Dealing with USB Drives and OS X

Portable USB Flash drives are one of my favorite peripherals of the past few years. Before USB drives, you’d have to burn files on a CD if you wanted to transfer them to a friend or co-worker. What a waste so that they can look at a 20mb file once and never again.

Now, with sizes ranging into 8gb for about $20, USB Flash drives are more economical than DVDs for moving files around. As wonderful as flash drives are, there are a few catches you need to be aware of with OS X.

4,000,000,000 Bytes is not 4 Gigabytes:

This is probably the most annoying discrepancy with Flash Drives and Hard Drives. You buy a 4GB Flash Drive and really only get 3.7GB of storage. Even more shocking is when you begin getting into Hard Drive sizes above 320GB. That 320GB drive gives you around 300GB of storage. That’s a 20GB discrepancy. A 1TB drive gives you .99TB of storage which is a loss of around 100GB!

This discrepancy is due to drive manufacturers seeing 1k as 1,000 bytes, while OS’s see 1k as 1,024 bytes. Not that much of a difference back 20-30 years ago. Now, 1 GB is practically nothing and that little 24 byte difference is huge.

So, until drive manufacturers and OS makers get on the same page (don’t hold your breath), just know that with a 8GB or 16GB flash drive, expect 6.69GB and 14.8GB respectively.

Pre-Installed Crapware:

Sometimes using OS X is like a pristine environment because companies don’t bother developing the crapware that fill up a brand new Windows machine. That’s changing and changing fast. Most flash drives now come with some sort of crapware “utility” to use them. You don’t need it at all.

As long as the flash drive is formatted in a format OS X can read, it will work whether its full of crap or not. It will behave similarly to an external hard drive. Just drag and drop your files onto it. Or directly save them onto the flash drive.

So, with a brand new flash drive, your first step should be to wipe the crap off of it and just use it. In OS X, you will use Disk Utility to erase it. I’ll go over how to do this on the next step.

Mac or Windows?

Before wiping your drive, you will need to decide whether you want to have it work with Windows machines or not.

OS X can read and write to HFS+ volumes and FAT32 volumes. HFS+ is the native OS X file system. FAT32 used to be the native Windows file system until NTFS came out. Windows is still able to use FAT32 but OS X can’t write to a NTFS volume (yet).

I always format mine to be used in both – you never know when you’ll need to put that flash drive into a PC. So I recommend you format your flash drive to be FAT32. If you have a PC, format it as FAT32 and it will work in OS X.

To format your flash drive as FAT32 in OS X:

– Insert your flash drive and wait for it to mount.

– Open Disk Utility. (Its in the Utilities folder)

– On the left, select your flash drive.

– To the right, click the “Erase” tab.

– Under “Volume Format”, choose MS-DOS (FAT)

Formatting a USB Drive

– You can also name your drive if you choose.

– Click “Erase” and it will format your flash drive.

Your drive will now work with all platforms – OS X, Windows and Linux.

Always Eject!

One HUGE difference between OS X and Windows is that you MUST manually eject your flash drive before removing it from your computer (unplugging it).

Windows recommends you do but by default it’s set in a mode where unplugging it without ejecting it won’t harm your data. OS X is not and if you do, it will warn you that you removed the device without ejecting it.

If you decide to pull the drive out without ejecting it first, there is a very high chance your data will be either corrupted or lost. I had to spend 2 hours retyping something that was lost because I forgot to eject my flash drive. Don’t make this mistake!

You Eject your Flash drive by:

– Selecting the drive and choosing “Eject” from the Finder’s Menu Bar under “File”.

– Selecting the drive and using the Command E shortcut.

– Dragging the drive to the Trash Can which turns into an Eject symbol.

– Clicking the Eject button under Devices in the Finder’s sidebar.

Ejecting a USB Drive

Note: Sometimes OS X doesn’t quickly eject a drive, wait until it disappears from the desktop and the Finder’s sidebar before unplugging it. Alternatively, Eject the drive and wait a minute before unplugging it or shut the computer down.

Safeguard Personal Data:

With their tiny size, flash drives are easily lost. You wouldn’t want anyone picking up your lost flash drive and rooting through your sensitive, financial or other confidential documents, would you? To secure your documents, you’ll need to use some form of encryption.

Some flash drives have encryption built in. As far as working with OS X, I’ve never tested one but if it’s a software program doing the encryption/decryption you’ve got a good chance at it being Windows only. So, what you can do is create your own encrypted volume inside your flash drive and put everything confidential inside it.

Like formatting, you’re going to need to decide if you want your encrypted volume accessible through Windows and OS X, or just OS X only. I’d go with Windows and OS X – you’ll never know when you’ll need to grab your files from a PC.

Because I’m recommending you create a cross-platform compatible encrypted volume, I won’t go into detail on how to do it within OS X. If you really want to know, here’s a tutorial.

To create your cross-platform compatible encrypted volume, use TrueCrypt. Download the application, install it and it will walk you through creating the volume. TrueCrypt is an incredible and easy to use program but if you need, here’s a tutorial.

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