If you’re at all like me, you probably have a bunch of old flash drives lying around – stuffed into junk drawers, hidden in a purse, stashed away in the car, spread throughout kids’ schoolbags… sound familiar?

If this is the case, read on for some interesting tips for how to get some more use out of them.

Of course, all of the usual uses for flash drives apply – they’re great for easily transferring data between computers, temporary backup locations, sending secure electronic documents via post, storing the kids’ homework, etc. – but chances are you already know about those (those uses are why we end up with so many of these devices in the first place!). In this article, we want to show you some more interesting uses of which you might not be aware.


Join a Bunch of Flash Drives Together as a RAID0 Array

The basic idea is this: join a bunch of flash drives together to make one large volume which, due to the system being able to split data across the multiple drives, will have much faster read and write speeds than any individual flash drive. If you have ever used an external RAID storage device, the idea is the same.

To set up a RAID0 system using flash drives, it’s best if you have a powered USB hub – something like the Anker 10 Port Hub would suit. Once you have the hub, connect your flash drives it.

Once they’re all connected, you can use Apple’s RAID Assistant software (built into all recent versions of macOS) – or 3rd party software like SoftRAID or SoftRAID Lite – select all the flash drives that show up, and create a ‘Striped (RAID 0)’ volume.

(Apple’s RAID Assistant, built into macOS)

As a note on storage size, a RAID setup will treat all of the connected flash drives as if they have the capacity of the smallest drive – if you have one 16GB drive and three 128GB drives, the RAID array will treat all the drives like they are 16GB drives (the size of the smallest single drive), giving you a total of 64GB for the entire RAID0 volume, even though the sum of all the drives is much greater.

Once you have done all of that, you will have a RAID0 array striped across the various flash drives.

Some things to note:

  • Because data is striped across all of the drives, read and write speeds will be faster than any individual drive – this can be useful if you are using this setup as a scratch editing drive for video, for example.
  • The faster the speeds of the individual flash drives, the faster the overall array will be – speeds of USB3 flash drives vary widely with the fastest drives being around 200 MB/s, and ‘normal’ drives seeing around 25 MB/s write, and less than 100MB/S read.
  • The more flash drives you use, the faster the overall array will be – because the data is striped, the more parallel reads or writes you can do at once (ie. the more drives connected), the faster it will be.
  • All of the included flash drives will need to be present for the data on the volume to be readable. This adds a level of security to anything on the disk – if one of the drives isn’t present, the data is inaccessible. If you want a way to store sensitive data, or if you’re a spy, this might be useful.
  • On the flipside of the above point, if you lose any one of the flash drives, or if one of them fails, you will lose all the data on the volume. If this could cause a problem – especially if you’re using it for video or audio production – be sure to have backups!


Using a Flash Drive as a Two-Factor Key

If you have ever been sent a text message by your bank, or some other service, to confirm that you are really you, you have used two-factor authentication.

While more secure than just a password alone, SMS messages sent to your phone are relatively easily spoofed (faked), and not a particularly secure form of two-factor authentication. A more secure form is one that relies on your having a physical device in your possession – this sort of thing can be achieved via an app on your smartphone or – surprise – by using an old flash drive.

The easiest way to do this is using a 3rd party app, like RohOS to convert your ordinary flash drive into a hardware token as part of a two factor system.

In short, once set up, as well as knowing your password, you will also need the flash drive present to prove that you are you – this could be set up for your internet banking login, Google account, etc. Rather than needing your phone to receive an insecure text message, you would need the physical drive – this is a lot more secure, as it can’t be electronically spoofed by someone without the drive!

The intimate details explaining how to create two-factor keys for your Mac are a bit more complicated than can be explained here – if you’re interested, I recommend checking out the documentation at RohOS.


Use a Flash Drive as a Portable, Bootable macOS System Disk

If you have any flash drives around that are at least 16GB in size (although more is more, despite the saying) you could set up one as portable version of a Mac. Then, you could plug the flash drive into a Mac, start up holding down the ‘option’ key to boot from the flash drive, and instantly be accessing your own installation of macOS running on the flash drive, perhaps with some essential apps installed.

Some good apps for this use are:

  • Could storage apps, like DropBox, or Google Drive – to give you an easy way to get your files onto the system
  • 1Password – to give you access to all your passwords
  • Disk utilities, like DiskWarrior, DiskDrill, or similar – for troubleshooting failed drives
  • Backup utilities, like Carbon Copy Cloner, or SuperDuper! – for cloning drives
  • System utilities, like Onyx, or TinkerTool
  • A copy of the macOS installer – for restoring the Mac to new
  • Word processing or other office apps

Once you have the flash drive connected and formatted, getting a system like this set up is fairly simple.

First, download a copy of the macOS installer from the macOS store and run it. When you get to the installation location screen, choose your flash drive, rather than Macintosh HD.

(Install a version of macOS onto your flash drive directly from the macOS Installer)

Once the installation is complete, you will be able to boot from the flash drive. Then, you can set it up however you like, with whatever apps you need – be aware that all of the Apple apps (Safari, Mail, etc.) will already be installed, so space might be a bit tight. You could always use some of the tips in our National Clean Out Your Computer Day post to help find some files you can get rid of. Having this bootable flash drive can be invaluable for troubleshooting if anything ever goes wrong with your Mac – a great use of a spare flash drive!


Use a Spare Flash Drive to Create a macOS Recovery Partition

This tip is similar to the above, but more suited to flash drives, as it doesn’t need as much space. The result will be a portable copy of the macOS Recovery Partition in your pocket which you can use to reinstall macOS on a computer, utilise Disk Utility, get back data from a Time Machine backup, access Terminal, and even get onto Safari on a completely dead Mac.

To set this up, first use Disk Utility to make a new partition on your flash drive – ideally about 1GB, with the format settings: Mac OS Extended (Journaled); and, GUID partition scheme.

Once that’s done, you will need to copy the Recovery Partition from your Mac to the flash drive.

If you’re using an earlier version of macOS (El Capitan or earlier), you will need to get Apple’s Recovery Disk Assistant.

If you’re using Sierra or later, you’ll need a cloning utility like Carbon Copy Cloner (CCC) – I recommend this app, because they even have specific instructions to help you through the process. If you’re using CCC 4, use these instructions. If you’re using CCC 5, the instructions are here.

(Carbon Copy Cloner – a tool for cloning your Recovery Partition to a flash drive)


Create a Portable Linux Boot Disk

The last suggestion here is another variation on a theme – you can create your own portable computer running a version of Linux, like Ubuntu, which allows you to be up and running  pretty much anywhere. Ubuntu is a good one to try, because it will run natively on your Mac, without any mucking around.

(Completely change your Mac, and try something new, by running Ubuntu Linux from a flash drive)

Hopefully the idea is interesting enough to you that you will be willing to read further on it – the steps are a bit too involved to go into here. Fortunately, the instructions are well laid out in the Ubuntu documentation – you can find them here: Create a Bootable USB Stick on macOS.


We hope you found something useful that you can do with your spare flash drives – more useful than having them sit in a drawer, anyway. Have any other ideas that we missed? Let us know!