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The Best USB 3.0 Thumb Drive

By Wesley Fenlon, Wirecutter

The 32 GB SanDisk Extreme USB 3.0 Flash Drive is the best flash drive and the one to buy. Not only is it the fastest flash drive we tested after scouring the field, it costs only $45–virtually the same price as our old pick despite being twice as fast at both reading and writing.

The 32 GB SanDisk Extreme USB 3.0 Flash Drive is the best flash drive and the one to buy. Not only is it the fastest flash drive we tested after scouring the field, it costs only $45–virtually the same price as our old pick despite being twice as fast at both reading and writing.

Actually, it’s more than twice as fast when it comes to writing data. The SanDisk Extreme Flash Drive reads files at about 230 MB/s and writes them at 200 MB/s. Our old pick, for reference, topped at a write speed of 85 MB/s. In practical terms, the SanDisk’s write speed means I can copy a 1.44 gigabyte folder of images to the drive in about 18 seconds, or copy a 5.45 gig movie rip in around 39 seconds.

More like thumbs up drive amirite?

Everyone who has a computer and who needs to move files around should have a USB flash drive. This is the one to get.

What Makes A Good Thumb Drive?

In a word: performance.

Sequential read and write speeds, as you’d get from a big file transfer, are the most important general measurements.

Most of the USB 3.0 flash drives on Amazon hover around that 100 MB/s write speed mark, so cresting the 200 MB/s mark is damn fast as of mid-2013.

All my old USB 2.0 flash drives had write speeds of about 10-15 MB/s. We considered our previous USB 3.0 pick from early 2012 to be fast with 85 MB/s write speeds. Most of the USB 3.0 flash drives you’ll see on Amazon hover around that 100 MB/s write speed mark, so cresting the 200 MB/s mark is damn fast as of mid-2013.

Another measurement, 4K random read/write speed, matters if you plan on running an OS off of a flash drive (it’s pretty easy these days to install Windows on a USB drive for portability), but for most users, copying and reading files quickly is all you need.

Performance is by far the most important element of a flash drive, but design matters too. It can make the difference between a drive that’s pleasurable to use regularly and a drive that’s sort of awkward. If a drive is too wide, for example, it might block two USB ports. If it has a separate cap, that cap will probably be easy to lose.

Choosing Which Flash Drives To Test

There are too many drives out and old stuff is generally not worth getting. This passage from Brian’s 2012 guide still holds true today:

Remember that the best drives from only a few years ago are neither fast nor a deal compared to the newer ones.

“Remember that the best drives from only a few years ago are neither fast nor a deal compared to the newer ones. For example, the Patriot XT USB 2.0 drive won a roundup held by Ars Technica in 2009 and it is the most highly rated drive on Amazon with nearly 400 reviews and an average four and a half star rating. It sounds like a winner. But this drive, now only 3 years old, maxes out at 25 MB per second for reads and 15 MB per seconds for writes…It is a drive that you should completely avoid, and the world is filled with drives like this.”

I’ve been working on and off to update our USB flash drive guide since January 2013.

It’s taken a few months because some companies announced new flash drives at CES, promising speeds in the range of 250 MB/s. In the meantime, we compiled a list of 10 drives announced at CES and I looked at the most popular drives on Amazon. I also looked around for reviews of USB drives on the major tech sites, but those are few and far between.

My final spreadsheet contained 28 flash drives.

After eliminating the drives we ruled out in 2012, I then eliminated about a dozen high-ranking drives on Amazon due to slow speeds or poor pricing. However, we didn’t rule any out for being poorly designed.

The drives I ended up testing were the Lexar Jumpdrive P10, Patriot Supersonic Rage XT, SanDisk Extreme and LaCie XtremKey.

When I finally got my hands on them, I spent five hours testing their performance using CrystalDiskMark and manually timing real-world performance by copying a large folder of files on and off each drive. The only drive I wanted to test but couldn’t get hands on was the Corsair Flash Voyager GT Turbo, which was announced at CES but hasn’t been released yet. I’ll update this guide accordingly when it’s available.

Our Pick

This drive is simply the fastest we’ve seen so far at transferring files over the newer USB 3.0 spec, which is way faster. And that’s key, since all of the USB 3.0 drives I tested absolutely maxed out the 35 MB/s transfers speeds of USB 2.0. (Like all flash drives, the USB 3.0 Sandisk is backwards compatible with USB 2.0 ports.)

The results of my test were conclusive. Here’s a chart for you to look at if you’re into that sort of thing, and I’ll explain the numbers you should care about.

In two separate CrystalDiskMark tests, (each run five times) the SanDisk Extreme scored the fastest read speeds, averaging 233.4 megabytes per second (as seen above) in a 1,000 MB file test and 228.9 MB/s in a 50 MB file test. In the large file test it was also the fastest drive for writing, at 205.1 MB/s. In the small test it lost to the Lexar Jumpdrive P10 by 2 MB/s. Very close.

The SanDisk blew away both the LaCie XtremKey and the Patriot Supersonic Rage XT when it came to sequential write speeds. And its 4K random write speeds are absolutely insane compared to the other drives. 4K random write speed is mostly important for operating systems, which store little bits of data across the drive; for your typical copying of documents and photos, this won’t really matter, but if you plan to run applications or even an operating system off a thumbdrive, this is definitely the drive to get.

As far as design goes, the SanDisk Extreme is notably longer than the other drives I tested, although the XtremeKey is by far the largest thanks to its waterproof, basically indestructible metal case. Aside from the XtremeKey, all three drives feature a retractable design—they slide and click open to reveal the USB plug, then hide and protect it by sliding back into place.

I didn’t like the SanDisk Extreme’s sliding mechanism when I first used it, because I found the plug retracting when I tried to plug it into my computer and WD TV Live streaming box. Then I realized it was my fault, not the drive’s—by placing my thumb on the retraction mechanism as I pushed forwards, I was accidentally pulling on the slider just enough to relieve the tension keeping the drive extended. Gripping the drive by the sides while plugging it in solved that problem. The retraction mechanism is perfectly smooth and the drive feels solid despite being light plastic.

At $45 for 32 GB, the SanDisk Extreme is actually cheaper than a lot of competing USB 3.0 drives that are slower.

Finally, there’s the price: at $45 for 32 GB, the SanDisk Extreme is actually cheaper than a lot of competing USB 3.0 drives that are slower. Granted, you can get a crappy USB 2.0 drive for about five bucks, but you should buy one of these even if you don’t have a laptop or desktop with USB 3.0 ports. Why? Because your next computer will definitely have USB 3.0 ports, and chances are good that you’ll use your thumb drive to move files between multiple devices, and some of those devices will most likely have USB 3.0 ports, too.

*One caveat: the SanDisk Extreme and Patriot Supersonic Rage XT units I tested were 64 GB drives, while the Lexar Jumpdrive P10 and XtremKey were 32 GB drives. Sometimes larger drives see slight speed advantages, but the SanDisk Extreme wins so thoroughly on price alone that a few megabytes’ difference is irrelevant.

What Others Have Said about The SanDisk Extreme Flash Drive

PCMag reviewed the drive in mid-2012 and gave it 4.5 stars, writing “The SanDisk Extreme USB 3.0 is the fastest high-capacity drive we’ve seen to date, and it comes with a stiletto- inspired design and a reasonable price.” It’s worth noting the drive has gotten considerably cheaper since then, too.

TweakTown gave the drive an 85% score, and they know hardware—they regularly review PC components like motherboards and SSDs. TweakTown’s review points out that this is one of the rare drives to deliver speeds even better than advertised, and that SanDisk offers lifetime limited warranties on its hardware. If you run it over with your car, that’s on you, but if anything in the SanDisk Extreme gives out, they’ll replace it.

On Amazon, the SanDisk Extreme USB drive has a 4.5 star average with more than 300 user reviews.

One Amazon reviewer especially praises the 4K performance and explains why this drive is so damn fast:

“This stick is essentially a single NAND device (probably with multiple die inside) paired with the same controller found on Sandisks U100 SSDs. While they aren’t the leader of the pack, that controller is obviously FAR better than your standard USB stick flash management controller. So quite literally we have an SSD on a stick here.

“…I consider these things a steal for the price, a real SSD controller, quality NAND and S.M.A.R.T monitoring capability. I don’t see any problem with the housing either it seems sturdy enough to me and I like the retracting connector (the entire board inside moves, so don’t worry there are no ribbon cables to wear out inside).”

Sure enough, TweakTown’s review includes a teardown of the SanDisk drive and confirms the Extreme uses the same controller as SanDisk’s ReadyCache SSDs.

The Competition

The Lexar Jumpdrive P10 is one of the drives announced at CES in January 2013, and it’s definitely fast—it managed extremely comparable R/W speeds to the SanDisk and even beat it in a couple categories. The real problem with the Lexar Jumpdrive P10 is price; it’s simply too expensive. The 32 GB drive costs $90, double the SanDisk Extreme’s $45.

While the XtremKey isn’t fast enough to compete on its speed alone—it scored impressive 197 MB/s read speeds but lackluster 82 MB/s writes—it is designed to be very tough. If you’re regularly using a USB drive at a construction site or, I don’t know, in a volcano, it’s designed to survive a 200-meter oceanic dive or take a 10-meter drop no problem.

In addition to being the most expensive, the Lexar is the most uncomfortable of the four drives. Most of its body is metal, rather than plastic or rubber like the SanDisk and Patriot drives, and its sliding mechanism is incredibly stiff. Maybe that’s just because it’s brand new, but unfortunately the raised surface on the slider where you’re meant to place your thumb really digs into the skin when you apply the amount of pressure it takes to retract the drive.

The Patriot Supersonic Rage XT is the most compact of the four drives and the cheapest, at $38 for 32 GB. But it’s just not fast enough to make the cut when it comes to write speeds—it only managed 88 MB/s in the test shown above, compared to the SanDisk Extreme’s 205 MB/s.

Here’s a list of a bunch of other drives I looked at, added to the spreadsheet, and eventually excluded. This isn’t even counting drives I dismissed out of hand for being outdated USB 2.0 models or obvious low-budget options with really slow write speeds.

Wrapping Up

You can find drives on Amazon that are cheaper than the SanDisk Extreme USB 3.0, but none of them are even in the same league when it comes to speed. Competing fast drives like the Lexar Jumpdrive P10 are just too expensive.

If you want even more storage, the 64 GB version of the SanDisk Extreme can dip into the mid-$60 range, which is an amazing price. And if you want something cheaper, don’t opt for some crappy USB 2.0 drive—just pick up the smaller 16 GB version, which costs less than $30.

I’ve been using this drive regularly for a couple months now and fully recommend it. I’m still a little dumbfounded every time I write files to it at 200 megabytes a second.

This story was originally published on TheWirecutter on 7/8/2013 and is reprinted here with permission.