What Is the Difference Between a Flash Drive & a Thumb Drive?

by Joe Butler

The USB drive is one of the least complicated pieces of hardware out there. It’s small, easy to carry, and works on any computer with the correct port. It’s durable and can sometimes hold a hard drive’s worth of data, yet can also fit nicely into a pocket or purse. About the only thing that can be a bit confusing is what name it goes by – though the actual product is the same, it can be called a thumb drive, a flash drive, a jump drive, a USB key, a memory key, even a pen drive.


Dr. Fujio Masuoka is credited with inventing flash memory in 1984, while working for Toshiba. His process allowed users to encode and erase data so rapidly, it reminded Dr. Masuoka of a camera “flash." The first computer drive using flash was released by Intel four years later, and the portable flash drive that connects to a USB port arrived in the late 1990s. EE Times, an electronics publication, credits inventor Dov Moran with the idea in 1998, and his company M-Systems and SanDisk began selling them by 2000. However, patents were also awarded in different countries for companies Netac and Trek which also claimed to have invented variations in the same time period.


The USB drive is simply a small, thin device with a bar or tongue that pops into a computer's USB port. Some models include slides or sheaths that keep the tongue protected until it’s time to load it into a computer. Some models are decorative, such as a cartoon characters, and customized versions can include a company’s name or logo.


According to PremiumUSB, a USB information blog, early commercial models stored up to 128-156 MB, which worked out to around 100-150 photos or 50 songs. Later 4GB drives could hold about 2,000 photos, and 16GB drives up to 20 movies. By 2012, portable drives have moved up 128 GB. PCStats, an online hardware-oriented publication, offers a variety of novel uses for the flash drive beyond simple storage, such as an emergency boot disk to avoid relying on a stack of backup CDs; as a tool for switching operating systems on the fly; or as storage for a built-in encryption program, which can make it handy if the drive is connected regularly to unsecure public networks.

Reasons for Names

Everything USB suggests that the name "thumb drive" evolved simply because of the size – the drive is about as big as a thumb, and much more portable than portable magnetic hard drives used to be. These were less durable and about as big as a plate. The "pen drive" nickname likely resulted from flash drives being attached to pens.

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