5 uses for a USB flash drive that might surprise you

It doesn’t seem so long ago that a USB flash drive was the latest and greatest way to store files.  Today, more people store their files using cloud storage solutions such as Dropbox or Google Drive.  Besides, there are far more interesting things you can do with a USB memory stick than store boring old files on it.

Several examples of a usb flash drive

How can a USB flash drive be repurposed?

USB memory sticks may not be as popular as they once were, but they are still highly capable devices.  Aside from their storage capacities these durable, portable, plug-and-play bits of tech can also read and write data pretty quickly.  Together, these attributes make them suitable for a variety of purposes.

1. Create a bootable Linux USB flash drive with its own storage

You can use a USB flash drive to run an entire operating system on almost any computer.  You’ll need a flash drive with a fairly large storage capacity. Depending on your choice of operating system, 16GB upwards is usually recommended.  Many people prefer to have at least 32GB capacity so there is space to have its own ‘persistent’ storage. Either way, bigger is definitely better in this case.

Although it’s possible to do this for other operating systems, one of the many Linux flavours is a common choice.  Perhaps you’ve always wanted to try Linux out but don’t want to install it on your computer? Or maybe, you’d just like it to be able to use it on different computers. Whatever your reason, it’s really cool having a live Linux distro to play around with. And, for those of you who don’t know, ‘distro’ is just short for ‘distribution’ – that’s what they call the different versions/flavours of the Linux operating system.

There are many different Linux distro’s to choose from. However, if you’re new to Linux then there are definitely some that aren’t going to suit you just yet.  A solid choice for a beginner is Ubuntu as it’s easy to use, but feel free to explore other options.
To install Ubuntu on the flash drive takes a little while, but it’s not rocket science (thankfully). You’ll need to download a couple of things first.  Firstly, you need an ISO image of the latest stable release of Ubuntu.  Additionally, you need an application that will be able to create the bootable flash drive for you. There’s a lightweight application called Rufus that will do the job nicely and take care of the heavy lifting for you.

2. Turn a USB flash drive into an anti-virus tool

While we all hope it never happens, hope alone isn’t going to help you if your system becomes unusable and your usual virus software isn’t accessible. This is where turning your USB flash drive into an anti-virus tool could save the day. 

You’ll need to find an anti-virus software provider that offers a downloadable file, designed for the task. This is a real simple solution that doesn’t even need to cost anything.  A good option is the Kaspersky Rescue Disk, which is free and only requires a storage capacity of 1GB on the flash drive.  Additionally, you need a software application that will create the required files on the USB for you.  Just like when creating the bootable Linux drive,  Rufus is ideal for this.  

Then, all you need to do is keep your new USB anti-virus tool in a safe place just in case you need it some day. If you’re going to have these things lying around in desk drawers, you might as well have them do something useful.


3. Carry a private and portable web browser on a USB flash drive

 Some of us don’t like the idea of our shopping and browsing habits being tracked online and would like to be more anonymous.  Installing a browser called Tor (short for ‘The Onion Router’, for geeky reasons we won’t go into right now) is a great way to maintain your privacy online.  Without getting technical, Tor can help maintain your anonymity when you surf the web, keeping your ISP (Internet Service Provider) from knowing every website that you visit.
Of course, you could just install Tor straight onto your computer.  However, when you choose to run it from a flash drive you gain the added benefit of there being no trace whatsoever on your computer of you ever having even used Tor at all. Also, you can take this newfound anonymity and use it on different computers. Cool.
Running Tor from a flash drive is actually pretty simple.  You will need to download a copy of Tor from the Tor Project website and install it.  Just make sure to browse to the USB flash drive when the installer asks you to confirm the destination folder, or it’ll be installed on your computer by default. Once it’s installed, all you need to do to run the browser is to navigate to the ‘Tor Browser’ folder on your flash drive and double click the ‘Start Tor Browser’ file that you see there.  There are settings you may want to learn about and tweak to suit your preferences but, essentially, that’s it. You can simply connect and browse anonymously to your heart’s content. Oh, and you can still use your flash drive for storing other stuff too – it doesn’t have to be dedicated to Tor.

4. Use your flash drive to boost performance on older Windows PCs

There is a Windows Utility called ReadyBoost that allows you to use a USB flash drive as virtual RAM on your Windows computer system.  It’s actually been around since way back, in the days of Windows Vista. Lately, it’s being used more frequently by people wanting to speed up older machines that are running Windows 10. If you own a low-spec or mid-range computer running Windows, and it could use a speed boost, ReadyBoost could help.
It is generally intended for PCs with less than 4GB RAM and an older-style HDD drive. A HDD is simply an older style hard disk drive, as opposed to the newer and faster Solid State Drive (SSD). When a machine below this spec tries to handle more RAM intensive processes than it was designed for, it ends up using the HDD for caching files (that is, reading/writing regularly used files needed by the programs you’re running).  The problem is that HDDs are not very quick at this, leading to a sluggish experience.  ReadyBoost aims to improve this by using the flash drive instead, as they are quicker than the HDD.
If you try to use ReadyBoost on a better spec PC, say one with an SSD and more than 4GB RAM, then Windows will likely tell you that you can’t do it.  There are ways around this, and not everyone agrees with this view, but there is very little point. This is because you already have the technology to do the work built into your machine. The age-old phrase “If it’s not broke – don’t fix it” springs to mind.

What you need to do

So, if you have an older PC running a newer version of Windows (we’ll use Windows 10 as an example here) then you may be wondering what to do. Firstly, you’ll need to insert your flash drive into your PC and format it, if it is not already.  You then simply right-click on the flash drive in the file explorer to access ‘Properties’, which is where you will find the ReadyBoost tab. It is better to select the “Dedicate this device to ReadyBoost” option, meaning the flash drive will be there to work with ReadyBoost and nothing else.  Finally, you just need to click “Apply” and you’re done – ReadyBoost is enabled and will hopefully speed things up for you.

5. Create a store of games to entertain the kids

When you’re away from home, or maybe if your kid’s device isn’t working for some reason, you can help them stay occupied by offering them a USB flash drive with games that they can play on another computer.  Sounds great, right? 

There are several ways to install and run games on a flash drive, but the one we’ll look at here is one of the best.  It’s also a two-in-one kind of tip, because this method allows you to run lots of other apps too.  There is a free portable software solution called Portable Apps that you can install on a flash drive that has a whole host of great games (and other stuff) for you to choose from.

You’ll need to download and install Portable Apps onto your flash drive.  This is simple and straightforward, a simple matter of selecting the destination folder of your flash drive during installation.  Then, you will be able to use their intuitive software to download whatever games you think might entertain your kids via their app store. You just need to pop the flash drive into a PC or laptop, navigate to the Portable Apps software and double click to start. Hopefully, that’ll buy you some brownie points with your kids if you’re in a pinch.


If you know of any other great uses for USB flash drives that I haven’t mentioned, why not drop me a comment below.

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