Having fun with thumb drives (and USB hubs)

By J. Carlton Collins, CPA

Q. I was given a cute USB hub shaped like a pig. The pig includes several USB drives shaped like little piglets. It seems to work fine, but are there any technical reasons I shouldn't use this at the office?

A. Many cute USB hubs are available in the marketplace, such as Duragadget's octopus four-port hub; Usbkingdom's plane-shape four-port USB hub 2.0; and Kikkerland's US006 USB Hubman, all priced below $15 as of May 31.

The available selection of novelty USB thumb drives is even greater. Among those are the Usbkingdom 32GB USB 2.0 doctor-shaped flash drive, the MEEKO 16GB USB 2.0 motorcycle-shaped flash drive, the WooTeck 32GB USB metal wrench flash drive, and the AreTop 32GB USB lifelike flash drive, also all under $15 each.

Before exploring these drives further, be warned that transferring files on a USB thumb drive can be problematic for at least three reasons. First, thumb drives that have been used on many computers are a notorious source of malware, so it may be risky to accept one from someone and plug it into your machine. You should never plug in a USB thumb drive that you find in the office that is not in the original packaging. Second, USB thumb drives seem to disappear. I've owned at least 50 in my life, but currently I can find only a half-dozen or so of them. It seems easy to misplace a USB drive with sensitive information on it. Finally, many USB thumb drives are formatted as FAT 32 versus NTFS drives, which means when you erase the data, you haven't really erased the data. The erased files on your USB thumb drive can usually be recovered using a variety of file recovery tools. Therefore, you should use caution when copying sensitive files to these devices.

In addition to these warnings, novelty USB hubs and thumb drives are not usually your best option for business purposes for a few reasons. For one thing, they tend to have USB 2.0 technology, which provides slower data transfer rates and weaker power. USB is an abbreviation for universal serial bus, and the current USB standard, adopted in September 2017, is USB 3.2 technology. The table below provides a summary of the various USB standards since 1996.

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As you can see in the table, USB 3.0 devices are more than 10 times faster than USB 2.0 devices, while USB 3.1 and 3.2 devices are 20 to 40 times faster than USB 2.0 devices. Further, the amount of power passed through to the newer USB devices also is increasingly greater, compared with power under the USB 2.0 standard. An example of a better USB hub is the Huijin Parts 3.5A three-port USB charger hub, available at Amazon.com for less than $20 as of early June.

Not only does this Huijin Parts USB hub offer three USB ports with USB 3.2 technology, it also includes a type C charging adapter for mobile phones, tablets, and other similar USB devices. Further, when charging, the hub's LED display indicates the device's state of charge, current, and voltage. The hub contains a built-in smart chipset that allows it to automatically detect and adjust the charging current according to the device's charging requirements. The chip is also designed to avoid overloading the device's charge.

Of course, a USB 3.2 hub will perform at top speed only when you plug it into a USB 3.2 port on your computer and use a USB 3.2-compatible thumb drive or USB drive. If you use an older-standard USB port or an older USB thumb drive, then the USB hub automatically adjusts speeds downward to the lowest common standard. For example, if you plug a USB 3.2 hub into a USB 3.0 port and use a USB 2.0 thumb drive, the data transfer rate will be limited to only 480 megabits per second, the maximum speed of the USB 2.0 thumb drive.

As of April 2018, USB 3.2 drives and hubs were just starting to become available for purchase, though plenty of USB 3.1 drives and hubs were available. By the end of 2018, plenty of these faster USB 3.2 hubs and drives should be available. Keep in mind that to take advantage of the speed offered by newer USB 3.2 devices, you'll need to upgrade your computer's USB port to the USB 3.2 standard, unless you've purchase a newer computer with USB 3.2 ports installed.


About the author

J. Carlton Collins (carlton@asaresearch.com) is a technology consultant, a conference presenter, and a JofA contributing editor.

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