How To: Use Removable Mass Storage Memory Devices

Mass storage refers to the variety of ways to keep large amounts of information that are used on a computer. Why do you need to keep a lot of data? One reason is to store multimedia (for example, PowerPoint presentations, music, or videos) and easily move it from one computer to another—such as from home to school, or to send home with a student.

Over the years, the removable storage devices we use have grown smaller, increased in capacity, and transferred the information to the computer faster. The 8" floppy disk of the 1960s stored 100 kilobytes, or about 60 typewritten, double-spaced pages of text. The 5" disk of the 1970s held 360K, and the 3" diskettes from the 1980s stored 1.44 megabytes. Today, Zip disks begin at 100MB, and CDs hold about 650MB—6,500 times the storage of the 8" disks!

To use any of these disks, you need a disk drive in which to insert it. The latest in removable storage devices, called flash drives (also known as jump, pen, or thumb drives), change all of that. This small device (about the size of a stick of gum) combines the storage medium and the hardware into one (see picture).

How Much Storage Does a Flash Drive Have?

The first flash drives held 8MB; now, the most common size seems to be 256MB (approximately equivalent to 175 3" diskettes), and some are available with up to 2GB—roughly 2,000MB—of storage.

How Do I Use a Flash Drive?

One of the best things about the flash drive is the ease of use-no additional hardware is needed. The flash drive itself plugs directly into a USB port on your computer. When you plug it in, it appears in your list of drives (within "My Computer" on a PC, or on the Desktop on a Macintosh). You can copy files to and from it, and save files to it, just as you would with any other drive. Some words of caution: if you are using Windows 98, you will need to first install a driver on the computer (which should come with the flash drive on a CD) before the computer will recognize the drive; also, flash drives are not compatible with Windows 95 and earlier.

Additional Information about Flash Drives

The speed at which information is copied to and from the flash drive depends on the type of USB port on the computer. The current type of USB port, called USB 2.0, transfers data faster; older USB versions also work, but at a slower rate.

No battery or external power is required of flash drives—they get their power from the computer through the USB port.

Another Option in Mass Storage

The Apple iPod portable music player can also be used to store data. As a matter of fact, this fall Duke University distributed 20GB iPods to every freshman, hoping to "stimulate creative uses of digital content" and have "faculty to use them as part of their course activities" (

Jeffrey Branzburg is a contributing editor and regular columnist for Technology & Learning.