Little Drive, Big Deal

You probably bought a USB flash drive so you could transport files between PCs, or maybe make the occasional on-the-fly backup of important documents. Great stuff, but those handy functions barely scratch the surface of what your drive can do.

Indeed, a flash drive is like a digital Swiss Army knife, able to perform a circus tent’s worth of amazing feats. That single pinky-size gizmo can lock down a PC, store important passwords (safely, of course), run an entire operating system, and more. Turns out your little drive is kind of a big deal.

Before you get started, however, make sure to take the property security precautions. Flash drives are especially susceptible to viruses and other malware, so make sure your desktop security software supports external drives, and set it to auto-scan any drive you plug in.

Likewise, consider installing a program like Rohos Mini Drive, which creates a password-protected partition on the drive. Then, store some or all of your data in that partition. That way, if your drive gets lost or stolen, you can rest easy (or at least easier).

1. Lock your PC

Flash drives kind of look like keys, so why not use them that way? With a free utility like Predator, you can lock and unlock your PC by inserting and removing your drive. For example, when you step away from the machine, you simply take the drive with you. The moment it’s unplugged, the screen goes dark and the program locks the mouse and keyboard. When you return, plug the drive back in, and presto: Access is restored. This could prove incredibly handy when you’re working in your office or a public place, like a coffee shop.

An example of a retractable USB drive.

2. Take Linux for a test-drive

You’ve heard of Linux, but haven’t had a chance to see what all the fuss is about. After all, your computer runs Windows. But what if you could plug in your USB drive and temporarily turn your PC into a Linux system? Even better, when you’re done, your machine will go back to its regular Windows-powered self, with no trace of Linux left behind?

You can work this bit of OS prestidigitation with UNetbootin, a free Windows utility that downloads and installs any version of Linux to your flash drive, then makes that drive bootable. It’s an easy, hassle-free way to test-drive the OS, which runs entirely from the drive, making no changes whatsoever to your existing setup. Truth be told, it’s also really fun.

3. Turbocharge Windows

If you’re running Windows Vista or Windows 7, you can use your flash drive to make your system run faster. Microsoft’s ReadyBoost technology taps the storage as an extra memory cache — and that memory’s performance blows the doors off a traditional hard drive’s. To use ReadyBoost, just plug in your drive, then follow the prompts to get everything set up. Note: If your PC has a solid-state drive (SSD), there’s little value in adding your flash drive to the mix; SSDs already give Windows that super-speedy flash storage.

4. Store your passwords

It may sound crazy to keep important passwords and other personal data on a flash drive, but it actually makes a lot of sense. Whatever computer you’re using, you’ll have quick and easy access to your user IDs, passwords, PIN codes, membership numbers, and the like — but you’ll leave behind no trace of any of them. It’s a much safer solution than storing everything in, say, a memo.

Indeed, all you need is a portable password manager, a small utility that encrypts all your important stuff. And because the program itself is password-protected, anyone who might find or steal your drive won’t be able to gain access.

5. Quick-search any PC

If you bounce back and forth between multiple computers, or you’re routinely called on for tech support for friends and family, you’d probably welcome a way to quickly and efficiently search for files. (“I know I saved the presentation, but now I can’t find it anywhere!”) Everything to the rescue. This free utility quickly indexes whatever PC your flash drive is plugged into, then offers lightning-fast file searching. And the portable version runs directly from your drive, so there’s nothing to install.

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