Thumb drives used to be so cool. They came in every shape and material, from little plastic rectangles to rubber wristbands, novelty animals, and pens sporting a built-in USB-drive. We used to marvel at the data they contained, easily dragged and dropped into a special icon. They were simple and portable, and yes, about the size of a human thumb.
Those days are over. Cloud technology has made USB drives redundant and worse, a liability since they could easily get lost. Most of them have vanished into junk drawers, exiled with old cell phones and various chargers, forgotten.
There are some rituals no longer necessary in high-tech households such as folding a map or memorizing a phone number. Teenagers may shrug, but if you’re 30 years or older, you’ll probably smile with nostalgia at this list of 20 things we don’t do anymore because of technology.
Unlike other outdated tech, such as CDs and Palm Pilots, the thumb drive is still useful, and not just for storing and transporting information. It’s time to give thumb drives a new lease on their electronic lives.
Check out these seven handy, fun and downright helpful ways to use USB thumb drives.
1. Run your own Google Chrome on other computers
Many of us get nervous about sharing web browsers. There are lots of personal settings, and private search histories, that we would rather not share with each other. Portable Apps, a site that collects apps that can run on USB drives, offers up Google Chrome Portable, a version of Chrome that lives on a flash drive.
Portable records your settings and extensions, so when you find yourself in front of a borrowed computer pop the thumb drive into the USB port. This is especially handy for travelers, who may find themselves an internet cafe or hotel business center. The Portable software is both familiar and efficient, and it won’t impact any version of Chrome that’s already on the machine.
2. Go incognito
The Tails operating system has an intriguing tagline: “Privacy for anyone anywhere.” You can run Tails from a USB drive on a computer, and it will keep your activity private and anonymous by acting as an independent OS.
You will need two USB drives for the initial Tails setup and it can seem a little involved, but the Tails site will walk you through the process.
Tails is one way to protect your privacy when using public computers or a computer you don’t trust. It can also be a way to hide your tracks if you’re shopping for birthday or holiday gifts on a computer you share with your family.
3. Use it as the key to your computer
You can turn a USB drive into a key that unlocks your Windows computer. Download and install Predator on your PC and a flash drive. Once it’s set up, the computer will only work when the USB drive is plugged in.
Pull it out and the display goes dark, and the keyboard and mouse are disabled. Plug it back in to get back to work.
Predator can be used on multiple computers, so that the same flash drive can unlock more than one machine.
You can also have several flash drives as keys for the same computer, so everyone in your family (or only certain members) can unlock a particular PC. Predator starts at $10 for the home edition.
4. Scan for viruses
If you know or suspect a computer has been compromised by a virus, you can use a USB drive to scan and remove the offending software. PortableApps offers several options, including ClamWin Portable, McAfee Stinger Portable, and Spybot-Search & Destroy Portable. Install these on the drive, plug it into the computer, and run them to check and clean the machine.
5. Make a Dead Drop
This is a novel one: a “dead drop” is spy-speak for a method of passing secret information. Historically, agents would leave secrets messages in a wastebasket or behind a loose brick. Berlin artist Aram Bartholl started a trend of USB flash drive “Dead Drops,” which have attracted a cult following around the world.
Participants leave USB drives in public, perhaps cemented into a wall or tied to a tree. Dead Drop users are encouraged to share their favorite files, whether it’s photography, a poem, or some other creation.
You can find out how to participate on Bartholl’s Dead Drops site.
Just remember that attaching your computer to an unknown USB drive comes with plenty of potential security risks, so you might want to use a secondary computer for your Dead Drop activities.
6. Boost your Windows experience
Microsoft has long offered a little-known Windows feature called ReadyBoost. It’s meant to speed up certain processes on computers that use standard hard drives. While it may offer a benefit to some computers running Windows 10, people with older machines and those using earlier Windows operating systems are the most likely to see a speed improvement.
It does not work for computers with solid-state drives like those often found in higher-end laptops.
ReadyBoost turns an external flash drive into a hard disk cache. Microsoft gives instructions for setting up a ReadyBoost drive for Windows 7, but this also works on more recent versions of the operating system. It’s worth a try if your computer feels poky.
7. Create a Windows recovery drive
Don’t wait until your Windows PC unexpectedly melts down. Prepare yourself by turning a spare USB stick into a recovery drive. This drive lets you run troubleshooting tools if your Windows machine is having problems, even if it won’t start up properly.
Follow Microsoft’s directions to create the drive. You may need at least a 16 GB USB drive if you choose the option to back up your system files, but this will let you reinstall Windows if necessary.
Once you have the drive finished, label the thumb drive and store it where you’ll be able to access it easily if your computer starts acting up.
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