Selecting USB drives for your keychain: What to look for, avoid

Selecting USB Drives for Your KeychainMobile devices and online storage have made it easier than ever to carry or access information away from our home or office system — but it can also make sense to carry key documents and/or apps around on a USB drive.

You might not have your mobile device with you — maybe you left it behind or it ran out of power. Even if it’s working, you may need to use the data on the device on a different system — and moving data between a mobile device and another computer, particularly one that isn’t yours, isn’t always quick or easy.

Similarly, it’s easy to park copies of your data online (such as in an IMAP email account or elsewhere on the cloud), , but you can’t always get Internet access when you want it (or may not want to risk having your password keystrokes captured).

USB drives are a great way to carry information around for when you need it. They continue to get higher in capacity and lower in price– capacities range from two to 64 GB and cost less than a buck a gigabyte. The stored data is, unlike that on hard drives, not damaged by being dropped; nor, unlike those nearly-extinct floppy disks, scrambled by a magnet.

Reminder: Like any data you take out of your office or home, you should be sure to encrypt anything that’s “sensitive” — personal, financial or other information. If you also include apps on the drive, encrypt access to the drive as a whole, in case your passwords have been auto-saved by the apps.

Some flash drives include built-in encryption. If yours doesn’t, and you want to carry any sensitive information, be sure you install and use an encryption app, such as TrueCrypt, or Windows 7′s Bitlocker To-Go.)

Many USB drives include a lanyard, making it suitable for carrying around on your neck. (Downsides: The lanyard may be visible and a temptation to thieves — and you need to remember to take it off at airport security.)

The obvious place for data you want always with you is on your keyring.

But, astonishingly — or perhaps not surprisingly — most of the USB flash drives I’ve accumulated (some as review samples, most from trade shows, holding press kits or sales info) aren’t designed to reliably survive this treatment. Over the past few years, I’ve encountered several types of failures (many which also apply to non-keychain uses):

  • Tops that don’t stay on. A lot of USB drives have plug covers that don’t stay on reliably, falling off in your pouch or pocket.
  • Tops that can’t be “parked” on the other end when you’re using the drive. Like the gas tank cover in an automobile, a USB flash drive should be have some place to go when it’s not in use — like the other side of the USB drive. Otherwise, the odds are you’ll lose it.
  • Drives that come loose from swivel holders. Many flash drives swivel within a “U”-shaped piece of metal, and the drive can easily fall out of its casing.
  • Keyring-clip that easily breaks. Many flash drives have little metal circles made of very thin wire. These (as well as the thinner plastic half-loops) don’t stand up to the wear and tear of life in your pocket.
  • Flash component that comes loose from the holder. My favorite USB drives are shaped like real keys… but I’ve discovered that the flash portion can all-too-easily come lose.

In general: you want something that won’t break, or lose a piece, or fall off.

I’m not sure I’ve found the perfect USB drive for a key ring yet.

Meanwhile, “good-enough” ones seem to be the smallest ones with a hole for the keyring — although they look like they could break, or the contacts could get too dirty.

And remember to either not put sensitive data on these — or encrypt them.

Image Credit: Gold Brick Custom USB Drives / molotalk / CC BY 2.0

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