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How to turn a USB drive into an awesome last-minute gift

A USB drive and a little creativity turns into a thoughtful and unique last-minute gift.

Sharon Vaknin/CNET

Back in the day, CDs burned with custom playlists were the ultimate last-minute gifts: thoughtful, unique, and took just enough effort to warrant a "Wow, I can't believe you made this for me!"

For the most part, those days are over, but if you have a USB drive laying around, you can give a gift that might be even better than a burned CD: a customized USB hard drive. Not only can you pack it with a variety of goodies (like hand-picked music and photos), the gift recipient will use the USB drive over and over again for personal use.

Let's get started.

This geeky camera and lens USB thumbdrive is $20. Photojojo

1. Pick a unique drive
Start by choosing a drive as unique as the gift recipient. "Star Wars", steampunk, camera kit, and robots are just a few of the many creative thumbdrives out there.

Alternatively, dust off an unused drive you already own, or pick up a standard 4GB drive for as little as $7 on Amazon and get it delivered in time for Christmas.

2. Give it a name
For this gift, you'll have to actually take the USB drive out of its packaging. After all, that's the only way you'll be able to modify it. (It's OK, you'll repackage it later.)

When you plug it into your computer, you'll see it has a generic name. In Windows, right-click the drive and select Properties. At the top, rename the drive to something like "For [Recipient Name]." On a Mac, right-click the drive and select Get Info. Rename it and save your changes.

3. Get creative with custom files and apps
Now it's time to get creative. But before you add anything else to the drive, open Notepad in Windows or TextEdit on OS X and write a letter to the gift recipient. Then save it to the drive and name it "READMEFIRST" or "Dear[Recipient Name]." This note can be lengthy, or something akin to a greeting card with a mention of what you've included in the thumbdrive.

Screenshot by Sharon Vaknin/CNET

For my friend Ashley, for example, I loaded the USB drive with a photo album of our best moments, a fun playlist (the modern-day burned CD), a personalized video, and a few of my favorite recipes. Here are some ideas:
  • A hand-picked playlist
  • Photos from the past year
  • Photo slideshow (you can make this in iMovie or Windows MovieMaker)
  • Event tickets (in PDF format)
  • Your favorite recipes (in PDF format)
  • Portable apps you think the recipient might enjoy

Actually there are many creative things you can do with a USB flash drive, six of which we rounded up here. My favorite idea? Help your non-tech-savvy friends scan for malware with this USB drive hack.

When you've configured the drive, you have a few options for wrapping. If you're careful enough, you might be able to sneak it back into its original packaging. Just make sure you tell the recipient to plug it in immediately (otherwise it might be weeks before he or she uses it.)

Alternatively, you can throw it in a jewelry box with some tissue, put it on a necklace chain, or simply tape it to the inside of a card with a note that reads: "Plug me in!"

You can get a printout of the "Be mine" label right here.