10 awesome ways to use a USB flash drive

Find out how versatile your thumbdrive is with these 10 little-known uses and tricks.

Sharon Profis Vice President of Content, CNET Studios
As the Vice President of CNET Studios, Sharon leads the video, social, editorial design, and branded content teams. Before this role, Sharon led content development and launched new verticals for CNET, including Wellness, Money, and How To. A tech expert herself, she's reviewed and covered countless products, hosted hundreds of videos, and appeared on shows like Good Morning America, CBS Mornings, and the Today Show. An industry expert, Sharon is a recurring Best of Beauty Awards judge for Allure. Sharon is an avid chef and hosts the cooking segment 'Farm to Fork' on PBS nationwide. She's developed and published hundreds of recipes.
  • Webby Award ("How To, Explainer, and DIY Video"); Folio Changemaker Award, 2020
Sharon Profis
3 min read

Watch this: Five cool uses for a USB flash drive

Your trusty USB flash drive is much more versatile than you might realize, packing capabilities that go well beyond storing and transferring files.

These little-known tricks can be utilized by computer newbies and technogeeks alike to achieve anything from restoring a virus-ridden computer to launching and playing portable apps right from the drive.

USB drives
Ed Rhee/CNET

Unlock our top-10 ways to use a USB flash drive with the guide below. Thanks to fellow How To blogger Ed Rhee, and the team at CNET, you'll be surprised to find that storing files might not be the best use of thumbdrives after all.

1. Lock and unlock your computer, secret agent style
With Predator, you can turn your USB drive into a "key" that unlocks your computer when plugged in, and locks it when it's removed. If anyone attempts to access your computer without the key (or top-secret password), they'll be hit with an epic "ACCESS DENIED" message.

2. Revive a virus-ridden system
With the free AVG rescue software loaded on your USB drive, you can scan a crippled computer for viruses. And, if all goes well, bring your system back to life.

3. Run portable apps, games, and utilities
What's more portable than a laptop, tablet, or smartphone? Answer: a USB flash drive. Run applications like Firefox, Chrome, OpenOffice, and more, with just your USB flash drive and any computer.

4. Install and test-drive Windows 8
Want to peek into Microsoft's upcoming operating system? The consumer preview is available, but with this tutorial, we'll show you how to try out Windows 8 without overwriting your current OS.

5. Give Linux a try
You might have heard your geek friends brag about Linux, the open-source operating system. Like the Windows 8 tutorial, we'll show you how to use your USB drive to boot Linux and poke around the OS without overwriting your current system.

6. Secure your docs and files
If all you want to do is use your thumbdrive for file storage, don't forget to encrypt it. By doing so, only you will have access to the files on the drive, rendering it useless to anyone who finds (or steals) it.

7. Maintain your Windows computer
Find out how to install Parted Magic, a handy piece of software that lets you do things like reset Windows passwords, clone your system, and partition your hard disk, right from your USB flash drive.

8. Install Windows 7 on a MacBook
If you want access to both operating systems, OS X and Windows, you can use a USB drive to install Windows on your MacBook. This is extra handy for MacBook Air owners who need a workaround for the absence of an optical drive.

9. Turn it into a last-minute gift
Victims of procrastination will love this guide, which shows you how a plain ol' USB drive can be repurposed into a thoughtful gift in just a couple hours time.

10. Too many USB drives? Donate them!
Marketers seem to love USB drives, handing them out in any opportunity they encounter. We tech writers especially are often inundated with the darned things at conventions like CES. If you're in the same boat, see if there's a school in your area that could use them.

Bonus: Quickly remove USB devices without using Safe Removal