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Following new testing, we’ve updated this guide with brand new selections, including our new top pick, the SanDisk Extreme Pro 3.1 (128GB).
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Although cloud storage and wireless file transfers are becoming more common, sometimes the best option for sending files is to put them on a USB flash drive. The cheapest drives can make you wait excruciatingly long to transfer files. While most $20 flash drives on the market will do just fine, the best $40 drives will do this noticeably faster, so you spend less time waiting; drawers. After spending more than 40 hours testing seven new USB flash drives (and comparing them to dozens of predecessors), we think the SanDisk Extreme Pro 3.1 (128GB) is the drive to get.
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The fastest drive we tested for data transfer from a computer, the Extreme Pro is also reasonable in terms of the amount of storage it offers. We prefer the retractable plug to a head that inevitably disappears.
The SanDisk Extreme Pro 3.1 (128GB) was significantly faster than any other drive we tested for this guide, and twice as fast as our previous pick, the Kingston DataTraveler Elite G2 (64GB). It has a limited lifetime warranty, but you probably won’t need it – the Extreme Pro 3.1’s enclosure is very sturdy and has a retractable head with a satisfying click so there’s no head to lose.
The Samsung Duo Plus is the first USB-C flash drive we’ve tested that doesn’t feel like a compromise. It’s a little slower than the one we chose but still fast with a clever nesting design.
It’s taken years, but the Samsung Duo Plus (128GB) is the first USB-C compatible USB flash drive we’ve tested and feel free to recommend. While it’s not nearly as fast as our top pick when saving data and the read speed when accessing data isn’t that fast, it’s still an improvement over our previous pick, Kingston DataTraveler. And for more modern, high-end laptop owners, it eliminates the need for an adapter dongle (while remaining convenient and compatible with other computers without a USB-C port).
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It’s worth a little more money when you win with the speed of our top pick, but if you don’t want to spend more than $20 on something that’s still pretty good, we recommend the Samsung Bar Plus 3.1 (128GB). It’s not the fastest drive we’ve tested, but it’s far from the slowest and is worth a few dollars more than a decades-old model or an unnamed brand. What is missing are small quality-of-life features: the head is not retractable and does not have a cap, so it is more possible to stop the plug; and there is no activity indicator light, so if your computer misbehaves you can’t be sure it’s working. But the price is right for something that beats the scrap legions on the market, and if you manage not to lose it, the Bar Plus 3.1 has a five-year warranty.
I’ve been involved with consumer technology and computer hardware since 2009, and Wirecutter’s computing team has researched and tested hundreds of USB flash drives since 2013. Joystiq, and Polygon, and since 2003 we have literally hundreds (many of them terrible) USB flash drives. The previous version of this guide was written by Wirecutter editor Thorin Klosowski.
While cloud storage is becoming an increasingly popular option for sharing files and moving things from one computer to another, a USB flash drive or flash drive is often the fastest and easiest way to move a single large file or a large collection of many files. Folders. There’s no need for a fast internet connection and you don’t have to bother with a local Wi-Fi network or Bluetooth connection. The process is as simple as copying the file or files to the thumb drive, disconnecting it, and moving it to the other computer.
For moving or backing up huge amounts of data – think terabytes – external or portable hard drives make more sense than a USB 3.0 (or USB 3.1) flash drive. Just for large amounts of data – think hundreds of gigabytes – a portable SSD is more expensive but faster than a hard drive or one of our USB flash drive recommendations. But all of our picks for this guide offer at least 128GB of storage, which is more than enough space for most projects and additional files for most people. And nearly all of our current selections offer faster, often significantly higher speeds than you can get from any external mechanical hard drive.
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USB 3.0 (and now USB 3.1) has been the industry standard since 2013, and at this point USB 2.0 flash drives are very slow – often literally one-tenth the speed of USB 3.0 or 3.1 drives – and offer much less capacity than modern devices. You won’t save much if you find it, so you shouldn’t spend money on a USB 2.0 drive in 2021.
Our previous selections for this guide offered performance best suited to the transfer speeds of slow, traditional disk-based hard drives. But our current pick (and its USB-C counterpart) offers speeds that far surpass almost any hard drive. Unless you need the fastest possible external storage speed and significantly more space (for video editing or other storage-intensive projects), you probably don’t need an external solid state drive.
In this update of our guide, we wanted to consider the potential price and storage size sweet spot, along with the real-world benefits of small differences in flash drives. We came to the following conclusions.
In addition to the drives tested for the previous version of this guide, we reviewed USB flash drives released in the last two years. After compiling a list of possible candidates, we looked at user reviews on sites like Amazon and Newegg before deciding on the seven new drivers we tested for this update.
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First, we tested the sequential and random speeds of the drives using CrystalDiskMark benchmarking software. We then ran two file copy tests: one with a single 11GB file, the other with a folder of about 26GB with thousands of small files and hundreds of large files; We used Robocopy on Windows and formatted the drive between each test type. We copied each folder to and from each drive three times, then averaged the results. We also ran a file copy test on Mac to make sure transfer times were similar on both platforms. (It was.) We plugged the drivers into several devices, including a Samsung TV and PlayStation 4, to make sure the different platforms recognized them.
We ran all flash drives through standardized testing with the CrystalDarkMark disk benchmark tool (test profile SEQ1M Q8T1 on the left and test profile RND4K Q32T16 on the right). These are the average results of all three tests, with all measurements in MB/s.
We tested the scrolling mechanism of the drives and tapped the temperatures during file transfers to ensure no one got too hot. Finally, we created a bootable installer for Windows 10 and installed it on each of our recent competitors to make sure they work as bootable drives.
The SanDisk Extreme Pro USB 3.1 (128GB) was the fastest and most reliable 128GB drive in both our standardized and real-world file transfer tests, and typically retails for less than $45. It has a solid metal case that is durable and feels pleasant to use. It also includes an LED activity light that the driver often overlooks, and the USB connector is retractable, meaning there are no parts to lose (other than the drive itself) and it shouldn’t be damaged if you put it in a bag. Discarded SanDisk also promises a limited lifetime warranty for the Extreme Pro USB 3.1.
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In all our tests, the Extreme Pro USB 3.1 outperformed our other competitors, often dramatically. In our large file copy test, a test that should allow a drive to run easily at maximum read and write speeds at all times, the Extreme Pro USB 3.1 copied an 11GB video file in about 50 seconds, on average. With an average speed of 230MB/s, this is a full 100MB/s faster than any other drive we’ve tested. The slower Samsung Bar Plus 3.1 took 4 minutes, and the Samsung Duo Plus was just under that.
These speeds weren’t always consistent, but even at its slowest, the Extreme Pro USB 3.1 was the fastest drive we tested. Reading a file took an average of 30 seconds (at about 360 MB/s), while the Bar Plus and Duo Plus took 36 and 37 seconds slower, respectively. And both times it was half or even a quarter of the time it took for the competition to read the same large file.
We transferred more than 26GB files.
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