23 Things to Do With a Thumb Drive

Revive Your Crashed PC

If the unthinkable happens and your PC goes south, your modest little thumb drive can come to the rescue--if you've spent some time customizing it as a recovery drive.

Recovery thumb drives are most useful if you make them bootable so that they can help if your system won't start. The task isn't quite as simple as formatting a floppy disk in Windows, but enterprising users should have little trouble.

You need two things: a utility that can create a master boot record (MBR), and a floppy or CD that is already bootable. Both are readily available online, including downloadable MBR creators (try MKBT) and bootable drive images (take your pick at bootdisk.com). As well, you need to set your PC's BIOS to boot from a USB drive before other drives, something that older systems in particular might not support. Click here for extensive step-by-step instructions on creating a bootable thumb drive.

Once your drive is bootable, load it with applications that repair common system errors and pin down elusive hardware problems. Free or shareware programs are more likely to run straight from the drive. Essential tools include disk- and RAM-testing apps such as Memtest86, Registry tune-up tools like Registry Mechanic, and backup and recovery programs such as DriveImage XML. Partition management tools like Disk Director and file undelete tools such as Undelete can also turn around a potentially very bad day. You can find plenty more at The 46 Best-ever Freeware Utilities page and at Ultimate Boot CD.

Tunes on Wheels

Photograph: Rick Rizner
A thumb drive is great for carting music around, and if you're in your car, you can play the tunes right from it, too--no software required. Devices like the Thumbdrive Car FM Stereo Transmitter ($37) play music off any thumb drive you attach.

Plug the transmitter into your car's cigarette lighter and tune your radio to the unit's frequency (choose the clearest). Results vary depending on the size and location of your car's antenna, and the controls are limited to play/pause, previous and next track, and FM channel.

But if you want to play MP3s on the road without having to buy an iPod plus accessories, this inexpensive little tool will do the job.

Christopher Null is a technology journalist and the former editor in chief of Mobile magazine.

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