Chances are you've accumulated a few spare thumb drives over the years, choosing new ones thanks to better form factors and increased capacities. But what do you do with the old ones that are just lying around? Here are our top 10 clever, fun and practical uses for your spare thumb drives.
10. Keep Linux (Or Windows) In Your Pocket
If Linux is a sometimes operating system (you know, like cookies are a sometimes food for Cookie Monster), there are plenty of tiny Linux distributions that will fit on practically any thumb drive. You can even multiple boot options and boot to each of them in in a virtualised environment. If you work the other way around and prefer Linux but sometimes need to run Windows, you can always install a light version of Windows onto a thumb drive and boot from it as well. Even a portable Hackintosh is an option.
9. Make A Contemporary Mix "Tape"
The art of the mix tape has been a little bit lost in the digital age. While it's definitely fun to share playlists with tools like Mixtape.me so you can send your friends music, when you want to make a personalised gift it isn't quite the same with just a URL. While you're not going to do much good by creating an old-fashioned mix tape with your dual-cassette boom box, you can use a spare thumb drive to bring a physical element to your mix. You could even disguise it as an analogue tape. (We're not the first ones to think of that.)
8. Make An Encrypted, Disposable "Spy" Drive
If you're really a spy, chances are you've got something a little bit cooler than an encrypted flash drive, but since most of us aren't really in the spying business we can still have a little fun with what we've got. If you've got a small thumb drive you're not really using anymore and need to pass along some secret data to a friend (or stranger you have no choice but to trust), throw it on that drive and use TrueCrypt to keep the data encrypted on the fly. We can't help you make it self-destruct when the data's been retrieved—and that's probably for the best—but it is a piece of technology, after all, so you shouldn't find it too hard to break.
7. Create A Digital Time Capsule
Perhaps thumb drives won't exist in the future and we'll transfer all our data using microscopic dots embedded in our actual thumbs. Creepy. But if you want to create a replica of the past and inform the children of the future how things used to be—and you should, because children of the new millenium don't even know what white-out is—you can make a time capsule out of a spare thumb drive. If it's going to stand the test of time, you might want to make it indestructable. Whatever thumb drive you use, fill it with information about the world today and bury it somewhere. It'll be a lot less work to bury a thumb drive than a huge metal container, right?
6. Make A Virtual RAM Drive
Windows Vista and Windows 7 users can turn their thumb drives into virtual RAM disks, which can be pretty useful if you need a little extra and are low on disk space (especially if your thumb drive is fast). While it won't be a replacement for a real RAM upgrade, it can be a pretty useful alternative until you're able to get the real thing.
5. Create A Digital Travel Kit
Some of us like to take our laptops on our vacations and some of us don't, but either way you can benefit from creating a USB thumb drive travel kit. If you're not taking your computer but want a few important files and applications for the occasional stop at an internet cafe, a thumb drive can help you out. Even if you do take your laptop, a spare thumb drive is a good place to keep copies of receipts, car rental agreements, and other files you should have copies of when travelling but don't necessarily want (or need) to print out. You may never need to use it, but it's nice to know you have what you need in one convenient location.
4. Create An Easy App Install Drive With Ninite
Ninite is a really great tool for Windows and Linux that helps you install a bunch of free apps by creating a single installer for all of them. What's a great place for that installer? On a spare thumb drive! If you need to set up a new computer quickly and don't have internet access, that spare drive can be indispensable. A more likely scenario, however, is when a less tech-savvy friend or family member needs to set up a new machine and you want to get them used to using something other than the crap the machine came with. Make them a thumb drive with a Ninite installer and you can be sure they'll get the important stuff installed.
3. Use It As A Portable Pocket Arcade
With tons of free game emulators for classic consoles, as well as game ROMs that take up very little disk space, you can put together a classic arcade you can keep in your pocket, backpack, or pretty much anywhere. Retro games are a lot of fun, but when all your save files are confined to a single computer you're stuck playing in one location. Keeping everything on a thumb drive will let you plug in and play wherever you can find a machine so you can always partake in a little console game nostalgia whenever you like.
2. Make A Personal Portable App Drive
Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) is great and a lot of it is portable. So are a number of regular applications. We've made a bunch of suggestions for small, portable apps you can store on a spare thumb drive but those were mainly for Windows. There are also plenty of options for Mac OS X. You can even create a portable version of Dropbox to sync your files. If you want to have access to your stuff no matter what computer you're on, keeping a portable thumb drive handy is a great way to do it.
1. Create An Emergency Recovery Kit
Computers are hardly perfect and bad things happen. System files get corrupted, hard drives die, and so on. Whatever the cause of the problem may be, you may be able to fix it with some handy tools that you can run from a bootable thumb drive. We've looked at the many ways you can save your Windows system with a thumb drive, XBoot can help you make a bootable rescue drive for Linux, and Mac OS X users can simply clone their system restore DVD and run the utilities it provides. It sucks when computers have problems, but if you know something can go wrong and you have a plan in place to take care of it then you can mitigate the potential damage quickly and easily.