Are you sitting at your desk? Go ahead, reach down, and open your desk drawer. You know the one. It’s the drawer that holds a couple outdated cellphones, a tangle of paper clips, and mystery cables from long-gone devices.
You probably have a small herd of USB flash drives in there, forgotten, unused and unloved.
It’s time to give them purpose and a new lease on their electronic lives.
Check out these 10 handy, fun and downright helpful ways to use USB thumb drives.
1. Run your own Google Chrome on other computers
There are a lot of personal things you wouldn’t imagine sharing with other people, like your passwords or your toothbrush. You don’t have to share someone else’s web browser, either. Portable Apps, a site that collects apps that can run on USB drives, offers up Google Chrome Portable, a version of Chrome that lives on a flash drive.
It’s both familiar and efficient. You can take it with you to use on a shared or borrowed computer and it won’t impact any version of Chrome that’s already on the machine.
2. Scan for viruses
If you know or suspect a computer has been compromised by a virus, you can use a portable app installed on a USB drive to scan and remove the offending software.
PortableApps offers several options, including ClamWin Portable, McAfee Stinger Portable, and Spybot-Search & Destroy Portable. Install these on the drive, plug it into the computer, and run them to check and clean the machine.
3. Create a Windows recovery drive
Don’t wait until your Windows PC freaks out. Be prepared by turning a spare USB stick into a recovery drive. A recovery drive lets you run troubleshooting tools if your Windows machine is having problems, even if it won’t start up properly.
Follow Microsoft’s directions to create the drive. You may need at least a 16 GB USB drive if you choose the option to back up your system files, but this will let you reinstall Windows if necessary.
Once you have the drive finished, label it and store it where you’ll be able to access it easily if your computer starts acting up.
4. Play games
A USB drive can hold a ton of games. Carry it around, plug it into a convenient computer, and have fun. You can find a huge list of flash-drive games through Portable Apps. Whether you’re into chess, solitaire, retro games, sudoku, or racing, you’ll find something to play. This can also be a great way to keep kids occupied.
Have a suite of games ready on a USB drive and you can hand them a laptop and the drive and let them entertain themselves when you’re traveling.
5. Go incognito
The Tails operating system has an intriguing tagline: “Privacy for anyone anywhere.” You can run Tails from a USB drive on a computer and it will keep your activity private and anonymous by acting as an independent OS.
You will actually need two USB drives for the initial Tails setup and it can seem a little involved, but the Tails site will walk you through the process.
Tails is one way to protect your privacy when using public computers or a computer you don’t trust. It can also be a way to hide your tracks if you’re shopping for birthday or holiday gifts on a computer you share with your family.
6. Hand out USB business cards
This tip isn’t so much about re-purposing an old USB drive. It’s about standing out from the networking crowd with custom-made USB business cards. A quick online search will point out several manufacturers.
A USB business card holds more than just your contact information. It can also include a resume, portfolio, press kit, or other files.
7. Boost your Windows experience
Microsoft has long offered a little-known Windows feature called ReadyBoost. It’s meant to speed up certain processes on computers that use standard hard drives. While it may offer a benefit to some computers running Windows 10, people with older machines and those using earlier Windows operating systems are the most likely to see a speed improvement.
It does not work for computers with solid-state drives like those often found in higher-end laptops.
ReadyBoost turns an external flash drive into a hard disk cache.
Microsoft gives instructions for setting up a ReadyBoost drive for Windows 7, but this also works on more recent versions of the operating system. It's worth a try if your computer feels poky.
8. Make a Dead Drop
A “dead drop” is spy-speak for a method of passing secret information. Berlin artist Aram Bartholl started a trend of USB flash drive “Dead Drops” that has since spread around the world.
People who participate leave USB drives in public, perhaps cemented into a wall or tied to a tree. Dead Drop users are encouraged to share their favorite files, whether it’s photography, a poem, or some other creation.
You can find out how to participate on Bartholl’s Dead Drops site. Just keep in mind that attaching your computer to an unknown USB drive comes with a lot of potential security risks, so you might want to use a secondary computer just for your Dead Drops activities.
9. Use it as the key to your computer
You can turn a USB drive into a key that unlocks your Windows computer by using Predator software. Download and install Predator on your PC and a flash drive. Once it’s set up, the computer will only work when the USB drive is plugged in.
Pull it out and the display goes dark and the keyboard and mouse are disabled. Plug it back in to get back to work.
Predator can be used on multiple computers, so the same flash drive can unlock more than one machine.
You can also have several flash drives as keys for the same computer, so everyone in your family (or only certain members) can unlock a particular PC. Predator starts at $10 for the home edition.
10. Carry important files while traveling
You’re finally going on that overseas vacation of your dreams. Travel advisors always caution you to take backups of important documents, including your passport, ID, emergency contacts, itinerary, and ticket confirmations.
You can print out physical copies of all of these, but you can also store them on a small USB drive and attach it to a key ring, carry it in your purse or wallet, or store it in a secure spot in your carry-on luggage.
Here’s one USB stick you should be afraid of
The USB Kill Stick is a malicious piece of hardware that’s out to destroy computers.