USB flash drives, also known as thumb drives, have been around for about 20 years, and while they were initially expensive, storage quickly became cheaper and cheaper until they were even being given away as promotional freebies.
1. Use a Flash Drive to Unlock Your PC
If you care about your digital security, you probably have a PIN or password lock on your laptop or desktop PC. But there is another way to lock and unlock your computer: Using a USB flash drive.
Software such as Predator allows you to create a key on your old USB drive which, when plugged in to your computer, will automatically unlock it. When the “Key” is removed, the computer will lock again.
There are several different USB lock software options available, and almost all of the best ones cost money (although usually not very much. Predator is just $10 for the home version). If you want to try out a freeware USB locker, you can search for “USB System Lock” and “WinLockr USB Lock Key”.
With most, if not all, of these USB locks, you can continue to use the flash drive as a storage drive at the same time. And most only require a small amount of space, so even tiny capacity drives will work.
2. Use it as a Mini Network Drive
If you have an unused USB drive with a decent capacity (we suggest at least 32GB to be of any real use), you can use it as a network drive. Many modern routers have a USB port, which can have a storage drive attached to it, including a USB flash drive.
You will need to know how to log in to your router’s firmware dashboard, as this is where you set up the drive as a network drive. You can find many guides to setting up a network drive on the Internet
Once set up, anyone using the network can use the drive as storage, or you can use it for things like media streaming.
3. Create an Emergency Antivirus Tool
Most antivirus software will allow users to create a USB (or CD/DVD) recovery tool. This can be a life saver if you have a virus-infected computer that you cannot access.
Open your antivirus software and check for the recovery or scanning tool option. The exact process (and size of drive needed) will vary between different antivirus software, but it is usually a fairly simple step-by-step process to follow.
Once created, label the drive so you know what it is and not to format it, and keep it safe. In the event of a virus preventing access to your computer, insert the USB drive and boot the computer (it should automatically boot from the USB, but you may need to change the boot sequence in the BIOS).
4. Store Your Most Sensitive Data
If you have sensitive data that you need to keep safe, in an offline location, you can encrypt and use an old USB flash drive.
Again, the size old the old drive needed will depend on how much data you need to store. If it is just documents and a few images, then even a 8GB drive should give you plenty of space.
In order to encrypt your drive, you will need some software such as TrueCrypt, SecurStick or VeraCrypt. Download your chosen encryption software and carefully follow the instructions to create the encrypted drive. In all cases you will need to create an access password for the drive, so make sure you don’t forget it (write it down and store it separately to the USB drive) as it is the only way to recover the data on that drive!
5. Boost PC Performance with ReadyBoost
Back in the days of Windows Vista, Microsoft introduced a tool called ReadyBoost. This was designed to increase performance by acting as a memory cache management system, and was mainly used to speed up data retrieval in systems that used a mechanical hard drive (as solid state memory is usually faster), working alongside SuperFetch which is part of the operating system.
There is some debate about whether ReadyBoost will make any difference to the performance of a modern, high performance PC, particularly if it has a SSD installed (unlikely that it will). But if you have a slightly older computer, which has a machanical hard drive, it might still provide a helping hand.
To give ReadyBoost a try, insert a USB flash drive and access the drive properties (right-click on the drive icon and select properties). You should see a ReadyBoost tab. Click this and then click Apply.
The drive will need to be at least 256MB in size, have an access time of 1ms or less and a throughput of 2.5MB/sec.
6. Create a Portable Music Library
If you travel a lot, or even if you just want to take some music on your annual vacation, you can throw together a collection of your favourite songs/albums on even a fairly small USB drive to take with you.
Many hotel rooms will have a small stereo system that it can be plugged into, or failing that, you can usually find a spare USB port on the TV in the room and play your music through that.
It can also be useful if you have a car stereo with a USB port, as it means you don’t have to have your phone connected to the ICE system for music, and you can just leave it in place when you leave the car.
7. External Storage for a Smartphone or Tablet
Many, if not all, modern smartphones and tablets support USB OTG (On-The-Go), meaning you can use an old USB flash drive as external storage for your mobile files and photos.
You will need a mobile device that supports USB OTG (the alternative is to root your non-OTG device so you can install an app which allows you to mount external drives; probably more trouble than it’s worth). You will also ne ed a short USB OTG cable, unless your flash drive has a micro USB/USB C plug on it.
8. Create a Windows 10 Recovery Drive
The easiest way to be able to get your computer up and running after a major hardware failure is to create and regularly update a recovery drive. Windows 10 includes all of the tools you need to create a recovery drive, which does not protect personal files and applications, but will allow you to quickly reinstall Windows 10 in the state it was when the drive was created.
You will need a USB drive that doesn’t contain any other data (as everything will be erased during the creation process), and one that has a capacity of at least 16GB.
To create a recover drive, search in Windows 10 for “Create a recovery drive” and select the matching result that appears. Make sure that “Back up system files to the recovery drive” is selected, then connect the drive to your PC and click create.
9. Use it as a Portable Password Manager
As our world gets more and more digital, password manager software has become more and more popular as we rack up double-digit (or even triple-digit) password collections.
Many of the most popular password managers, including LastPass, allow you to download a portable version of the software, along with a web browser, so it can be used from a USB stick.
10. Automatically Sync Files to USB
There are lots of cloud storage solutions which allow automatic syncing, but it is also possible to automatically sync files locally, giving you a portable backup of your most important stuff that will be accessible even when cloud storage isn’t.
Tools like Microsoft’s SyncToy and others allow you to create a folder that is automatically synced with a external drive, including a USB flash drive. Every time you plug in the connected USB drive, files from that folder will be synced/copied onto the drive, and anything new on the drive will be copied into the local folder.