We’ve all been there. You plug something into your computer, wait for the ba-donk sound (on Windows, at least), and start navigating your flash drive / listening to your headphones / using whatever else it is you plugged in to your computer.
Sometimes, that doesn’t quite happen. What gives?
In this week’s inaugural edition of Tech SOS, we’re taking a look at the curious case of the missing USB devices – a problem that shouldn’t be a problem, as the standard should be the easiest in the world to deal with.
Where’d my USB go?
Lifehacker reader JohnW writes:
Right now I have a usb flash drive that isn’t being recognised by my PC. I plugged it into several different ports and no dice. I plugged it into another PC and it recognised it fine. I tried uninstalling and doing the “scan for hardware changes” but no dice. Any solutions?
There’s no great one-size-fits all fix for finding a missing USB device, but I can at least suggest a few techniques that will hopefully help you discover that which your computer seems to have lost – or ignored.
Rule out the bigger problems first
First, I’m going to assume this is a Windows issue. I’ve experienced this problem before on Microsoft’s OS, but never on a Mac. (Not to say it isn’t possible; I just haven’t run into it.)
I’ll get the worst outcome out of the way fist: There might be some funky hardware issue going on with your computer that makes it impossible for your system to now see any USB devices. Perhaps your USB ports are damaged or your system’s controller has simply died.
If so, that’s nothing you can (or should probably) fix yourself. You’re going to need to contact your computer’s manufacturer for warranty service, assuming you’re still covered. If you built your desktop system yourself, it might be time for a new motherboard if this issue is really bothering you. (You can also buy a third-party internal USB card that you plug into your motherboard via PCI, which will at least give you some USB functionality.)
Use Device Manager to do some detective work
Assuming we aren’t dealing with a catastrophic hardware issue, one good method for getting a sense of what’s going on is to take a look at Windows’ device manager after you plug in your USB device. You can find this in Windows 10 by hitting the start button and typing in “device,” or you can pull up your Control Panel and click on “Device Manager.”
The first thing I’d try would be to tell Windows to manually scan for USB devices. Click on your computer’s name, click on the Action menu, and click “Scan for hardware changes.” With luck, Windows will find your missing device — lost for whatever reason — and you’ll be able to access it once more.
If, when you launched Device Manager, one of your computer’s device categories was expanded and there was an unpleasant-looking warning icon next to a specific listing, it’s time to dig deeper. The hardware connection is likely OK, but for whatever reason, Windows isn’t finding a device it previously recognised.
My first thought would be to make sure that your device has the most up-to-date drivers from its manufacturer — not really applicable in your case, however, as it’s highly unlikely your USB flash drive needs any special drivers to work. (Were you having issues with something like a USB printer, that’s a different story.)
You can try right-clicking on the device with the warning icon, uninstalling it, and scanning for hardware changes again. If that doesn’t work, hit up your desktop or laptop’s manufacturer — or, depending on your system, you motherboard’s manufacturer — and see if there are any updated drivers for your USB controller. Installing those might also fix the problem. (Make sure your system is running the latest BIOS, too, which you can usually check and automatically install via some software utility from your desktop, laptop, or motherboard manufacturer.)
Since you’re talking specifically about issues with USB flash storage, Lifehacker reader notes that it’s possible Windows is just having issues assigning a drive letter to your device. With your USB device plugged in, click on the Start Menu, type in “computer management,” and select it. (You can also find “Computer Management” under your regular Control Panel.)
Once there, look for the Storage section in the left sidebar and click on “Disk Management.” Does your USB key appear in the list of storage devices? Does it have a drive letter? Try assigning it one (or changing its drive letter) by right-clicking on the partition.
Microsoft itself suggests making sure that your USB flash drive isn’t accidentally powering down for whatever reason, which you can try fixing by disabling selective suspend for your device (scroll down to Method 5).
Finally, it’s possible that your USB flash drive is simply broken. Plug it into another desktop or laptop you own, or even a friend’s system — is it working? Can you access your files? If not, your device might be the culprit, not your computer. Time to go shopping for a new USB drive!
Tech SOS is our brand-new tech-advice column designed to help you fix the problems you’re having with your desktop, laptop, or other favourite gadgets.