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What size USB flash drive do you need?

What size USB flash drive do you need?
(Image credit: Sandisk)

One of the most important considerations when purchasing a USB flash drive is size. While factors like reliability and compatibility are important (although most drives can now be formatted to suit either Windows PC or Mac), it's the size of the drive that matters the most. Smaller USBs are fine for backing up things like documents and a limited selection of photos, whereas you'll need to go with larger HDD options - running to 3-4TB - if you want to store a decent amount of large file types, like videos and video game saves.

Most of the best home computers will come with large hard drives, which will handle most of your storage needs. The standard size on most PCs is about 2TB, whereas most of the best laptops run between 512GB and 1TB. That's more than enough for the average user, who will be storing photos, documents, music, and a limited number of videos. Even when you take into account the size of certain apps and software you may have installed, 512GB to 1TB is plenty. Even the best smartphones have 128GB-256GB of storage now.

It's when you start introducing things like home-generated videos, video games, and other forms of rich media that you'll need to consider additional storage. Whereas we'd always recommend external hard drives for this kind of thing, USB flash drives can give you a little breathing room for just a few extra dollars. As an idea of how much space today's files tend to occupy, we've created the below table.

How much can you store?
Size of USBPhotos (12MP)SongsHD Video (Minutes) 

1 Page Word Document 

16GBUp to 3,800Up to 4,000Up to 250Up to 320,000
32GBUp to 7,600Up to 8,000Up to 500Up to 640,000
64GBUp to 15,200Up to 16,000Up to 1,0001m +
128GBUp to 30,400Up to 32,000Up to 2,0002m +
256GBUp to 60,800Up to 64,000Up to 4,0004m +
512GBUp to 121,600Up to 128,000Up to 8,0008m +

Of course, the advantage of the USB flash drive is that it's very small and easy to carry with you. While external HDDs can also be small enough to carry in a rucksack or briefcase, USB drives can be carried in a pocket or purse. That's their big advantage in today's digital world.

You can buy USB flash drives up to about 512GB nowadays, with the smallest usually being 16GB. While you can go smaller, the 16GB drives only cost about $6-10, so there's little incentive to go for anything smaller. They all come with USB 3.0 or 3.1 connections too, so transfer speeds are reasonably quick. If you're copying across several 100GB of data, you don't want to be waiting hours, although that will depend on the speed of the USB device you have.

In terms of brands, you want to go with one of the more reliable manufacturers, as it's easy for USB flash drives to get damaged and to lose your data and files that are stored on them. We recommend Sandisk, Samsung, and PNY as the top makers - anything from them should be fine. Although if you are storing large files and loads of them, we definitely recommend an external hard drive instead. Here, you should be looking at WD (Western Digital), Seagate, Samsung, and Toshiba.

(Image credit: Sandisk)

You should also consider how you're going to carry and care for your USB drive. Most have keyring attachments, so you can carry one with your house or car keys. This does mean they get knocked around in your pocket or handbag, so we wouldn't recommend storing your only copy of important files on them, as they will eventually break. If you won't be carrying the USB drive around every day, then just make sure you keep it in a dry place, away from magnets or microwave radiation.

That's really all you need to know about USB flash drives - they're an inexpensive way to expand your storage, and take your files with you wherever you go. You can even take USB flash drives on airplanes. Check out the lowest prices on our recommended USB drives below.