A beginner’s guide to data keys

Thursday, 18 June, 2020

Back in the days when a computer’s internal memory capacity was measured in kilobytes or megabytes, external device storage represented an essential part of computing.

The 1980s gave us cassette tapes. The 1990s saw the rise of 3.5-inch floppy discs. And by the millennium, storage devices ranged from Zip drives to CD-ROMs.

For a while, it looked as though DVD rewriters would provide all the storage we’d ever need.

However, disc drives added weight and bulk to laptops, just as portability and low weight were becoming key selling points among consumers.

Plus, the advent of cloud computing made a five-inch plastic disc with a maximum capacity of 4.7GB seem positively antiquated.

Today, it’s relatively unusual to find a new computer sold with a disc drive as standard, whereas freemium cloud storage solutions are provided by all the tech giants.

Even so, many people harbour reservations about storing personal or sensitive information in the cloud.

Some consumers worry about the security of overseas data centres, while many homes have sluggish internet connections unsuitable for large-scale file uploads.

Happily, despite a gradual decline in the availability and use of external storage devices, one alternative still remains popular – data keys.

The keys to the kingdom

A data key is a compact plastic or metal oblong, small enough to hang on a keychain or fit in a wallet or purse’s coin compartment.

It uses a type of memory known as solid state storage.

Unlike the magnetic principles underpinning traditional hard drives, solid state storage has no moving parts. Instead, data is electrically added, read, overwritten and erased.

Solid state storage can be carried around, or stored beside other magnetic objects. It also supports reading and writing far more quickly than electromechanical storage devices.

Data keys are variously known as memory sticks, flash drives or USB drives – the latter acknowledging the presence of a USB 2.0 socket at one end.

This allows it to be plugged into a wide variety of devices, from car dashboards to computer towers.

(The rising popularity of USB-C connectors, which can be inserted either way up, means you may need a small adaptor for modern PCs and Macs.)

When a device detects a data key, it performs a quick scan of its contents before accessing stored information.

Plenty in store

In many respects, data keys are the perfect solution for safely storing files in an offsite location.

They’re small and lightweight, robust and endlessly reusable, consuming minimal energy while connected. Best of all, they’re surprisingly affordable.

You can buy a 32GB data key for around £5, while a high-end USB 3.0 device might cost around £70 for 256GB of storage – as much as many modern laptops provide as standard.

It’s possible to buy memory sticks with 1TB of storage – a thousand gigabytes – though good-quality ones cost hundreds of pounds and cheaper alternatives are often unreliable.

Neil Cumins author picture


Neil is our resident tech expert. He's written guides on loads of broadband head-scratchers and is determined to solve all your technology problems!