Saturday, July 10, 2010

Top 10 USB Thumb Drive Tricks

Top 10 USB Thumb Drive Tricks

Top 10 USB Thumb Drive TricksWhat can you do with a few gigabytes and a USB port? Quite a lot, with the right software. Learn how to encrypt your work, run whole systems, rescue Windows, and customize your thumb drive with these USB-geared tricks.

Photo by Debs (ò‿ó)♪.

Note: Gina previously rounded up 10 thumb drive tricks in April 2007, and we've borrowed a few of those ideas here. But many of the apps have updated, some have been replaced with better offerings, and a few totally new cool things (Chrome OS! XBMC!) have made their way into this mix.

10. Give Your Drive a Custom Icon

Top 10 USB Thumb Drive TricksAn "oldie" but goodie. If you use multiple USB drives, or just want to make your USB drive more recognizable at a glance, you can give it a custom icon. The root of the trick is keeping a .ico file on the drive—you can create one from any image with any number of tools, including the ConvertIcon webapp. Now when you plug in your USB drive, you'll know which one you're looking at on your desktop and explorer windows.

9. Try Out Chrome OS Now

Top 10 USB Thumb Drive TricksGoogle's fast and light netbook operating system, Chrome OS, isn't due out until late fall, but thumb drive owners can jump into an open-source build of the code so far. As explained by Gina, you can run a custom build of Chrome OS from Hexxeh from your thumb drive and try out Chrome as it stands today. Isn't open source development cool? (Original post)

8. Browse and Work Securely with DemocraKey

Top 10 USB Thumb Drive TricksIf you're on vacation, or working somewhere else where the security, tracking, and privacy conditions are unknown, you'll be glad you have the DemocraKey bundle. It's a set of Windows-based apps—including a browser, image editor, email client, and encryption suite—that makes browsing and working much more anonymous and secure. (Original post)

7. Run an XBMC Media Center From It

Top 10 USB Thumb Drive TricksXBMC Live, a version of the awesome XBMC media center software built for thumb drives, is great for showing off XBMC to your friends and relatives on their own gear, but also loading onto your netbook or laptop when it primarily pull other duty with a standard operating system. It's also how Adam starts off the process of building a silent, cheap media center, providing a peek at how well things will run when XBMC is going full-force.

6. Save Your Windows System

Top 10 USB Thumb Drive TricksIf you've chosen to put an Ubuntu system on your thumb drive, you've already got everything you need to fix a Windows system that just isn't working. From an Ubuntu thumb drive, you can scan and fix viruses, recover files, analyze and clean up disk space, fix partitions, and recover lost Windows passwords. All that is covered in our complete guide to saving your Windows system with a thumb drive.

5. Prevent Leaving Your Drive Behind

Top 10 USB Thumb Drive TricksUSB drives are small, light, and look like any other peripheral—so, yeah, a good share get lost and left behind. If you're trading your drive between Windows systems, Flash Drive Reminder can pop up a window when you're starting to log off or shut down, reminding you that you've got a drive plugged in and, hey, won't you yank it out while you're thinking of it? (Original post)

4. Install a Portable Windows App Suite

Top 10 USB Thumb Drive TricksIf you're short on space for Windows, or you just like to keep certain apps with you or contained on a separate disk, your USB drive can function as a full-fledged launcher. PortableApps offers no-install-needed versions of Firefox, Chrome, Pidgin, GIMP, Notepad++, and many other favorite bits of open source software. There are other suites out there—some accused of playing fast and loose with licenses and software property—but PortableApps remains the most consistent and up-to-date collection of free, go-anywhere Windows software. (Original post)

3. Encrypt and Set Your Drive to Self-Destruct in Emergencies

Top 10 USB Thumb Drive TricksNot physically self-destruct, as cool as that would be. But with USB Safeguard, you can make it so that either your entire drive requires an encryption drive, or just select files do. In more unique fashion, USB Safeguard can be set to wipe your files entirely if someone tries to access them without your password too many times. Losing a cheap thumb drive is much better than losing the keys to your checking account. (Original post)

2. Sync the Files You Need

Top 10 USB Thumb Drive TricksRather than manually copy the files you need back and forth between USB and hard drive, why not automatically sync what you need? It's the least you can do to help your thumb drive keep up with Dropbox. Tools like SyncBack Freeware or Microsoft's own SyncToy give you the option to automatically copy, or delete, the files that stick out on either side.

1. Keep a Portable Linux OS Handy

Top 10 USB Thumb Drive TricksLinux systems have long been handy on a USB drive—they're fast, free, and very customizable. We rounded up the major thumb drive systems, and found that Puppy Linux and the various Ubuntu flavors (including the lightweight Xubuntu) found the most favor among readers (and editors, too, for that matter). As for making the drives, we recommend the uSbuntu or Unetbootin tools on Windows for making read-only systems, and Universal USB Installer for making a persistent system of any Linux OS on any drive. (Original posts: Universal USB, Unetbootin, uSbuntu)

What's the most valuable player on your own USB drive? What tools make your thumb drive fit into your workflow? We're all ears in the comments.

Send an email to Kevin Purdy, the author of this post, at

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I can't get Chromium to run at all in any of my old and newer computers.... Oh well... I'll just have to wait then.... again.... Reply

I had a problem with one of my flash drives, it wouldn't read on Windows machines. So I partitioned it- half FAT and half Mac OS extended. They both show up on a Mac, but only the FAT half shows on a Windows machine. Works great for malwarebytes and random files.

Also, I bought a car stereo that had a USB input in the front and loaded up a flash drive with about 500 songs. Now if I forget my iPod or AUX cable, I always have an option. I loathe CD's and can only stomach NPR, so my own music is super important. Reply

I am a huge fan of portable applications, but instead of portable apps I use, it uses the same apps a PA but with a more customizable menu you can get it here [] Reply

Just for the record, Dropbox is working on selective sync, so eventually, using Dropbox portable will be another option for #2. Reply

Re No. 3: Encryption,

Generally, a 'self-destruct' mechanism only gives you a sense of false security. If somebody really wanted your data, they could just as easily copy the entire (encrypted) contents of the drive to somewhere else and work from there.

This is what I do under Linux with flash drives: I have a 16GB drive, so I set up a 12GB and a 4GB partition. The 12GB is unencrypted FAT, so it can be used for quick data syncs, etc. with Windows/Mac/Linux.

I encrypted the 4GB partition with LUKS/dm-crypt (Serpent-XTS).

Now when I plug it in to my Linux machine, the 12GB FAT partition is auto-mounted and I'm prompted for the 4GB partition's LUKS passphrase (which I can ignore and not mount if I like).

So I have a 'public' partition and a 'private' partition. Handy dandy. Reply

XSoft makes a virus scanner that runs in the U3 system from SanDisk. This has proven invaluable on more than one occasion. Rather than fighting with an infected system, run the virus scan from the thumb drive. 20 minutes and you are clean. Reply

1) Use a portable Password Manager like KeePassX with AES encrypted passwords.
2) Store documents inside a portable TrueCrypt Encrypted volume - basically, everything except the password manager and DB for it.
3) On a small partition on the USB, load a live CD version of your preferred Linux. I like TinyCore which uses 11MB of storage for the base X11 OS and about 48MB of RAM. Load just the full sized apps you like (not the limited apps from Puppy or DSL or ...) and YOU control the extra storage required and whether the changes are retained or not between boots.

I hate to say this, but xubuntu is not lite-weight anymore. It requires 600MB of disk minimal. Lubuntu is a little better, but still bloated with many apps and infra that you and I will never use.

XBMC requires OpenGL 1.4+ graphics capability. Many systems don't meet that minimum still.

Also, USB flash drives CAN be partitioned. A $20 8GB can be split and used for multiple purposes [] . Reply

Any tips for not losing them? in the past three months I've lost 32Gb of storage over 2 drives and it's a pain in the ass Reply
ImmaLion promoted this comment

Oooooh, bookmarking this page for future reference! I'd like to have a portable OS to take with me to work is there a good guide out there that rates the access speed of common USB drives you can buy retail? Reply

Um... No readyboost? If you're not running with a lot of ram, it certainly helps. Reply
Kevin Purdy promoted this comment

I'm going to try out chrome OS.. Reply
jupiterthunder promoted this comment

There's also a portable Java now. Reply
Gotlactose promoted this comment

Nice list, I feel a little bad I didn't know about the custom icon tip. Reply
jupiterthunder promoted this comment

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1 comment:

  1. Hundreds of millions of USB flash drives are currently in operation around the world, with the vast majority not offering proper encrypted flash drive