Thumb Drive vs Flash Drive

Since 2005, floppy disks and CDs have been replaced by flash drives a.k.a. thumb drives. Today, floppy disks are virtually extinct. CDs are still used every once in a while, but not as often or as widely as before. Thumb drives and flash drives are the most popular mobile storage devices right now.

However, both lay and technical people often present us a question: What is the difference between a thumb drive and a flash drive? There have been heated debates regarding this topic. The majority of people agree that the two are just different names used for the same thing – just like one kid may call his mother ‘mom’ whereas the other kid calls her mother ‘mama’ – but there are also a few people who believe that the two are different. Below, we will see the overview about thumb drives and flash drives, why the two are considered to be the same thing, and why some people insist that the two are different.

Overview

In general, you can call any data storage device using flash memory with an integrated USB interface as either a thumb drive or a flash drive. These devices first appeared on the market in late 2000. In that period of time, all computer memory devices experience a rise in storage capacity and a drop in price. Even though floppy disks and CDs were the most popular physical media to transfer data from computer to computer, the introduction of thumb drives or flash drives changed the trend. By 2005, most desktops and laptops were already supplied with both floppy disk drives and USB ports. Today, floppy disk drives are virtually extinct – new personal computer models are no longer supplied with floppy disk drives. Instead, they come with multiple USB ports. Low-end models don’t consider a CD/DVD drive as a necessity, choosing USB ports for thumb drives or flash drives as well as other peripheral devices.

So, why are thumb drives or flash drives so popular? There are several reasons. Thumb drives or flash drives are smaller and more portable than floppy disks and CDs, yet they are also able to store thousands of times more data. They are also faster and more durable due to having no moving part. Both floppy disks and CDs require moving mechanisms in order to be read or write, and these moving mechanisms are very prone to damage. Additionally, floppy disks are vulnerable to electromagnetic interferences, and CDs are vulnerable to scratches. Thumb drives or flash drives are immune to both threats. Thus, thumb drives or flash drives become the norm of the today’s digital world.

Why They Are The Same

So, now, why are thumb drives and flash drives are considered the same? First and foremost, the majority of people consider the two terms as synonyms. Most people use the terms ‘thumb drive’, ‘flash drive’, as well as ‘USB drive’, ‘USB stick’, ‘USB memory’, ‘jump drive’, and ‘pen drive’ interchangeably. All of those terms refer to a device that uses flash memory with a USB interface. Flash memory is an electronic non-volatile computer storage that can be electrically erased and reprogrammed. Data are stored in cells that are controlled by logic gates. Thumb drives or flash drives are based on NAND logic gates. Unlike floppy disks and CDs, thumb drives or flash drives contain no moving part, and thus are a type of solid-state storage.

All thumb drives and flash drives use the USB mass storage device class standard, which is supported natively by all modern operating systems, such as Windows, Linux, macOS, UNIX-like operating systems, as well as most BIOS boot ROMs. Thumb drives and flash drives nowadays are using USB 2.0, USB 3.0, and USB 3.1 interfaces.

Why They Can Be Different

As you can see, thumb drives and flash drives are based on the same technologies. They are essentially the same, and thus the terms are almost always used synonymously. However, there are some arguments that say the two are different.

The first argument is that thumb drives are those that have a physical switch on the body. This physical switch provides a write protection feature. When in the unlocked position, you can write data to the thumb drive. However, when in the locked position, you will not be able to write data to the thumb drive – you can only read the data inside the thumb drive. This is a very nice feature to prevent accidental deletion and modification of your data. Meanwhile, a flash drive does not have any physical switch for write protection.

We all know that some of these portable drives come with the physical switch, and some others don’t. So, this argument can actually be a way to distinguish thumb drives from flash drives. Still, many people are against this argument because they don’t think that it is necessary to distinguish two terms that are used for the same technology based on a ‘trivial’ feature. ‘Trivial’ because the write protection feature can now be implemented by using a software application. So, even though your flash drive does not have a physical switch to lock your data, you can use a software application to safeguard things there. In addition, considering that many people use the two terms synonymously, differentiating thumb drives from flash drives is perhaps not necessary.

The second argument is usually referred to the physical shape or design of the device. Some people say that a thumb drive is the one that has a thumb-like size. But this is a very weak argument, because thumb drives / flash drives nowadays are designed in various sizes and shapes from the smallest to the largest. Well, if you happen to come across a USB flash drive that has a housing shaped after a thumb – now you have a real reason to call it a thumb drive!

Thumb DriveFlash Drive
- Use flash memory and a USB interface, generally synonymous to flash drive- Use flash memory and a USB interface, generally synonymous to thumb drive
- Sometimes used to refer to such device that has a physical switch for write protection- Sometimes used to refer to such device that does not have the physical switch for write protection
- Sometimes used to refer to such device that has a thumb-like size / shape- Sometimes used to refer to such device that does not have a thumb-like size

Conclusion

Thumb drives and flash drives are generally used interchangeably and synonymously because they refer to the same technology. They both use flash memory for storage and a USB interface for connection. There is an argument that a thumb drive is the one that has a physical switch for write protection, whereas a flash drive does not have such thing; but this argument is widely considered unnecessary.

Leave a Reply