How do flash drives transfer data?

Flash drives, also known as USB drives, are small data storage devices that use flash memory to store and transfer data between computers and other devices. When you plug a flash drive into a computer’s USB port, the computer recognizes it as a removable storage device, allowing you to copy files back and forth between the flash drive and computer. But how exactly does a flash drive transfer data at the hardware level?

Flash Memory

At the heart of a flash drive is flash memory. This is a type of electronic memory that can be erased and reprogrammed rapidly, allowing data to be written and rewritten many times. It gets its name from the way data is erased – in a “flash.” Flash memory is non-volatile, meaning it retains data even when power is removed. This makes it ideal for storage in portable devices like flash drives.

There are two main types of flash memory used in flash drives: NOR flash and NAND flash. NOR flash is faster at reading data but slower at erasing/reprogramming. NAND flash has faster erase/write capabilities but slower access times. Most flash drives today use NAND flash memory due to its higher storage density and lower cost compared to NOR flash.

Flash Memory Architecture

Within a flash memory chip, data is stored in an array of floating gate transistor cells. Each cell acts as an electronic switch, with two states: “on” to represent a 1, and “off” to represent a 0. By applying voltage to the cell, electrons can be made to tunnel through an insulating layer onto the floating gate, putting the cell in a programmed state. This process is how data gets written to flash memory.

To erase a cell, the opposite voltage is applied, removing electrons from the floating gate and resetting the cell to an off/0 state. The cells are arranged into blocks, typically 512 bytes or 2048 bytes in size. When data is erased, it is erased in entire blocks rather than individual cells.

Flash Memory Characteristic Description
Floating gate transistor cells Stores data based on electron charge state (on/off)
Organized in blocks 512 – 2048 bytes, erased in entire blocks
NAND vs NOR architecture NOR has faster reads, NAND has faster writes

This block architecture is one key difference between flash memory and other storage like hard disks. Whereas hard disks can write or rewrite data at any individual byte, flash memory has to erase entire blocks of data at once before new data can be written. This necessitates more complex memory management by the flash controller to ensure efficient use.

The Flash Controller

In addition to the flash memory itself, a flash drive contains a flash controller chip. This controller acts as the interface between the flash memory and the USB port, managing all communication between the flash drive and computer.

The controller has several crucial jobs:

  • Detect connection to USB host
  • Initialize data communication
  • Manage input/output transfers
  • Run error checking
  • Handle bad block mapping
  • Wear leveling of memory blocks

The controller appears to the host computer as a standard USB Mass Storage Device. Behind the scenes, it handles all the complex low-level work of transferring data into and out of the flash memory. This includes bad block mapping, wear leveling, and error checking to ensure data integrity. Many flash controllers also incorporate on-the-fly data compression to enhance storage capacity.

Communication Protocols

The flash controller uses USB protocols to communicate with the host computer. This includes:

  • USB Mass Storage Class – provides driverless operation as an external hard disk
  • SCSI Transparent Command Set – enables common hard disk commands like read/write
  • Bulk-Only Transport (BOT) – transports data between devices
  • Logical Block Addressing (LBA) – maps data blocks to memory addresses

Together, these protocols allow the flash drive to connect seamlessly with the host OS and be read/written to like a standard disk volume.

Reading and Writing Data

When you connect a flash drive to your computer and copy a file onto it, here is what happens behind the scenes:

  1. The flash controller initializes communication over USB, registering itself as a Mass Storage Device.
  2. The OS detects the drive and assigns it a drive letter.
  3. Opening a file manager allows you to view files on the flash drive.
  4. Dragging a file to the flash drive triggers a write command to the controller.
  5. The controller receives the data from the OS in blocks and writes it to empty blocks in the flash memory.
  6. The flash memory programs sequences of 1s and 0s to encode the file data.
  7. When the write is complete, the controller signals success to the OS.

Reading data works similarly, except the controller fetches data from the flash memory and sends it to the host computer. The USB and SCSI protocols enable this read/write process to occur seamlessly through simple file copy operations.

Write Process

Here is a more detailed look at what happens during a write operation:

  1. The OS sends a write command – This includes the logical block address (LBA) to store data at and the data itself broken into 512 byte sectors.
  2. Controller receives data sectors into a buffer – The controller assembles a full page in its buffer, typically 2KB – 4KB in size.
  3. Controller checks for bad blocks – If the target write blocks are damaged, the controller remaps to spare blocks.
  4. Data is programmed to flash memory page – The page buffer is written in parallel to the flash memory block.
  5. Controller signals write completion to OS – The host computer is now free to send more data.

If power loss occurs during a write, data may be corrupted. The controller and/or OS employs protection to prevent this, retrying writes if needed.

Read Process

Reading data from a flash drive involves a similar sequence of steps:

  1. OS sends a read command with LBA – Specifies the data blocks to fetch.
  2. Controller retrieves page from flash into buffer – One page is read at a time, typically 2KB – 4KB.
  3. Data sectors are sent to the OS – The page is broken into 512 byte sectors.
  4. Controller signals read completion – The host can now request the next page.
  5. Process repeats for additional pages – Until the OS has all requested data.

If bad blocks are encountered, the controller remaps reads to spare block areas invisible to the OS. This all occurs automatically using firmware on the controller.

Performance Factors

The performance of a flash drive depends on a number of technical factors:

USB Interface

The USB version determines maximum transfer speeds between the flash drive and host computer:

USB Version Max Transfer Speed
USB 2.0 60 MB/s
USB 3.0 625 MB/s
USB 3.1 Gen 2 10 Gb/s

Faster USB standards allow the flash controller to move data on and off the drive more quickly.

Flash Memory Speed

The speed of the NAND flash storage itself impacts performance. Key factors include:

  • Access time – The time to read/write data from/to memory cells.
  • I/O speed – How fast data travels on/off the memory chips.
  • Write speed – Time to program cells to a new state.
  • Interface – Flash may use older SPI or newer NVMe interfaces.

Faster NAND flash provides higher overall throughput to move data on/off the drive.


The controller plays a critical role in performance. A faster processor and more memory (RAM) onboard the controller enables quicker transfer management and data flow. Many controllers also compress data on-the-fly to boost effective transfer speeds.

Reliability and Lifespan

Flash memory has a finite lifespan and eventual failure is inevitable. Two factors impact the usable life of a flash drive:

Read/Write Endurance

Flash memory cells are rated for a certain number of Program/Erase cycles before failure:

  • Single-Level Cell (SLC) – 100,000 cycles
  • Multi-Level Cell (MLC) – 10,000 cycles
  • Triple-Level Cell (TLC) – 1,000 cycles

Higher density chips have lower endurance. Wear leveling helps distribute writes but cells eventually wear out.

Data Retention

Flash memory cells have a finite lifespan for retaining data before it deteriorates:

  • SLC – 10 years retention
  • MLC – 3-5 years retention
  • TLC – 1-3 years retention

Higher density chips have lower data retention. Regular rewriting of data helps refresh the cells.

Between wear out and data loss over time, higher density sticks tend to have shorter usable lifespans of 5 years or less. Proper handling and limited writes can extend this.

File Systems

Just like hard drives, flash drives need to use a file system to organize data storage on the drive and structure how files are stored. Several options exist with different trade-offs.


FAT32 is an older file system that is universally compatible with all major OS platforms like Windows, Mac, Linux, game consoles, etc. However, it lacks support for files over 4GB and has limited scalability.


exFAT is optimized for flash drives, offering better scalability than FAT32 while maintaining broad device compatibility. It supports files over 4GB.


NTFS is modern file system designed for Windows hard drives. It provides advanced features like compression, encryption, permissions, etc. But NTFS is less compatible outside of Windows systems.


ext4 is a file system for Linux. Like NTFS, it offers advanced capabilities but limited cross-platform support outside Linux systems.

For broad compatibility, FAT32 and exFAT are generally the best choices for flash drives today.


Flash drives provide a versatile portable storage solution thanks to the combination of USB interfaces, flash memory chips, and advanced flash controllers. Together, these components enable fast and convenient data transfer between computers and flash drives. Understanding how they work together helps illustrate the technical details underlying the simple everyday use of plugging in a flash drive to store and transfer files.