Best Cheap USB Flash Drives

Price Range

$20 - $100

Cheapism

$100 - ...+

Mid-Range

...+

High End

Everyone should have a cheap USB flash drive. They're eminently practical and extremely portable. Use one to store a few key work files to be handed over to a colleague, say, or back up important photos and other documents you can't afford to lose. There are USB drives that are large enough to serve as a backup drive, although most people stick to smaller, cheap USB flash drives for quick and easy storage.

Cheap USB Flash Drives Buying Guide

Even a cursory online search turns up scores of USB thumb drives in the under-$20 territory. (All the starting prices noted in this buying guide refer to models with 16GB of storage capacity.) Most are simple, utilitarian devices but some add a dash of whimsy with novelty designs featuring favorite cartoon characters or the shape of a surfboard or snowboard.

The best cheap flash drives on our list are the ADATA S102 Pro (starting at $15), a speedy USB 3.0 device that's pretty durable thanks to its aluminum body, and the Verbatim Store 'n' Stay (starting at $16), which is no bigger than a wireless mouse receiver and can hold several gigabytes of data. Sitting in second place are the Lexar JumpDrive TwistTurn (starting at $14), which sports an attractive, capless design and is relatively fast for a USB 2.0 model, and the Corsair Flash Voyager USB 3.0 (starting at $18), which is a tough cookie, owing to its rubber, shockproof case, and far faster than any USB 2.0 drive but not quite as peppy as other USB 3.0 devices.

We also identified two budget thumb drives that can't compete with the best: SanDisk's Cruzer Edge (starting at $13), whose included software security seems to annoy users and whose build quality feels flimsy to many. PNY's Compact Attache (starting at $10) is a 2.0 model that takes heat from users for being slow and for a plastic case that cracks easily.

Cheap USB flash drives are very simple products without lots of features. The two most important are speed and storage size. USB 3.0 drives are faster and often cost more than USB 2.0 drives, but the price difference is hardly prohibitive. The size of a flash drive has a far greater impact on price. You'll find plenty of smaller drives in the 2GB to 8GB range that cost less than $10 while those in the 64GB range typically cost $30 or more. (Very large drives, 128GB and up, may cost more than $100.) Flash drives with 16GB of storage are ample enough for everyday needs and priced to appeal to budget-conscious users.

The performance of a USB flash drive depends on its interface (USB 2.0 or USB 3.0) and the number and size of the files you're copying. Quick data transfers are important for some users, especially if they want to copy large files (such as video) or many files to a thumb drive. For those users, a USB 3.0 flash drive is essential. However, if you simply want to back up basic files, such as documents or a few photos or songs, one of the best cheap USB 2.0 flash drives will do just fine.

USB Flash Drive Reviews

Speed is the primary performance criterion, according to USB flash drive reviews. The best budget models run at a decent clip but only one of the two 3.0 drives on our list impresses with its speed. The other drives we researched -- nearly all featuring a 2.0 interface -- generate at least some comments about pokey performance.

USB Flash Drives Speed.

The maximum theoretical speed of a USB flash drive depends on its interface. Current models are available with USB 3.0 or USB 2.0 interfaces, the former being the fastest by far. In theory USB 3.0 drives, such as the Adata 102 Pro (starting at $15)LINK, can read data at 100MB a second and write data at about 50MB a second, whereas USB 2.0 drives top out at about 30MB a second for read speeds and 20MB a second for write speeds. Real-world performance, however, is considerably slower depending on the specific flash drive, the PC or other device it's plugged into, and the data being read by or written on the drive. In the field, USB 2.0 drives typically read and write at less than 10MB a second. USB 3.0 drives are several times faster, but actual speeds vary considerably from drive to drive.

USB flash drive reviews indicate that the ADATA S102 Pro (starting at $15) is indeed the fastest device we checked out. Comments posted at Newegg and Amazon rave about its lickety-split performance, which is hardly surprising given the USB 3.0 interface. The Corsair Flash Voyager USB 3.0 (starting at $18) boasts, as the name indicates, a 3.0 interface that a review at PC Mag pegs as slower than other such models but faster than USB 2.0 drives.

For the 2.0 USB flash drives we researched, reviews toggle back and forth. Some posts at Walmart, for example, say the tiny Verbatim Store 'n' Stay (starting at $16) transfers data quickly while others consider it a tad sluggish. Most users are satisfied with the pace set by the Lexar JumpDrive TwistTurn (starting at $14), according to flash drive reviews at Amazon, while a few at Newegg say it's slower than expected. The Kingston DataTraveler 101 Gen2 (starting at $11), another model we checked out, is described as pretty fast in performance reviews at Best Buy while some USB flash drive reviews at Amazon and Newegg assert the opposite.

Critiques of the SanDisk Cruzer Edge (starting at $13) primarily focus on the awkward security software and dubious construction, but a few posts at Amazon complain that the interface is slow, as well. The sibling SanDisk Cruzer (starting at $15) evades critiques of its design but is prey to reviewer grumbles about speed. PNY's Compact Attache (starting at $10)takes heat for indifferent performance in a few USB flash drive reviews at Best Buy and Amazon.

USB Flash Drives Storage and Design

USB Flash Drives Storage.

The amount of data a thumb drive can store is usually the first thing shoppers consider when deciding which one to buy. USB flash drive storage capacity on cheaper models is relatively small -- from 2GB to 16GB -- although the former still provides a decent amount of space. The number of files you can save on a flash drive depends on the sizes of the files themselves, of course, but a chart from Verbatim shows that USB flash drive storage capacity in an 8GB model holds up to 2,600 10MP photos, about two hours of video, and about 2,000 MP3 files. That's a lot of storage for so little money. Prices for thumb drives rise along with storage capacity; some 128GB models go for more than $100.

The USB flash drives we researched come in a variety of storage sizes. The ADATA S102 Pro is available in four versions, from 8GB to 64GB, as is the Corsair Flash Voyager USB 3.0. Verbatim's little Store 'n' Stay ranges from 4GB to 16GB. Lexar's JumpDrive TwistTurn USB flash drive starts at 4GB and expands into four more storage sizes, topping out at 64GB; ditto for the PNY Compact Attache. SanDisk's Cruzer Edge offers the smallest capacity -- 2GB -- and reaches its limit at 32GB.

USB Flash Drives Design.

USB flash drives present with all sorts of structural designs. Drives may have a metal, plastic, or rubberized exterior. Some include a cap to protect the USB connector whereas others adhere to a capless design in which the connector swivels or slides out from the body. Then there are the novelty USB flash drives, some designed to look like pop culture characters from shows such as The Simpsons or Family Guy.

Many consumer and expert reviewers prefer capless USB drives because the caps are so easy to lose; among the models we researched, only the Adata 102 Pro and Corsair Flash Voyager are fitted with a cap. The Lexar JumpDrive TwistTurn, Kingston DataTraveler 1010 Gen2, PNY Compact Attache, and SanDisk Cruzer and Cruzer Edge are all capless USB drives.

The body construction may determine how durable the thumb drive is. The Adata 102 Pro features an aluminum shell, which seems quite durable, and the Corsair Flash Voyager boasts a shock-resistant rubber body. Kingston's DataTraveler has a mostly plastic body with a metal cover that slides over the USB connector.

The other drives we researched have a plastic housing that often proves too fragile for users' tastes. The SanDisk Cruzer Edge is dinged by many reviewers at Newegg and Amazon for flimsy build quality. The plastic shell of the PNY Compact Attache cracks easily and falls apart, according to posts at Walmart. Lexar's TwistTurn is tough enough, users at Amazon assert, but a post at Newegg contends the plastic case isn't sufficiently durable.

Verbatim's Store 'n' Stay is a bit of an anomaly among USB flash drives. It's no bigger than a dime and unlike most drives, which are designed to be portable, the Store n' Stay is meant to be plugged into a USB port and left there. This setup is ideal for a little unobtrusive extra laptop storage. We found, though, that many purchasers like to load MP3s on the Store n' Stay and then plug it into a car stereo, giving them easy access to a large library of music. Shoppers at Walmart also point out that this little drive is perfect to use as extra storage for an Xbox game console.

Michael Sweet

Michael Sweet writes about consumer electronics. If something runs on electricity or ones and zeroes, he's interested in it. Sweet has written about PC technology and consumer electronics for 14 years.

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