16GB USB flash drives are great. They’re available at very low prices, and have plenty of capacity for documents and photos. However, as they’ve become ubiquitous there’s now a bewildering array available. Is there actually a difference between them? Which one should you buy? Are the cheapest flash drives any good? In this roundup review we aim to find the best cheap 16GB USB flash drive.
Today we’re covering a total of 11 drives, all bought from Amazon UK for under £5 at time of purchase. We’ll be covering performance, packaging, power consumption and an unexpected category – capacity. Along the way we’ll be trying to find out if it’s really worth springing for a USB 3.0 drive, or if USB 2.0 drives are just as good in the price class.
Magix Stealth USB 3.1
Magix Technology’s Stealth series are styled with aggressive lines and ridges, evocative of a stealth bomber. A red plastic slider allows retraction of the plug, and there’s a loop for a lanyard. There’s a USB 3.1 gen1 (equivalent to USB 3.0) interface, enabling a claimed 100MB/s read speed and 20MB/s write on the 16GB model. A bright activity LED shines through the red plastic of the slider.
Magix Technology seem to be a fairly new company. They mainly produce flash products including high-performance SSDs, but differentiate themselves with a focus on photography and a line of backpacks.
PNY Attaché 4 USB 2.0
PNY’s Attaché 4 USB 2.0 has a smooth body, with a translucent plastic piece that can slide to cover the connector. The sliding itself was quite stiff on our unit – some may find this an advantage. Once again we find a loop for a lanyard at the back of the unit. A red activity LED also shines out of the lanyard hole, though this is hard to see.
PNY are a long-established memory company, and also sell graphics cards as an Nvidia partner.
Ricco Swivel USB 2.0 (generic)
You’ve probably seen the generic design of this drive before. A body made from soft touch plastic is clasped within a metal cover that can swivel to cover or reveal the connector. The metal connector also features a lanyard loop. A faint red activity LED shines out the back of the plastic unit.
Ricco are a UK-based importer and wholesaler, and the design is from a nameless-to-us factory most likely in China.
Sandisk Cruzer Blade USB 2.0
SanDisk’s Cruzer Blade eschews sliders or caps, instead being made from solid plastic – even the connector, which the body flows smoothly into. The solid body also lacks an activity LED, though there is a large lanyard loop.
SanDisk have a storied history, producing the first ever “SSD” in 1991 and having a long-lived joint venture with Toshiba producing flash memory. Since being acquired by WD in 2016, SanDisk as a brand has been focused on USB flash drives and memory cards.
Silicon Power Helios 101 USB 2.0
The Silicon Power Helios 101 has a very nice-looking metallic body made from sandblasted aluminium with beveled edges. Silicon Power also claim that the textured surface resists fingerprints and scratches. Naturally we tested – it’s hard to drag a sharp object across the surface, so it certainly resists scratches. With effort you can still scratch it, though they aren’t too noticeable at most angles.
The USB 2.0 connector is covered by a translucent green cap, though sadly there’s little preventing the cap from getting lost. A hole through the plastic at the connector end does provide an attachment point for a lanyard.
Based in Taiwan, Silicon Power are a growing memory company known for high-performance SSDs. They also provide a variety of related products, including memory cards and DDR4 modules.
Toshiba TransMemory U202 USB 2.0
The U202 has a wide body with rounded edges, and the obligatory lanyard loop on one side. The translucent cap can be clipped to the back of the drive, as pictured, keeping it from getting lost. A bright activity LED shines through the solid plastic, between the branding and the connector.
In the process of rebranding to Kioxia, Toshiba’s flash memory division has roots in OCZ Storage Solutions. The name Kioxia comes from kioku, a Japenese word meaning memory, and axia, the Greek word for value. Kioxia make SSDs, USB flash drives and SD cards for consumers, and also have a signification business-to-business division. B2B products include OEM-targeted SSDs, and also eMMC and UFS solutions that might be found in phones and some laptops.
Toshiba TransMemory U301 USB 3.0
Externally the U301 is almost identical to the U202. It gains USB 3.0 branding, and does lose the activity LED. The ability to keep the cap on the end remains, as does the lanyard loop. The U301 is also one of the USB 3.0 drives in this roundup, with a 5Gbps interface.
Transcend JetFlash 350 USB 2.0
The JetFlash 350 has a slim rectangular body, not much larger than the connector. Transcend have gone with a glossy finish across the body, and more matte around the edges. There is a cap, although there’s nowhere to keep the cap in use, and there’s no activity LED. A lanyard loop is present, with a hole all the way through the body at the back of the stick.
Transcend are a long-established Taiwanese company, whose products include dashcams and body cams as well as the usual flash drives, SSDs and memory cards. They also produce DRAM, and have even dabbled in the enthusiast DRAM market with their aXeRAM modules back in the days of DDR2 and early DDR3.
Transcend JetFlash 700 USB 3.1
Transcend’s cheap USB 3.0 offering, the JetFlash 700, is almost identical to the JetFlash 350. The only visual difference is the blue USB 3.0 connector, and that the text saying “USB 2.0” has gone. USB 3.0 is being treated as the default here. The interface is USB 3.1 gen1, equivalent to USB 3.0.
Verbatim Store’n’Go Pinstripe USB 3.0
The Verbatim Store’n’Go Pinstripe has an understated matter black design, with embossed verbatim name and logo as well as four stripes on each side. There’s no activity LED, but there is a hole for a lanyard or keyring. A sliding design allows the connector to be retracted inside the body. This is the final USB 3.0/3.1 drive under test.
Verbatim have been in the storage business for 50 years. While most of the companies we’re covering started out in silicon products, Verbatim produced physical media. Floppy disks and cassette tapes were included, and Verbatim are still a major producer of optical media. The Verbatim brand is built on tight quality control, and since 2014 the company has brought that ethos to 3D printing filaments as well.
Verbatim Store’n’Stay NANO USB 2.0
There are a few ‘nano’ type sticks on the market, designed to be left plugged into a laptop 24/7. Verbatim’s 16GB Store’n’Stay was the only one in the price range, and is a bit of an oddity in our testing. This tiny unit is not much bigger than the connector, with a matte black body extending just enough that it doesn’t get stuck in a socket. What space there is bears the Verbatim name and logo.
We’re not expecting top performance here, but it’ll be interesting to see how well it holds up. Power consumption is also of interest – anyone looking to add semi-permenant storage to a laptop will want to be sure they aren’t losing out on battery life.
16GB USB Flash Drive Roundup: Packaging
Every drive except the Ricco Swivel came in a slip of cardboard with a plastic insert. There’s little to separate them, however we do have some props to hand out;
- PNY and Silicon Power took the time to include a recycling mark on the plastic.
- Sandisk and Toshiba included recycling marks, and also printed a handy ‘cut here’ line on the outside.
- Transcend had the best packaging of the bunch, not only including recycling marks but also perforations for opening without scissors.
The generic drive from Ricco was different, as it arrived in a resealable plastic bag without any attached branding or documentation. The bag is reusable and as easy to open as it gets. However it’s not recyclable, and therefore would likely end up in landfill. Full marks for ease of opening, low marks for environmental friendliness.
16GB USB Flash Drive Roundup: Capacity
This is a section I wasn’t expecting to have to write. We’re all used to the idea that our storage will have a slightly lower capacity than advertised. After all, it’s sold in base 10 “GB” (1GB = 1000MB), not binary “GiB” (1GiB = 1024MiB). Plus there’s file system overhead. Right?
Well, here’s the problem. That doesn’t seem to adequately cover what’s going on with our selection of drives. If that was all that was going on, the drives would all be the roughly same size when formatted the same. Instead, we get this (and note that the scale is adjusted for convenience);
Secondly though, there’s a huge gulf in advertised capacity. Not only is it inconsistent between drives, but the inconsistencies are huge. Our Silicon Power Helios 101 is over 4% bigger than our Sandisk Cruzer Blade. If it was just down to formatting, surely there would be at least some consistency?
We think that the flash chips themselves are probably 16GiB. However, the controller will need some for its own purposes. This may include caching – some flash in pseudo-SLC mode would certainly help performance. Setting some area aside also allows the controller to avoid hammering a specific part of the flash, and gives you a longer overall lifespan.
As part of our testing we did rerun CrystalDiskMark with 14000MiB of incompressible H2testw data on each drive. The vast majority showed no meaningful difference, but Verbatim’s Store’n’Go Pinstripe lost performance in the punishing Q32T16 random write test. The Pinstripe comes with lots of usable capacity, so this might be an indicator of shrinking cache. The Sandisk Cruzer Blade, with the lowest usable capacity, maintained exceptional performance in the hardest tests.
16GB USB Flash Drive Roundup: Performance
Our test platform is an MSI X370 XPOWER GAMING TITANIUM, using one of the “VR ready” (meaning full bandwidth) USB 3.1 gen1 ports. The CPU is a Ryzen 5 2600, with a mild OC to 3.4GHz to ensure consistent clocks, alongside 8GB of DDR4-2666. We used an up-to-date copy of Windows 10 1909 for testing.
H2testw is a utility to confirm drive operation, written by Harald Boegeholz. It works by filling a drive with procedurally generated, incompressible data. This data is then all read back and checked. As well as reporting if the data was stored accurately, H2testw reports read and write speeds. Because it’s so long, covering the entire capacity, H2testw defeats caching and potentially hits thermal limits.
Looking at the read speed in H2testw you can immediately see which of the drives support USB 3.0. The Verbatim Store’n’Go Pinstripe, Transcend JetFlash 700, Toshiba TransMemory U301 and Magix Stealth all sustained over 100MB/s read speeds across the entire drive. USB 2.0 drives, on the other hand, were limited to around 30MB/s on even the fastest units.
The write test paints a very interesting picture. Verbatim’s Pinstripe puts in a standout performance, with the Magix Stealth also ahead of the rest of the pack. In third, however, is a USB 2.0 drive – the Sandisk Cruzer Blade.
CrystalDiskMark is a simple, popular piece of disk benchmarking software based on Microsoft’s DiskSpd. We’ve tested our drives with light CrystalDiskMark settings – a 128MiB test size and 3 passes.
In CrystalDiskMark’s light sequential read test we see a very similar picture to the H2testw read test. USB 3.0 drives out in front around 100MB/s, fast USB 2.0 drives around 30-35MB/s, and the slower USB 2.0 drives around 20MB/s.
CrystalDiskMark’s random write test with 16 threads and 32 queues is really punishing. Many of our drives fall down almost completely here, with one scoring so low that the benchmark rounded it down to zero. This makes it all the more impressive that the Sandisk Cruzer Blade managed to maintain almost 5MB/s. PNY also come in above 2MB/s, as does Toshiba’s USB 2.0 drive. Among USB 3.0 drives, Transcend manage to keep solid performance. Verbatim’s drives also keep their heads above water.
We also ran CrystalDiskMark tests with drives close to full. The results were almost all within margin of error, with two exceptions – the Verbatim Pinstripe and Nano fell back to below 0.1MB/s in the random write test.
PCMark10‘s data drive benchmark aims to evaluate the performance of a drive with large numbers of small files. Specifically, it tests writing, copying and reading of 339 jpeg photos totalling 2.37GB. We’re not seeing cheap controllers brought to their knees like with CrystalDiskMark’s Q32T16 random write. However, this is a realistic test that still manages to be very hard on the drive.
Sadly our Toshiba U202 is our first and only DNF. The benchmark ran, but failed to produce a result. We gave it several goes, and swapped other drives back in to make sure the benchmark was still working – it was.
Like in H2testw write speed, Verbatim’s Store’n’Go Pinstripe is a clear winner here. The USB 3.0 drives from Magix and Toshiba also distinguish themselves, and Sandisk’s Cruzer Blade comes a respectable fourth.
Overall, aside from the punishing random write test all of the drives held up well. Even the generic swivel drive kept up with the pack, and managed to squeak ahead of competitors at times.
16GB USB Flash Drive Roundup: Software
Only Silicon Power and Transcend advertise software with their cheap drives – SP Widget and Transcend Elite. Both provide backup functionality and file/folder encryption. In each case the backup functionality doesn’t do anything you can’t get just by copying files. Transcend’s encryption requires the software installed to decrypt, which is inconvenient. Silicon Power’s software produces files that include the decryption software, which is much better. Unfortunately the workload generated by Silicon Power’s decryption brings our Helios 101 to its knees. If you copy the file off the drive then decrypt it’s fine – decrypting in place takes over 20x as long as it should.
16GB USB Flash Drive Roundup: Power Consumption
We’ve measured power consumption for all our USB flash drives in USB 2.0 mode, as the test equipment we have only provides USB 2.0 wiring. The most interesting figure is idle power draw, as this will impact battery life when they are left plugged into a laptop.
First off, it’s gratifying to see Verbatim’s Store’n’Stay Nano with the lowest load power consumption, and very close to the lowest idle as well. Verbatim seem to have done a good job making sure it’s fit for purpose.
To put the numbers in context, we went looking for a chromebook under £200 – the low-power design and smaller battery probably represents a worst case scenario for the impact of a flash drive. The first we stumbled across was the ASUS C223NA. This claims a 10 hour ‘web browsing’ battery life, and has a 38Wh battery – meaning an average power consumption of 3.8 watts. The most power-hungry stick here, the Toshiba TransMemory U202, would increase the power consumption by almost 12% to 4.255W. That would knock battery life from 10 to a little under 9 hours if it were left plugged in. By contrast, the economical Sandisk Cruzer Blade would add just 3.4% to the power consumption and trim only 20 minutes off the battery life.
For most users power probably don’t matter. The lesson here isn’t to buy one USB drive over another, it’s to unplug a stick you’re not actively using. However, if you’re otherwise torn this could be a clincher.
Pricing and Availability
The market for cheap USB flash drives is very volatile. Prices here are correct at time of writing, but could change fast. Toshiba in particular are in the process of rebranding to Kioxia, so the Toshiba-branded offerings are discounted at the moment. Some of these drives, such as the Sandisk Cruzer Blade, are priced above MSRP right now. Many of these drives are also unavailable over in the US.
|Amazon UK Price
|Magix Stealth USB 3.1
|PNY Attaché 4 USB 2.0
|Ricco Swivel USB 2.0 (generic)
|Sandisk Cruzer Blade USB 2.0
|Silicon Power Helios 101 USB 2.0
|Toshiba TransMemory U202 USB 2.0
|Toshiba TransMemory U301 USB 3.0
|Transcend JetFlash 350 USB 2.0
|Transcend JetFlash 700 USB 3.1
|Verbatim Store’n’Go Pinstripe USB 3.0
|Verbatim Store’n’Stay NANO USB 2.0
Conclusion – What’s The Best Cheap 16GB USB Flash Drive?
There are a couple of questions we can now answer. First, is it worth paying more for USB 3.0 on your 16GB USB flash drive? Yes and no. The USB 3.0 drives we tested were all much faster in favourable loads. However, in more difficult loads the gap disappears and some USB 2.0 drives come out on top.
Second, are the cheapest flash drives any good? Yes. If there’s one thing that stands out after all this, it’s that all of the drives we tested were perfectly fine. Even Ricco’s cheap generic drive kept pace with well-respected brands.
Third, what’s the best cheap 16GB USB flash drive? This is a little more difficult. They all trade blows in the benchmarks, and there’s no one drive we can point to as objectively “best”. We’ve given our Gold award to 5 of the 11 drives, and Value award to 2 more. All serve different needs and might be the best for you. With that in mind, on to the awards.
If you’re only looking for 16GB, it’s likely price is important to you. After all, if you want capacity then 32GB drives can often be found for less than £1 more. As such the first recommendation we can make is that it’s OK to just get the cheapest drive, as long as it’s still from a respectable vendor. Cheap generic products may be offputting, but we’ve seen no reason to be concerned. At the lowest price and with perfectly respectable performance, the Ricco Swivel USB 2.0 earns the Play3r Value Award. Quite simply, this works just fine and is the best 16GB USB flash drive at being cheap.
Similarly, we’d like to award the Verbatim Store’n’Stay NANO USB 2.0 with our Value Award as well. It’s the cheapest ‘nano’ type drive, and a low power consumption ensures it’s fit for purpose.
We do need to pick out a few drives as best-in-class. The first pair is the Sandisk Cruzer Blade USB 2.0 and PNY Attaché 4 USB 2.0. Though only USB 2.0, the consistent performance in even the most demanding situations make these drives a fine choice. Both are ideal for large collections of photos and documents. The next drive is the Silicon Power Helios 101. The performance is generally solid, the bundled software is useful, and it keeps lots of capacity available. Finally, the Transcend JetFlash 700 and Verbatim Store’n’Go Pinstripe USB 3.0 provide very high performance in ideal conditions without being defeated by the random write test. These are perfect if you anticipate moving larger files like videos.
These drives represent half the field, and all earn the Play3r Gold Award.
The Play3r Silver Award is for good products that don’t quite have the edge over their peers. The Magix Stealth, Toshiba TransMemory U202 and U301, and Transcend JetFlash 350 are all perfectly good flash drives. They may not have an edge over their peers, but all are still worthy of the Play3r silver award.