Flash Drives vs. Thumb Drives
8 min

Flash Drives vs. Thumb Drives

Learn how flash and thumb drives differ and which storage drive will work best to backup your hard drive based on data transfer speeds, compatibility and portability.

CDW Expert CDW Expert
What's Inside

Thumb drives (also called pen drives and flash drives) are popular external storage devices. While, all thumb drives are flash drives, not all flash drives are thumb drives. External flash drives can come in a number of different form factors—some larger than a thumb drive and some much smaller. Understanding the different types of flash drives, including memory size and physical sizes, will empower you to choose a storage device that is suitable for your business needs.

What is a Flash Drive?

Sometimes called flash memory, flash storage is non-moving, non-volatile memory. Unlike with hard drives, flash drives do not have any moving parts. Instead, flash uses NAND memory, which doesn’t require power to preserve data and uses electric circuits to write the data onto metal-oxide semi-conductors or microchips. Flash memory is also not easily corrupted. Flash memory is often used in conjunction with other types of memory like SSD storage. Different kinds of storage drives that are external to a device will use flash memory. Some might connect via a USB-A or a USB-C cable, while others—like thumb drives—have the USB plug embedded into the drive’s outer casing. A few examples of flash memory form factors that are NOT presented in a thumb drive format are SD Cards, credit card drives, and external portable SSD drives. We’ll explain the benefits of those more in detail later in this article.

Click here to learn more about the difference between Flash and SSD Memory

What is a Thumb Drive?

A thumb drive is a type of external flash drive that connects directly to a device using its USB-A or USB-C port. Thumb drives are one of the most economical ways to facilitate data transfer. The USB interface is embedded directly into the drive’s exterior housing. A thumb drive does not need a cable. Sometimes the USB interface might be encased inside the thumb drive’s housing. In that case, the user can expose or hide the interface by sliding a button forward or backward with their thumb. This protects the drive and prevents debris from entering the interface. Thumb drives are usually flat (about 2 cm high) and no longer or wider than a thumb. USB drives derive power from their connection to devices.

What are the Differences Between Thumb Drives and Flash Drives?

The main difference between thumb drives and other external flash drives are that other flash drives require a USB cable or a card reader to connect to devices, while a thumb drive’s plug is embedded in its housing. Also, other flash drives often have the capacity to store far more data (often up to 4TB while flash drives typically stop at 8GB) and have much faster read and write speeds (beyond 10GBPS for USB 3.0 ports) due to their incorporation of Solid State drives (SSDs).  Most modern SSDs are comprised of multiple sections of flash storage that work together to operate as quickly as possible. On the other hand, most external flash drives are not as compact as thumb drives because they usually also contain SSD (which requires more space) along with flash memory. 

Are Thumb Drives Safe to Use?

Caution should always be used when using thumb drives as they can be easily broken, misplaced or pose a significant security risk for you or your organization. Never plug a thumb drive into your device if you are not aware of its origin or if your thumb drive has been lost or misplaced and found again. Thumb drives are often a source of infection from computer viruses, malware and spyware. Also, if stolen, the sensitive or proprietary data on your thumb drive could easily compromise your organization’s reputation and financial security since most thumb drives are not password protected or encrypted.

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Form Factors and I/O Port Interfaces

The exterior design of a flash memory device can take on a number of visible characteristics but still support storage capacities similar to less portable storage (like true hard drives). Thumb drives are described above and are quite ubiquitous now due to their low cost. The USB interface and connection used will dictate the read/write speed, which is measured as megabytes per second (MBps). Both USB Type-A and USB Type-C interfaces use the same units of speed to transfer data. Data transfer with USB 3.1 (600MBps) is slower than USB 3.1 Gen 2 (1,250MBps), or USB 3.2 Gen 2 (2.4GBps) which was launched in 2017. Thunderbolt ports look exactly like USB-C ports, but they do everything faster; up to 40GBps compared to 20GBps on USB-C ports.

What are USB-C Drives?

The USB-C protocol became standard in 2014. As a result, the thumb drive’s connector or plug has taken on a different appearance in the years following. Before that the rectangular USB-A ports were in most devices. Now, users can expect to see more USB-C thumb/pen drives that are smaller, oval-shaped and reversible (meaning there is no right-side up way to plug in the cable or connection) as well as credit card USB drives. USB-C drives are also backward compatible and some cables have one of each plug on either end. While USB-A drives will not disappear immediately, consider eventually upgrading your flash memory device. USB-C ports and drives have faster data transfer speeds, can transmit 4K video, and has significantly faster charging of devices.

Lightning Drives and cables work exclusively with most Apple products (except for 3rd generation iPad Pros and later) but are also called thumb drives. Apple iPhones and iPads often carry a Lightning interface. Although Lightning and USB-C both provide connection, communication and power, they are not the same. USB-C has faster transfer speeds compared to lightning (40GBps vs 480MBps).

What is a Credit Card Drive?

Credit Card/Business Card USBs are the dimensions of a debit or credit card but slightly thicker. They use a USB-C interface, which is folded or slid into a cutout within the card. Unlike USB-C thumb drives, the flash card drives are usually not reversible since one side of the card has a design or brand logo on it. These cards have been popular swag gifts to customers from financial institutions.

SD and microSD cards also use flash memory. These flat and thin rectangular cards (between 1 and 3mm thick) are likely the smallest and possibly the lightest form factor for flash memory. But they often carry more memory than thumb drives. Besides storage in the cloud, MicroSD cards are often the main source of memory used within mobile phones and digital cameras. MicroSD card slots on phones are an additional form of local storage now that mobile data is directed to the cloud and phones have more internal storage. Keep in mind that external SD and microSD cards require a card reader if the device does not have a slot for the card. Also, due to their small stature, they can be easily misplaced or broken.

External Portable or Bulk SSD flash drives like Western Digital’s popular My Passport have the capacity to store more memory than any of the other form factor, and they can cost considerably more as well. These drives are often marketed for their durability and long lifespan (often supporting up to 100,000 write cycles). Although they are frequently mistaken for traditional external hard drives, compared to SSD flash drives, the former must be handled like fine China. Many SSD drives are so much tougher and are even waterproof and drop proof. As a result, SSD drives can take on a number of physical characteristics. SSD flash drives are distinct from thumb drives in that they are much larger in size, integrate both flash and SSD memory and in addition to costing more money, they require cables to connect to devices.

File Systems

A drive’s file system or formatting dictates how data is organized and stored by the flash memory on the drive. All drives must be formatted before they can be used. Some drives can be purchased with formatting already in place. Nand Flash memory can be formatted in several ways, including NTFS/NTFS5, HFS+, ZFS, FAT32, APFS, and exFAT. FAT32 is the default filing system for most flash drives. But not all drives are automatically formatted with FAT32. In some cases, it may be advantageous to reformat a file system to increase compatibility and speed with the device that will read or write data to it. The file system will also help determine the cards read/write cycle and by default its lifespan.

What is a Partition?

Sometimes a memory drive is divided into several partitions. There are many reasons for adding partitions to a flash drive. One of the main advantages to adding one or more partitions is to create the ability to read and write data from more than one operating system on the same drive. Other reasons might include enabling encryption within one partition but not others, reducing the spread of possible corrupted or damaged data, and preventing the co-mingling of system data and user data to maximize space. However, on the downside, partitioning drives can also reduce available space for larger files.

Flash File Formats Based on Compatibility and Application

Format Background Application
File Allocation Table is usually the most compatible format to use when transferring data from devices with different operating systems. Since it was created for MS-DOS in the 1970s it will work with older devices as well as newer devices. The newer FAT32 and FAT64 are compatible with Windows, Mac and Linux distros, along with video game consoles, and Android and iPhone mobile devices. Most thumb drives are formatted as FAT32, right out of the box. One drawback to FAT32 is that it cannot exceed 4GB per file or 2TB per partition even though it supports 16TB drives. Read and Write
  • Text documents
  • Hundreds of still images
  • Video files under 4GB.
NTFS New Technology File System was created by Microsoft for the Windows NT Operating system, but it is still the most widely used filing system for PCs today. It is also faster than FAT32. NTFS is a reliable format when transferring large swaths of data from one computer to another. NTFS can handle partitions up to 128PB (or 128,000TB) It is also compatible with Linux, and can be applied to a number of form factors including, thumb drives, external flash drives, SD cards, etc. Unfortunately, NTFS is not as compatible as FAT32 or exFAT. Read and Write
  • Backing up Windows files
  • Transfer images and video from a camera
  • Mac OS can only read NTFS files with add’l software
exFAT Extentable FAT is a newer version of FAT32 and like NTFS it can support much larger files than FAT32 can. The file size limit for exFAT is 16EB, which is best used to store video files like movies and game files as its partition sizes can reach up to 128PB. It is also compatible with Apple devices, but needs additional software to be accessed on Linux devices. Read and Write
  • Backup an old hard drive
  • Transfer files from an MS-Dos OS to a Mac OS and vice versa
EXT4 The Fourth Extended File System can be used with SD cards, USB drives and SSDs on Linux distros (aka OS). To read an EXT4 file system in Windows, additional software is needed, and it still may not be readable in Linux. Also, Windows 10/11 cannot write to EXT4 currently. Writing can be done on Linux but will impede performance. EXT4 is not compatible with Apple. Read
  • Gaming
HFS/HFS+ The Hierarchical File System was the default system for Mac Computers until Apple replaced it with the Apple File system and macOS Extended. Neither APFS nor HFS+ will work on Windows devices. Apple no longer supports HFS. The Max file size for HFS+ is 8EB. Read and Write for Apple Only
  • Transfer files from old Mac computers or Apple device manufactured after 2013
APFS The newest file system for MacOS, iOS and Apple devices features higher storage capacity, stronger encryption, faster transfer speeds and improved processing. APFS divides the storage capacity using volumes and containers Read and Write for Apple devices only
  • Backup and storage of all digital media up to 8EiB