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Sizing up USB flash drive reviewers

USB flash drives -- also called thumb drives, USB keys or pen drives -- are the best way to quickly store and transport data. Many manufacturers are now offering flash drives with storage up to 128 or 256 GB, prompting some reviewers such as ConsumerReports.org to note that they are now capable of backing up entire computer hard drives. (If you don't need to carry your computer files around with you or need storage greater than 256 GB, see our report on external hard drives.) Because these flash-memory-based drives have no moving parts, they are frequently considered more reliable than hard drives, though some recent tests dispute that assertion. Some are made to be indestructible, and reviewers test them by running them through washing machines and dryers and driving SUVs over them. Even standard flash drives are surprisingly durable.

The best reviews of USB flash drives pit multiple models against one another in a series of standardized tests that evaluate file read/write speed, durability, security measures and other practical considerations, and use the results to identify clear winners. PCMag.com and LegitReviews.com do frequent, comparative reviews accompanied by extensive photographs and impressive graphic representations of test data. TomsHardware.com offers a comparative review of nine USB 3.0 flash drive models, and the U.K.'s TechRadar.com offers a comparative review of five, with its trademark attention to detail.

Several sites maintain databases of USB flash drive reviews. EverythingUSB.com, PenDriveReviews.com, OverClockersClub.com and others all cover several drives each year. Ratings and rankings are based on solid testing processes, findings are documented and top models are identified.

We didn't find a single USB flash drive that is absolutely panned by reviewers. That's because most of them work as intended, and reliability is very good in general. That's not to say there's nothing to criticize. But in a market where most products meet a similarly high performance standard, the difference between a recommended flash drive and one that's not recommended often comes down to details that are relatively minor. Experts point to slight variations in price, data transfer speed, aesthetic appeal, features and manufacturer service in order to differentiate between middling USB flash drives and great ones.

USB 3.0 drives

USB 3.0 is rapidly becoming the standard in new PCs Ð a trend that should accelerate in late 2012, when Intel is expected to build in native support in its processor chipsets. As computers become more advanced and the peripherals used with them more power-hungry, USB 2.0 is quickly becoming too sluggish for applications such as high-definition video. USB 3.0 promises rates up to 10 times faster (averaging 125 to 300 Mbps) while maintaining backwards compatibility with USB 2.0.

Physically, USB 3.0 plugs look the same as USB 2.0 models, with the one difference being that the "tongue" inside the plug might be blue instead of white. With prices running so close to USB 2.0 models (often costing less than $5 more for a 16 GB model), it's worth it to pick the upgrade if you plan to keep your USB flash drive around for a year or two. Their speeds are so much faster that transfers of even small files are noticeably improved once you upgrade your PC, experts said.

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