Chris enjoys writing about a variety of topics, including science, health, and fitness.
If you’re like most people, you probably have a junk drawer full of random things that you really don’t have a use for anymore. When looking in my junk drawer, you would find a small box full of about 20-30 USB thumb drives. With hi-speed internet, cloud-based storage, and easy file-sharing through the web, I contemplated throwing the drives away. However, after some careful thought, I realized that this old technology still has many modern uses. If you have ever wondered what you can use an old USB memory stick for, I urge you to continue reading to learn about the top ten best ways to put them to good use today.
1. Portable Operating Systems
Most modern computers have an option to boot from a USB drive rather than their internal hard drive. This is where storing an entire operating system on a USB drive can come in handy. Any PC enthusiast will likely be aware of the free, open-source operating system called Linux. IT professionals and PC hobbyists often use Linux. However, you can put a portable version on an old USB drive to help bring new life to an old computer.
Since Linux is free and open-source, it has plenty of support and there are several portable-friendly versions available including MX Linux, Puppy Linux, and the Linux Lite. The details of installing and preparing your USB drive to run these operating systems can be found on the site that hosts that specific version of Linux. Once you’ve installed the files on the USB Drive, simply reboot your computer and enter BIOS or system setup to change the boot preferences.
2. RAID Mass Storage Device
With multiple USB drives, it is possible to make a device that combines all of their available storage into one seamless device enabling you to store and transfer large files. This configuration is called a RAID and is normally used to pair multiple hard drives together for backup or long-term storage.
The easiest way to build a USB RAID is to purchase a powered USB Hub and connect your old drives to it. It’s best if all of the drives are from the same manufactured and have the same storage capacity, however, the RAID can still work with mixed technology. Once you’ve connected the drives, you can install software such as SoftRAID or SoftRAID Lite to configure the array to work as one storage device.
By using the RAID configuration, large files are effectively split across multiple drives. This is actually a good security feature because once you store the data, you can label and remove the drives from the hub. Partial files cannot be reconstructed or easily read on other systems. In effect, you would need all of the drives to be plugged back into the hub for the files to be retrievable. However, this also means that storing files in this manner is volatile so be sure to back up your data!
3. Troubleshooting Computer Problems
Not long ago most PC’s came with CD drives that were used to install software. These drives could also be used to boot to a disc containing emergency repair and diagnostic tools. With a USB drive, you can do the same thing.
If you find yourself with computer problems such as malware, a virus, or even a corrupt drive, then booting up your computer using a USB drive packed emergency diagnostic tools may prove very useful. It’s best to prepare a USB drive for this purpose before you have a problem with your computer as it may not be possible to create the recovery tools after your computer has problems.
A popular toolset is the Emsisoft Emergency Kit that includes a virus scanner in it. Other popular options include Dr.Web CureIt! and Avira Rescue System. Microsoft recommends their own product called the Microsoft Safety Scanner. Hiren’s Boot CD is another one that I have used in the past. By installing a software program like memtest86, you can even test your computer’s memory from the USB drive.
4. Create a Windows Recovery Drive
Creating a Windows Recovery drive is probably one of the best things that you can do with an old USB drive. I’ve actually had to use a recovery drive on more than one occasion to repair my computer after a botched software install. While Windows does have some great built-in tools to help deal with malware or file corruption, sometimes your only option is to use a recovery drive to get things running back to normal. Fortunately, creating a recovery drive is pretty easy and doesn’t take that much time to do.
5. Create a Windows Security Key
These days having a secure computer is more important than ever. With a USB drive you can easily create a physical “key” that locks and unlocks your computer when you remove or plug it in. There are many software options out there; however, a popular one is called PREDATOR. Simply install this on your device and you can quickly start using a USB as physical key to use your computer.
In the same tune, you can also create a USB security key that can be used to create or reset a lost Windows password. Within the User Accounts options of windows, you can select a USB device to create password reset disk.
6. Portable Programs
Did you know that there are software applications that can run straight from a USB drive on almost any computer (no installation needed)? If you’re always on the go or find yourself using multiple computers between school, work, and friends’ houses, a USB drive programmed with a plethora of portable apps may help you to be more productive. This is a great option as well if your work or school doesn’t allow certain programs on your PC (such as Google Chrome).
A really good website that catalogs these programs is at PortableApps.com. As shown on the website, there are a lot of programs to choose from. This site has large library of more than 400 applications such as photo editors, web browsers, utilities, and even games.
7. Store Important Travel Documents
Traveling the world is fun. However, if you have ever found yourself with a lost or stolen passport or other missing documents, you will understand quickly what a nightmare traveling can become. Before setting sail on a ship or heading to the airport, it may be a wise idea to make copies of all your important documents and to store them electronically on a USB drive. Depending on where you are going, you may not have access to the internet to download plane tickets, boarding passes, hotel reservations, etc.
8. Create a Network Attached Storage (NAS) Drive
Most network routers these days come with USB ports designed to be used for Network Attached Storage (NAS) technology. Normally you would connect an array of hard drives to the router; however, a USB drive should work just fine. After connecting the USB drive, it should be available to all computers connected to the network. This can make transferring files between computers easy.
9. Increase Your PC's Performance
If you have a slow computer, using a USB Drive equipped with software like ReadyBoost can help improve its speed. When you setup ReadyBoost on a USB drive, it essentially acts as a hard drive cache, which allows your operating system to access frequently used files more quickly.
When needed, Windows will read the flash drive cache instead of searching your hard drive for the files. Obviously ReadyBoost only works on older machines where the USB technology is faster than using the Hard Drive.
To setup ReadyBoost on a USB drive, right-click on the USB drive letter, select Properties, and then navigate to the options menu. From there, select the ReadyBoost tab. Windows will only let you setup ReadyBoost if your USB drive has enough space (256mb minimum) and if has a fast enough transfer speed. If the ReadyBoost options are unavailable, it means that the USB drive is too small or too slow.
10. Market Yourself or Your Business
One thing for certain in life is that people like free stuff. With a box of old USB drives you can copy promotional materials, manuals, and advertising and give them away to people. Many businesses that I work professionally with give away free USB drives. These giveaways contain products lists, spec sheets, product diagrams and pricing plans, among other things. Depending on how you may interact with customers, this can be a great way to promote yourself or your business.
If you’re applying for a job, you can place copies of your resume, curriculum vitae, a portfolio of your work, presentations, etc on a USB drive to give to the hiring manager. Not only will this help to make a big impression, it will allow the employer to learn more about you quickly and effectively.
Even if you have a job, USB drives can be great ways to network with clients and colleagues. Instead of handing out business cards, wouldn’t it be great to hand out a USB drive tagged with your name that contains all of your contact information, past work experience, and example projects/services? This is a great way to make an impression with others.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2022 Christopher Wanamaker