A USB key, aka thumb drive, is a must-have item for any hardware-fixing performance junkie, and now that USB 3.0 versions have arrived we all want the fastest one we can get our sweaty digits on. To find out which key holds the combination to our hearts, we put four models with top-tier specs through their paces. Since most of them don't come with any extras, they will be judged primarily on straight-line speed and overall usability. May the best key end up on your keychain!
Lexar JumpDrive P10 64GB
Lexar’s JumpDrive P10 is the successor to its Triton drive, offering the same chassis but much improved performance. It’s available in 16GB, 32GB, and 64GB capacities, and is billed as a “premium” drive due to its design and performance. AT $120 (street) for the 64GB, it’s the most expensive drive in this roundup, and looking at it, one can see why. The combination of brushed metal and its plastic “piano finish” top look very swank, and the solid-metal casing feels indestructible in your hand. The USB connector retracts into the chassis and slides out like a turtle head, and it takes a bit more pressure than we would like to deploy. The biggest issue with the JumpDrive’s chassis is that it lacks a proper loop for your keychain. There are two teeny, tiny holes on the end that you can fit an included string into, but that's it, which is not good enough, period.
In testing, the JumpDrive showed impressive speed across the board, taking second place in the 30GB transfer, first place in the 10GB transfer, and hitting over 250MB/s in our synthetic tests. That is ludicrous speed, and is about on par with what we’d get from a midrange SSD, so kudos to Lexar for building such a fast drive. The problem is the SanDisk is just as fast in most tests, costs $50 less, and has a loop for your keychain. We love this drive’s speed and smooth metal body, but not much else.
The Lexar P10 looks slick but it's missing a decent keychain loop.
This is the only key here that offers any impact protection, and it offers it in the form of an orange rubber sheath that protects it from falls up to 100 meters—that is, if you choose to keep the key in the sheath, since the two are not permanently attached. The key itself has a brushed-metal chassis with a narrow neck and extra-wide body to allow it to slip into its rubber cocoon for transport. When you need to use the key, you simply pull it out of the orange shell. We like that it comes with a key ring pre-attached to an even smaller loop, which could slip onto an existing key ring if you like, and that the rubber shell is optional. Everyone in the office thought the LaCie has the best design, hands-down. It's available in 16GB, 32GB, and 64GB capacities.
The LaCie RuggedKey is inside an orange thingy for protection.
Unlike the other keys, LaCie quotes relatively modest specs for this puppy, saying only that it can do “up to 150MB/s.” It includes LaCie's hardware encryption, which password-protects a portion of the key, and is a welcome feature. In tests, the RuggedKey was a bit slower than the other keys, especially in writes, where it hit 120MB–130MB in synthetic benchmarks; it came in third in our 10GB write test, and last in our 30GB write test. Its read speeds were respectable, though, hitting just a bit over 200MB/s.
Overall, the LaCie is a well-rounded package. You trade a bit of speed for a great design with excellent features.
Corsair’s new Flash Voyager comes in a scratch-resistant brushed-metal shell that is thin, wide, and flat. It features a small, plastic “loop” at one end for attaching to a keychain, and a removable cap on the other end, which we makes us grumpy since they are so easily lost. It’s available in 64GB, 128GB, and 256GB capacities, and is the fastest USB key the company offers, rated for speeds up to 260MB/s read and 70MB/s writes. It includes a five-year warranty and its pricing places it smack-dab in the middle of the pack. It’s important to note that its wide design could block other similarly wide devices at adjacent ports, and though the key’s body is metal, the small piece on the end that slides on a keychain is plastic, so we can already see it snapping off a year down the road.
We're not sure why Corsair thought the GS needed a removable cap.
It’s too bad there are issues with its shape and size, because it offers superb performance. It was the fastest drive in our 30GB file copy and in both of our sequential read speed tests, hitting an eye-popping 296MB/s in Crystal-DiskMark. It also posted the fastest sequential-read speeds in the synthetic AS SSD test, which uses incompressible data such as JPEGs and MP3s, making the Corsair a top-notch performer.
On the whole, this is a fast and affordable package. We don’t like the form factor, however, which includes the too-small plastic “loop,” the removable cap, and a wide body. If you’re using a lanyard, we highly recommend it, but keychain users should shop elsewhere.
The SanDisk Extreme USB key is the most basic and un-fancy USB key in the group, with an extremely light plastic chassis and a no-frills slide-out USB key. We love retractable keys, though, and we also appreciate that it has a small loop for our keychain, so in our opinion, this key’s simple design is spot-on. When holding it in your hand it feels like it weighs nothing at all, which some staffers disliked; its USB connector flicks out firmly like a switchblade knife, and never accidentally retracts once out. It is available in 16GB, 32GB, and 64GB capacities and includes encryption software that lets you drag-and-drop files into a hidden, password-protected portion of the drive represented by a vault icon that sits on your desktop. It's slick but we could never tell how much space it was taking up, as it's a "hidden" volume, so it'd be nice to be able to allocate a certain amount of storage for it.
SanDisk's Extreme is extremely affordable, that's for sure.
In our testing, the SanDisk was the slowest in synthetic read speeds by a decent margin, but second-fastest in write speeds. In file-copying, it was second-fastest in the 10GB test, and third-fastest in our 30GB write test, but by a very small margin.
On balance, the SanDisk is a well-designed key that is extremely affordable. It would have become our all-time favorite if it were just a bit faster.
Best scores are bolded. All tests conducted on our hard-drive test bench, which consists of a Gigabyte Z77X-UP4 motherboard, Intel Core i5-3470 3.2GHz CPU, 8GB of RAM, Intel 520 series SSD, and a Cool Master 450W power supply.