6 clever uses for your spare USB thumb drives

USB sticks (sometimes known as thumb drives, pen drives, and flash drives) are low-cost, portable storage options that are mainly used for storing files and for quick transfers between PCs. Many are received for free from trade shows and conventions, as business promotions. Because they're so common, many people have a bunch of them sitting around not in use. Instead of letting them go to waste, you can use them in a number of smart ways.

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Create an emergency Windows Preinstallation Environment (PE)

Perhaps the most important thing you can do with a USB stick is to create an emergency Windows PE. In the event of a complete failure of your OS, say from a hardware failure or a malware infection, you can plug the USB stick into a port, start your computer, and begin the restoration process.

A simple way to create a Windows PE is to use Macrium Reflect, the same app we use to create drive images and clones. The free version includes all the tools you need, and you'll even be prompted to create a Windows PE on a USB stick when you first launch the app after installation.

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Save backup images of your PC

Using a Windows PE to recover a PC often means you will be starting from scratch with your OS, but you can also choose to recover from a current backup image of your PC's drive.

An image is essentially a snapshot of everything on a hard drive, including system files. Images can be used with a PE to turn an empty drive or corrupted OS into an exact replica of the Windows you know — apps, files, settings, and all. You can set a schedule for incremental or differential backups so that you'll get a current version of your OS if you need to perform a restore. For more information about drive imaging, check out our comparison between imaging and cloning.

Windows 10 has a built-in image function, or you can use third-party software like Macrium Reflect. Either way, we put together guides on how to create drive images to help protect against data loss.

Safeguard photos and files with File History

Creating a backup containing important photos (and other important documents) is a practice that should be followed by everyone. Disaster can strike at any time, so having files stored in one place is risky.

If you have a few USB sticks lying around the house, why not use them to store some important files? Even if you already back up to the cloud or to an external hard drive, having those important files in a secondary or even tertiary location is not a bad idea.

In the event of data loss, you'll be thankful that you had the foresight to place those special files on a USB stick that was otherwise not being put to use. To transfer files, you can either drag and drop them onto the USB stick, or you can use File History to keep things more organized. In the event you need a hand using File History, we created a guide to get you through the process.

Create a security key for your PC

Windows Hello is one of the best security features in Windows 10. It allows you to sign into your PC immediately by scanning your face with an IR camera or by scanning your fingerprint with a reader. Unfortunately, not all laptops and PCs come with hardware compatible with Windows Hello.

There are third-party hardware options available that work with Windows Hello, namely the YubiKey. It's a small USB stick that you plug into your PC to authenticate your identity when logging in. Without the YubiKey, there's no getting into the PC.

All you need to know about YubiKey for Windows Hello and Windows 10

If you already have an extra USB stick, you can create your own physical key for your PC. Apps like Predator and KeyLock are easy to use and give you an extra layer of security.

These apps work by scanning USB drives for a necessary file that keeps the PC unlocked. When you remove the USB stick, the file can no longer be found, so your PC locks up. Not until you replace the USB stick can the PC be used again.

Use ReadyBoost to increase performance on an aging PC

If you have an aging PC with a small amount of RAM (say, 2GB or less) and a hard-disk drive (HDD), you're probably suffering through long load times and overall poor performance. Data from your hard drive is constantly being accessed, and it is temporarily stored in your RAM. When your RAM fills up, your hard drive begins to shoulder some of the load in virtual memory. The problem then is that your HDD has slow read and write speeds.

To increase performance, that USB stick sitting in your desk drawer can be used with a Windows feature called ReadyBoost to create a cache accessible by your RAM.

While this method is pretty much useless for PCs with solid-state drives (SSD) and large amounts of RAM, it can give your old PC a boost to performance that can save you from pulling out your hair.

To use ReadyBoost, ensure the USB stick you're using is formatted as NTFS or exFAT (preferred) and has as much or more storage room as you have RAM. Plug in the USB stick, right-click its icon in File Explorer, click Properties, and click the ReadyBoost tab. Choose to use the device for ReadyBoost, and you'll be good to go.

Create an encrypted vault

USB sticks are small and easy to lose. If you lose one in your house it's not too big of a deal (other than not having access to the files until you find it). But leaving one behind at a coffee shop or elsewhere can be a problem if there are sensitive files on it.

Windows 10 users who run Pro or Enterprise version of the OS can use a built-in tool called BitLocker to secure a USB stick. It uses password-protected encryption to keep anyone who isn't you from accessing the saved files. If you need a hand using BitLocker, have a look at our guide.

How to use BitLocker Drive Encryption on Windows 10

Those of you who aren't using Windows Pro or Enterprise can still get in on the encryption fun with third-party software. VeraCrypt is one solution, but there are plenty more options out there that will help you create a secure USB stick.

How do you use extra USB sticks?

Are you using a USB stick for any of the above methods? Do you have other good ideas that we missed? Let us know below.

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Cale Hunt
Senior Editor, Laptop Reviews

Cale Hunt is formerly a Senior Editor at Windows Central. He focuses mainly on laptop reviews, news, and accessory coverage. He's been reviewing laptops and accessories full-time since 2016, with hundreds of reviews published for Windows Central. He is an avid PC gamer and multi-platform user, and spends most of his time either tinkering with or writing about tech.

  • Uh.... To run Linux. Both Kali and Ubuntu to be precise.
  • Another thing you can do with them is to create a disk pool in Storage Spaces. You'll first have to remove the file system from them, but it's an interesting project, and one way to practice using Storage Spaces without going to any huge expense while studying for an exam. Some good weekend project material.
  • I collect them. In a drawer. Beneath the pens that don't work anymore. And the candy wrappers. I need help...
  • Mine are in a drawer under my collection of coworker fingernail clippings and belly button lint.
  • Wow, is that a thing? I've never orked a cow in my life so I wouldn't know what might be involved. Do you have to get your cows orked often?
  • A quick Bing search found this bunch that I think can actually help you: www.clutterbusters.com
  • Cale: Can you do an article on how to revive (format) a bricked microSD card and how to clone a microSD card? I have a few that even don't show up in file explorer...
  • Great ideas.
  • Not sure if helpful to you but @ sdcard.org they have a download called SD card formatter which has revived numerous 'bricked' SD cards which had been used for Rasperry PI setups for me.
  • I have used that utility. No luck... The card needs to be detected first.
  • if its not detectable = its dead
  • Yes they might be and the article should mention how tp revive them! Brand new working MicroSD cards bricked under 4 months of usage in Windows phones!?
  • Only way is to buy genuine ones. What you report is typical fake behaviour.
  • Sometimes you can use an old digital cameras to format undetectable cards or you can try the following. **Warning this will erase all contents! Run Command Prompt as Administrator
    > DiskPart
    > List Disk
    > Select Disk x (x=the drive number you wish to format/fix)
    > Attributes Disk Clear ReadOnly
    > Clean
    > Exit
    Now go in to Disk Manager and you should be able to see the drive and format it.
  • They don't have to show up on file explorer for them not to be dead. A good way to see if they're good is to go to disk management and see if it shows up. If it does, it might have a file system unknown to windows or it could have been corrupted. Either way, you can right click on where it says unallocated space and click create new volume, or if it doesn't, you can right click the volume and delete it and then create a new one. This should make it appear in file explorer if it's successful. 
  • One comment, don't format your stick as NTFS for readyboost. Use ExFAT instead.
  • Good point and good catch.
  • I prefer the exFAT file system for ReadyBoost.
  • About the encrypted vault, what if i used Windows 10 Pro and password protect a USB and then can i access it from Windows 10 Home?? or do i need Windows 10 Pro only to access??
  • The encryption shouldn't be OS specific, I.E. you should be fine accessing it from a win10 home version. 
  • But you'd need your bitlocker key to unlock the drive in Windows
  • I have one plugged into my Asus router so we all can backup data files to it.
  • Yes.. I use a 128GB in my router as network storage.
  • I have a PC and laptop which sadly don't support TPM. I use a usb key and an SD card respectively as USB keys as a bitlocker requirement before the system boots to OS.
  • You can run Kodi from a usb stick and if you seach portable apps, there is a lot of apps and utilities out there.
  • Great idea. Will be very useful if you want to switch from Windows tablet, PC stick for TV and desktop PC. Also portable apps, as Windows tablet and PC stick have small storage.
  • Thought ReadyBoost was **** canned. I was going to try it on my SP4 M3. Often my 4GB RAM leaves me with freezing web pages.
    Anyone know another way I can do this? Page file system? I increased that too. Didn't really help
  • Readyboost wouldn't do any good for an SP4, even an m3. The ssd is much faster than any usb key you might have.
  • Portableapps.com