Best USB Flash Drive of 2021
The SanDisk Extreme Go 64GB displayed an excellent balance of cost and efficiency and proved to be one of the quickest drives during our testing. It completes a number of tasks rapidly, including moving a single large file or a big folder containing a large number of small files. For example, a 5 GB folder filled with thousands of modest files wrote to the drive in just 7 minutes, proving to double the other models' typical speed. Large media files moved even faster, taking only 31 seconds to write a 5GB HD movie. Topping off this stellar performance is the price tag — the Extreme Go 64GB sells for well under the price of many premium drives on the market. The plastic construction feels relatively sturdy, and a smooth sliding mechanism retracts the connector when it's not in use. It's not super tiny, but the body is still thin enough that it won't be in the way of any other ports while in use — we had no problem plugging in a large cable for headphones in the next port over beside the drive.
The price for this drive is great for the performance, but if you aren't using it regularly, the cost might be more than you're willing to cough up. Also, the drive is a bit large — to the extent that it might bulk up the feel of your keychain. Even though its plastic fabrication seems stronger than others, we are not confident that it would stand up to the everyday abuse that a keychain is often subjected to. That said, if you need to transfer several gigabytes of data all at once, we think you would be pleased with the Extreme Go 64GB.
For the ultimate performance per dollar, check out the SanDisk Ultra CZ48 32GB. Even with its budget pricing, it logged an impressive 166 MB/s maximum read speed in our tests, outperforming almost everything else in this price range. The drive allows for a 5GB movie file to transfer to your computer in only 30 seconds. Surprisingly, despite the drive's low price, the plastic material's quality seems reliable and strong.
The write speeds are the obvious disadvantage to this drive, where the top performance only got up to 14MB/s during our tests. When pushing the drive even harder, speeds continued to decline. For instance, the drive took over 12 minutes when writing a 5GB folder full of modest files. However, if speed isn't a concern for you when saving things to the drive, it offers a great cost for a reliable way to save your files and access them fairly quickly when you need to.
The Samsung Bar Plus 128GB perfectly fills the keychain niche for those moments when it just pays to have a USB flash drive on hand. The all-metal construction is super sturdy, and the relatively sleek design allows it to nestle onto even crowded keyrings. It is still long enough to insert it into a USB port without removing it from the keyring. It also provides good overall speed — in our tests, it wrote a 5GB folder with lots of small files in less than 4 minutes. Its read speeds are particularly impressive, meaning you can quickly access files stored on the drive. This makes the Samsung Bar Plus the perfect option for files that you don't want taking up space on your laptop's hard drive, but that you may need to access at a moment's notice.
Our biggest issue with the Samsung Bar Plus 128GB is the hump on the drive's back, where the keyring is attached. While these extra curves lend the drive even more of a space-age feel, they also make it bulkier and less sleek than some other keychain-oriented models. However, the Samsung Bar Plus's speed and performance so far outstrips that of its competitors that it still easily gets our top recommendation for those who prefer to attach a USB flash drive to their keychain permanently.
If you're constantly transferring large media files or data sets between computers, you'll love the PNY Pro Elite 256GB. This model is also great for editing photos and videos without moving them onto your computer. It's crazy fast — it wrote our 5GB speed torture test folder in just 2 minutes, a mere fraction of what it took most drives. It also gobbled up a 5GB movie file in only 20 seconds, and the read speeds are even faster. This blazing speed is backed up by a stylish and durable all-metal build. It is one of the few full-sized flash drives that we are confident could survive the wear and tear of living on a keychain.
The PNY Pro Elite 256GB is considerably more expensive than most flash drives on the market. However, the extra speed it affords will be well worth the investment if you're one that continually moves large files around.
Now that many popular laptops and newer Android phones are moving to USB-C, it can be super convenient to have a flash drive compatible with this new port as well as the common USB-A. The only USB flash drive we have found that hits the mark in this regard is the SanDisk Ultra Dual Drive. Both connectors can be retracted at the same time, allowing it to maintain a slim profile. If you use the drive with a phone, SanDisk provides a convenient app that will enable you to do manual backups by specific file type. Additionally, the Ultra Dual Drive is much faster than other Type-A/Type-C drives that we've tested.
While this drive provides at least average speed for most file transfers, it can sometimes get bogged down when writing many small files. It took 26 minutes to write our 5GB small file testing folder. We also found the lanyard attachment annoying. It sits in the center of the drive body, is too small for a keyring, and requires a master seamstress's skills to thread. Despite these small drawbacks, for those that want both USB Type-A and Type-C connectivity, the SanDisk Ultra Dual Drive is the best option available.
The SanDisk iXpand 128GB is the best iPhone-compatible drive we've found. It offers a quick and easy way to backup files on your phone, wherever you happen to be. The SanDisk app allows you to easily select which files you want to download from or upload to your phone, and it can perform quick photo backups. Most USB/lightning drives that we've tested provide near glacial speeds, but the iXpand 128GB provides impressive speeds when using its USB connection. In our tests, it wrote a 5GB folder full of small files — the most difficult of our speed tests-- in just over 6 minutes, putting it in the top tier.
The biggest disappointment with the iXpand is that speeds are about halved when switching from the USB to the lightning connector, meaning it can take 15 minutes or more to backup 5GBs worth of photos. Also, the flexible rubber/plastic connection between the two connectors must be flexed to plug the drive into an iPhone, and we don't like the long-term durability of that connection. However, for anyone that wants a drive for transferring files to and from their iPhone, we think the SanDisk iXpand 128GB offers the best combination of performance, convenience, and price.
If you plan to use a super slim and portable thumbnail-style drive, the Samsung Fit Plus 128GB is sure to please. Despite its small stature, it was one of the fastest drives we tested, writing our 5GB testing folder in less than 4 minutes. Perhaps more importantly, its read speeds are phenomenal — it read that same folder in a mere 41 seconds. This makes it the perfect tiny drive to use as a secondary storage option for your laptop, allowing you to access all of its files with nary a lag. Plus, it provides all this impressive performance at a relatively average price.
The one thing we wish was slightly different about the Samsung Fit Plus 128GB is the keychain attachment point. It is slim enough that most keyrings get clamped down, forcing the drive to sit at a 90˚ angle. This negates this drive's small footprint and makes it very difficult to use without removing from the keyring. A lanyard would help fix this problem, but we found even thin lanyards difficult to thread. We wish it were easier to attach this drive to something since its small size makes it easy to lose. Still, the Samsung Fit Plus 128GB is the best option we've found for fans of extreme portability of super tiny thumbnail drives.
A good option for anyone looking for a lot of digital storage on the cheap is the classic SanDisk Cruzer CZ36 128GB. In many instances, this drive costs half as much as other models of the same capacity. Perhaps most importantly, it provided consistent and reliable performance in our testing. We have run into many budget drives that fail in the middle of long file transfers, but the Cruzer CZ36 completed every task we asked of it — even if it took a little longer than some other models. The USB connector retracts and clicks solidly into place when extended, making it easy to slide into ports.
The Cruzer CZ36's biggest downside is its speed. Of the drives that receive our stamp of approval, it is one of the slowest. When we wrote a 5GB folder of many small files to this drive — the biggest speed challenge for any drive — it took 15 minutes to complete. While certainly not blazing, this speed is still tolerable for occasional file backups. For those who want to increase their important files' redundancy without spending a bundle, this is an excellent choice.
The PNY Turbo 64GB provided very reliable, if somewhat slow, file transfers throughout our testing. It also has a protective cover that slides over the USB connector, a feature that many of the other budget options on the market lack. We found the slim profile to be fairly unobtrusive when hung from a keychain.
The diminished speed is the apparent downside of the PNY Turbo 64GB. It took this drive a whopping 51 minutes to write our 5GB test folder filled with small files. It was much faster in writing a single 5GB video file, taking just over 3 minutes, but that was still toward the back of the pack. Suffice it to say, this drive isn't for people who regularly transfer large amounts of data via flash drives. However, the PNY Turbo 64GB is a good choice at a reasonable price if you just want a model that you know will work for the odd times that you need it.
The SanDisk Ultra Fit CZ43 256GB is a classic thumbnail-style drive that offers good write/read speeds in a tiny package. Though not the fastest thumbnail-style model we have tested, we found its speeds acceptable enough for working with both large media files and folders filled with word documents and spreadsheets. Perhaps most importantly, its read speeds are quite good, so you shouldn't notice lagging if you leave it plugged into your laptop all day as secondary storage for important files.
Our least favorite aspect of using the Ultra Fit CZ43 256GB is removing it from USB ports. It fits quite snugly, and the small and somewhat slick plastic body provides little purchase. The lanyard attachment slot is also too small to accommodate most keyrings. Still, for those seeking a super small thumbnail-style flash drive, the SanDisk Ultra Fit CZ43 delivers an excellent overall experience.
If you're looking for a classic flash drive with a more durable metal body, the Kingston DataTraveler Elite G2 64GB may be for you. Sporting a familiar design with upgraded materials makes it feel better suited to stand the test of time than the more common plastic fare. It also displayed great large-file speeds in our tests — it wrote our 5GB test movie file in just 47 seconds — making it an excellent device for backing up or transferring large media files.
Like many drives we tested, the Kingston DataTraveler Elite G2 64GB got bogged down when transferring large folders filled with lots of smaller files. Our 5GB small file tester folders took over 26 minutes to be written to this flash drive, much slower than what we would consider the average mark. We also don't like the plastic cap that protects the USB connector, which feels flimsy compared to the rest of the drive and is easy to lose. Still, the Kingston DataTraveler Elite G2 is a fairly rugged and dependable drive, especially when working with larger files.
Why You Should Trust Us
Lead author and tester Max Mutter is no stranger to USB flash drive data transfers. In his years as a nomadic ecologist, he carried giant data sets stored on multiple flash drives between different remote research stations. At these stations, he often constructed intricate spatial statistical models using that data on outdated computers — a tenuous situation where a slow flash drive can grind everything to a halt. Spending weeks or months in remote locales like these far from the reaches of the internet turns a flash drive full of your favorite movies into an essential commodity. In the last few years as a Senior Editor for GearLab, Max has transferred and edited terabytes of testing footage from camera drones, security cameras, and dash cams using a multitude of flash drives.
To start this review, we researched over 100 USB flash drives before purchasing the most promising models on the market. We then ran a plethora of real-world speed tests using large media files, folders full of songs and photos, and folders stuffed with word documents and spreadsheets. We also spent time assessing each drive's construction, determining how well they would stand up to wear and tear, and evaluating the quality of any sliding mechanisms or swivels. In the end, we whittled the list down to only the top drives we would recommend for a variety of specific use cases.
Analysis and Test Results
Most of our USB flash drive tests focused on write and read (upload and download) speeds. Our three tests utilized different file types and sizes to assess speed. We also ranked the overall user-friendliness of each drive, meticulously evaluating their construction, how well they fit on a keychain, and how easily they slide into and out of USB ports.
We conducted three separate speed tests: a large file transfer test, a small file transfer test, and a video streaming test.
Large File Speed
A common use for flash drives is backing up or transferring movie or music collections. We tested each drive's speed in transferring these larger files by writing (saving to the drive) and reading (transferring from the drive) a 5 gigabyte (GB) HD movie file, timing the process. From there, we were able to calculate the exact upload and download speed in megabytes per second (MB/s). Large individual files are generally the easiest for drives to transfer, so these speeds represent the best you can expect from each drive.
Posting field-leading write and read speeds of 249 MB/s and 415 MB/s, respectively, the PNY Pro Elite 256GB was the clear winner in our large file speed tests. The SanDisk Extreme GO CZ800 64GB was the only model that could get close to the PNY Pro Elite's write speeds, hitting a pace of 161 MB/s. However, its write speeds were about half as fast at 208 MB/s.
Though the Samsung Fit Plus 128GB displayed average write speeds in our large file test at 70 MB/s, it showed impressive reading performance, benchmarking an average rate of 356 MB/s. The Samsung Bar Plus 128GB offered similarly fast read speeds, making both models great portable options for storing movie collections.
Small File Speeds
Reading and writing lots of small files is a much different task than doing so with large files, so we tested this ability separately. We constructed a 5GB folder jam-packed with a mix of photos, some songs, and lots of spreadsheets and word documents, and timed transferring that folder to and from each flash drive. Transferring thousands of small files at once can bog down even the best of flash drives, so the results of this torture test are likely the worst speeds you can expect from each drive.
Also dominating our small file transfer tests, the PNY Pro Elite 256GB wrote at an average of 37 MB/s and reading at 133 MB/s. Both Samsung models stood out in this test as well, achieving write speeds in the mid-20s and read speeds in excess of 100 MB/s.
The SanDisk Extreme Go CZ800 64GB hit well above average speeds in this test, achieving 12 MB/s write speeds and 77 MB/s read speeds.
If we could plug a drive into a computer and watch a full 1080p HD movie stored on the drive without any lagging or dropped frames, the drive passed. This is a vital ability for those that like to keep their movie collection stored on a flash drive but don't want to have to download those movies to their computer every time an opportunity for movie night arises.
Luckily all of the models we tested passed, allowing us to watch and even fast forward an HD movie with no lagging. The PNY Turbo technically passed this test, but it takes 10-15 seconds before it will display a movie file. Once that initial lag elapses, however, it is flawless.
Ease of Use
We spent days using each one of our flash drives, carrying them on our keychains, plugging and unplugging them into multiple devices and USB ports, and extending and retracting their USB connectors.
The Samsung Fit Plus 128GB offers the best balance of portability and durability of all the models we tested, thanks to a super slim profile and sturdy construction. However, it lacks an easy keychain attachment. The Samsung Bar Plus 128GB is slightly bulkier, but it is just as durable and is designed to be carried on a keychain.
The SanDisk Ultra Fit CZ43 256GB is a bit difficult to detach from a USB port, but it is super small. It isn't a dealbreaker for us, but it could be annoying if you need to switch out your USB flash drives between devices regularly.
The SanDisk Extreme GO CZ800 64GB has one of the smoothest and sturdiest sliding mechanisms for extending and retracting its USB connector. It's plastic, but it still maintains one of the most solid constructions of any device of its type.
The SanDisk Ultra Dual Drive 128GB is the most convenient option for those that want both USB Type-A and Type-C functionality. A smooth sliding mechanism allows you to access either connector easily, and both can be retracted inside the protective metal and plastic body. Our only complaint is that the lanyard attachment hole is extremely small to the point of being useless (we were never able to thread it successfully).
The SanDisk iXpand 128GB is the slimmest and most simple iPhone-compatible model. Though neither the USB nor Lightning connectors are protected, we like that the drive nestles behind your phone while in use. This makes it much easier to use the phone with the drive attached over models that stick out of the bottom, which just creates an awkward extra appendage.
Though USB drives may seem to be a dime a dozen, some models offer far superior speeds and features than their competitors. We hope our objective testing results have helped you find a flash drive that will serve you well and become an everyday accessory.
— Max Mutter
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