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Flash drives are all kinds of awesome, little storage warehouses you can attach to your keychain or slip into your pocket.
And cheap, too. I've routinely seen 16-gigabyte drives for as little as $10 and 32-gigabyte drives for around $20. That's enough room for a smattering of movies, a giant photo or music collection, or all the Word documents you care to carry.
Ah, but did you know you can use a flash drive for more than just transporting data?
Those little marvels can actually perform a variety of handy tasks; below I've rounded up three of my favorites.
1. Install an operating system When the time came to install Windows 8 on one of my PCs, I didn't go the usual route and pop in a DVD. In fact, I couldn't: the machine lacks an optical drive. Thankfully, I'd purchased my Windows 8 upgrade as a download, then used Microsoft's incorrectly namedWindows 7 USB/DVD Download Tool to copy the installation files to my flash drive. Then I simply booted the laptop from that drive and proceeded to install Windows (and much faster than usual, might I add).
You can also do this with most versions of Linux, and in fact you can actually run Linux right from your flash drive--a great way to see if you like a particular distribution before installing it. I recommend checking outZorin OS, which looks and operates a lot like Windows.
2. Lock down a PC Whether you're working in an office, a coffee shop, or even your own house, there may be times when you want to lock your PC, to keep others from using it without having to actually power it down. Freeware utility Predator turns your flash drive into a lock and key. When the drive is inserted, your computer operates normally. Remove it and it's locked up tighter than Fort Knox. (Just don't lose the drive, okay?)
It can even send alert messages (with pictures!) via e-mail when someone attempts to access your PC.
3. Rescue a virus-infected PC Is your computer acting crazy all of sudden? Hijacked browser? Slow performance? Scary pop-ups? Yep, you've probably got a virus, spyware, or some other kind of infection.
Your flash drive to the rescue! Just load the free AVG Rescue CD (for USB sticks) onto your drive and keep it at the ready. The only downside is that it kind of takes over your drive, or at least reformats it in order to make it bootable.
You can add other kinds of files and data after the fact, but initially you'll need to sacrifice the drive for rescue purposes.
Indeed, I would recommend throwing a couple other rescue utilities on there (just in case AVG doesn't get the job done), including Malwarebytes Anti-Malware Free and SuperAntiSpyware Portable Scanner. Have you found any other cool uses for flash drives? Tell me about them in the comments!
Veteran technology writer Rick Broida is the author of numerous books, blogs, and features. He lends his money-saving expertise to CNET and Savings.com, and also writes for PC World and Wired.