There are significant differences between a standard hard drive and flash memory. A hard drive is a fairly heavy palm-sized device composed of several spinning platters and a roving head that reads data that has been magnetically imprinted on the platters. Flash memory refers to a memory chip about the size of a postage stamp, or smaller. The memory chip is solid-state, or has no moving parts and is therefore less likely to fail. It is virtually weightless, retains data without a power supply, is faster than a hard drive, does not generate significant heat, and requires little power. This is excellent news for extending the life of laptop batteries, reducing their weight, and eliminating fan noise from systems.
Flash memory is used in flash drives and derives its name from the electronic process of flashing a ‘cell’ within the memory chip in order to clear or change the data stored. Certain types of flash drives are also called memory sticks, or flash cards, and are sold in a variety of configurations for various digital devices and storage purposes.
Flash memory that is packaged as a USB-enabled stick for use with a computer system is an extremely handy invention that has replaced the floppy disk drive. This type of flash drive resembles a BIC lighter in form with one capped end. The cap detaches to reveal a universal serial bus (USB) connector.
USB devices are plug-and-play, meaning the flash drive can be connected or disconnected to the USB port while the system is up and running. Flash memory can hold an enormous amount of data in an extremely small chip. The only deterrent is price, but as the cost of new manufacturing processes are offset by sales, retail prices continue to fall. As of the first quarter 2007, a 1-gigabyte (GB) flash drive can be purchased for under 20 US dollars (USD). This is extremely reasonable considering the price of earlier flash drives of far smaller capacities.
Aside from physical size, lack of moving parts, and weightlessness of flash memory, it is also more durable than a standard hard drive and completely silent. Benefits of the former are so overwhelming that flash drives are slated to replace the latter in the near future.