take hours). Booting into Linux from a USB stick will give you access to the memory of the hard drive to access the files you need.

Option Three:

Recycle USB drives for a good cause. “One man’s garbage is another man’s treasure.”

Isn’t that how the saying goes? Said another way, you can donate your USB drives to an organization who can re-purpose those drives and provide them to others in need. Pivoting from option number two, a non-profit organization called SugarLabs.org puts a Linux based operating system on a flash drive. The operating system is a special version of Linux and is designed to teach young kids how computers work. The not for profit organization sends these donated drives all over the world. SugarLabs is based in Boston Massachusetts and founded by Walter Bender a graduate of Harvard and technology researcher from MIT Media Labs.

Part of the SugarLabs process is insuring each USB drive is clean from any personal data or potentially harmful malware. RecycleUSB.com is a website and business which manages the sanitizing and cleaning of the donated USB flash drives before sending to Walter and his team at SugarLabs. The recycle USB website lists the “how to” steps on donating media, contact information for any questions someone might have and sanitizing steps used to clear data from the flash drives. The partnership between RecycleUSB and SugarLabs started back in December of 2009 when flash drives began having the storage capacity to hold a portable operating system (about 2GBs).

After reading the above options for recycling USB flash memory and you find yourself still wanting to e-waste the flash drives, be sure to check your community or city about e-waste programs. In nearly all cities and counties it is not recommended to throw away electronics into the standard garbage service. Be sure to enlist the use of recyclers who are certified through either of the voluntary certification programs that have been established to ensure responsible recycling, including R2/RIOS and e-stewards.

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Off Topic: Making Home Brew Starbucks Vanilla Latte – Life Changer

DIY recipes are beloved for many reasons; saving money, saving time and the rewarding task of simply doing it yourself. Today is a post that is clearly off topic from the normal USB hacks and news we typically post about. Today we are talking about making a Starbucks coffee at home. Not the standard black coffee from Starbucks, but the more delicious variety like the vanilla latte.

At the time of this post the Coronavirus is in full swing and many Starbucks shops are closed, or limited hours, or the drive-thru line is too long for the wait. Here is your in-home solution:

The first thing to understand is how sweet Starbucks really makes their drinks. It is well known the calorie intake and carbohydrate count for a vanilla latte is fairly high. This DIY recipe will help you control those intake amounts to help better control the sugar intake your body gets from these sweet-delicious-energy-giving drinks.

We should really give Starbucks serious credit on figuring out the right bit of sugar and caffeine to jump start the heart rate in a legally addictive way.

Starting with a vanilla latte, the true magic of this drink is the full, frothy milk. No requirement for a fancy frother which you see on the Starbucks counter top, but rather a simple $40 (about) milk frother from Amazon will do the trick (Miroco). The Miroco is a fantastic product and truly a life changer for making coffee flavored drinks. Probably the best “appliance” purchase we’ve made since the introduction of the DVR in 1999 (feel free to challenge us on this claim {wink}).

starbucks frother

First step is brew your coffee. Use any brand. If you really want the exact taste of a Starbucks version, use their coffee, but honestly they put enough sugar and syrup into these drinks, the coffee brand doesn’t matter all that much.

Once the coffee is brewed, fire up the milk frother.

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What is the Difference Between a TF Card and microSD Card?

In general terms the TF card and microSD card are the same. They are the same in physical size and same in most technical terms. The two devices may be used in exchange with each other.

There are some technical differences between the two which will be explained later, for now, the biggest difference between a TF card and microSD card is the history of the name.

The TF card came out first. TF card or T-Flash or TransFlash was first to market from SanDisk in 2004. SanDisk, in partnership with Motorola, created the TF card specification. The TF card was the smallest read/write memory form factor and was designed for mobile devices (thus the small size).

TF cards are based on NAND1 memory. The TF card did not last long. At the end of 2004 the Secure Digital Association, which is the governing body over Secure Digital media, absorbed the TransFlash technology and re-branded as: microSD.

This implies, the life of the TF card ended in late 2004 and the microSD card has been available ever since. This will explain why you cannot find a “TF” branded card today (2020). The other reason you cannot find TF cards today is the maximium size of only 16MBs or 32MBs at the time of production. Today you cannot find any memory device with that small of gigabyte capacity.

Here is the technical difference between the two: Micro SD cards can support SDIO mode, which means they can perform tasks unrelated to memory, such as Bluetooth, GPS, and Near Field Communication. Whereas a TransFlash card cannot perform this kind of task.

SDIO mode stands for Secure Digital Input Output, a type of Secure Digital card interface. It may be used as an interface for input or output devices.

The SD Association devised a way to standardize the speed ratings for different cards. These are defined as ‘Speed Class’ and refer to the absolute minimum sustained write speeds. Cards can be rated as Class 2 (minimum write speed of 2MB/s), Class 4 (4MB/s), Class 6 (6MB/s) or Class 10 (10MB/s). It’s important to note that these are the minimum, so it’s entirely possible a card can achieve faster speeds.

NAND is not an acronym. Instead, the term is short for “NOT AND,” a Boolean operator and logic gate. The NAND operator produces a FALSE value only if both values of its two inputs are TRUE. It may be contrasted with the NOR operator, which only produces a TRUE value if both inputs are FALSE.

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USB Enumeration Fingerprint

Does the title of this article even make sense? Yes, but not to most.

USB enumeration is the process a host computer goes through to identify the type of USB device connected and what the operating system should do with the newly detected device.

Fingerprint would simply imply the different steps a computer operating system goes through when determine the USB device type.

For 99.7% of the people who visit this site, this information doesn’t matter, but for others it does. The security industry would be the prime candidate for wanting this information. If a security expert, team or programmer knows the exact steps an operating system goes through to mount a USB device, it will help them keep programs secure.

Andrea Barisani, a security expert based out of Italy, put together some open source code which compares the USB enumeration fingerprint for the MacOS, Windows and Linux. The open source code is available on Github.com (here).

This bit of code is probably valuable to software programmers who deal with USB flash drives and portable applications.

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USB Fan Resembles Design from Apple Computers

Billy Idol’s Hot In The City is a tune which comes to mind whenever talking about USB gadgets that cool thyself.

With summer coming into full swing, this is a good time for a USB fan mention. Cruising the Amazon website this Aikoper product popped up. At first glance I honestly thought the fan was designed by Apple Computers. The aluminum base, slick black body and the cool grey vents, thought it was from Apple for sure. Wrong!

This USB fan has some unique features we believe everyone will like.

There is no switch for turning the fan on or off. Rather you touch the aluminum base. That is very Apple’esc. A single tap to the base and the USB fan goes into “low speed” mode. A double tap will put the USB fan into “high speed” mode. The third tap will turn the fan off. The touch sensitive base has four rubber pads to insure no vibration during operation.

The fan itself is a dual-blade design. Meaning there are four blades toward the front of the bionic shaped shell and another four blades near the rear of the black shell. The idea here is reducing the device noise while in operation.

The black shell case is convex in design to pull air down and into the system, rather than up and into the system. Although the pitch of the shell isn’t great, we may assume less dust and dirt will come into the system from a pull-down air flow design. The curved shell sits on a the aluminum base with some pitch mobility to angle the fan a bit higher or lower for optimal position while in use.

The product dimensions are 5.6 x 3.9 x 4.9 (inches) and sells for $16.99 USD from the Amazon website (at the time of this post).

The Amazon listing has over 1,609 ratings with 61% as a five star product, 13% as four star product and the balance just picky people trying to be overly critical. To give you an idea of product feedback and experience, here are some testimonials from the Amazon listing:

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What is Fuzzing and How Did It Find 26 USB Bugs?

Fuzzing is a method of testing with automated software which provides invalid, unexpected, and random data as inputs to a computer program. The testing program then monitors for crashes, assertions and potential memory leaks.

A research team based from Purdue University came up with USBFuzz, which pushes enormous amounts of random data through the USB bus of a system. Hui Peng and Mathias payer (from the Swiss Federal Institute of Tech) came up with the idea and program.

Please don’t lose any sleep over the bugs found.

Peng and Mathias found one bug in FreeBSD, three in MacOS (two resulting in an unplanned reboot and one freezing the system), four in Windows 8 and Windows 10 (resulting in Blue Screens of Death) and the vast majority of bugs, in Linux — 18 in total.

Of all these bugs, Windows users do not need to worry, they have been fixed. Of the 18 found in Linux, 16 of them have been corrected already. Those correct where major security flaws.

What we like about the USBFuzz is the underlying theme to improve the security of the USB platform and continued improvement. We also like USBFuzz becoming an open source bit of code that everyone may use to strengthen thier USB product. The team will release a version on GitHub later this year, 2020.

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Single Atom Transistor Recipe Sets The Stage For Quantum Computers

Some really smart researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and some of their colleagues at the University of Maryland developed a step-by-step recipe to produce the atomic-scale devices. Atomic scaled devices is the heart of quantum computing. Said in a very simple way; “quantum” is the Latin word for “amount” and is the smallest possible physical unit which has energy (or matter).

These really smart scientists demonstrated they could precisely control the flow of electrons through a really small physical gap or electrical barrier, known as a transistor. The hard thing is controlling the flow of energey (electrons) through stuff that is really, really small, like an atom. What the team came up with, is a reciepe to create atoms that could be controlled with electrons.

In really simple terms, this is the recipe:

The team used a known technique in which a silicon chip is covered with a layer of hydrogen atoms, which readily bind to silicon.

Used a fine tip, like really fine tip, scanning microscope and removed hydrogen atoms at selected parts of the silicon.

What was left is a hydrogen barrier with only certain parts removed from the scanning device (above).

Next, the team directed some phosphine gas at the silicone and the gas covered the hydrogen atoms but leaked through where hydrogen atoms had been removed.

As the last step, the smart guys heated the silicone which created a reaction. The reaction created a foundation of a series of highly stable, single atom devices that act like a quibit… or bit.

This is all a bit overwhelming to understand so the below video will help. The exciting thing is a repeatable process has been defined to make a single quantum unit programmable. Translated into day-to-day applications, there is great hope we will all get computers 100x more powerful than today’s in about the size of an Apple watch.

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Review: Windows 10 Computer Stick

In 2015 Intel introduced the Compute Stick or Computer Stick – the product has been around ever since. The idea is simple and eligant. Intel wanted to create an HDMI dongle computer which can run Windows 10.

There is no confirmation, but our suspicion is that Intel wanted a ultra-cheap and portable solution to run Windows for embedded applications like set-top boxes (DVRs) and other IoT (Internet of Things) products. If our assumption is correct, it’s a wonderful product and is a great solution for its intended purpose.

PCWorld did a fantastic review of the compute stick back in 2016, and a link to that article is at the footer of this post. The PC World review outlined the specifications and performance levels of the Intel based product. We will let that article do the heavy lifting for the tech people out there, but today we want to talk about the applications one might have for a computer stick.

For only $120 (ish) off Amazon, this is an excellent solution to run Windows 10 for a host of specific applications.

computer stick

Several quick talking points before we move to examples of usage out in the field:

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