Storing and Sharing Files
The simplest and most common use for thumb drives is simply as a storage device. Follow the manufacturer's directions (usually nothing more than plugging the thumb drive into an open USB port) and your thumb drive will appear as a hard drive on your computer. You can save files to the thumb drive just as you would a hard drive, floppy disc, or CD-R. Use it to save the key contacts from your address book, blank copies of forms you use often, cases you've been meaning to read -- anything that you might want to have access to when you're away from your computer.
Perhaps the most powerful use for a thumb drive is loading it with a suite of useful applications so that you'll have access to the software you need no matter whose computer you're using. Many software providers offer special "portable" versions of their applications that take up less space and are optimized to run from a thumb drive. This software includes everything from web browsers to office productivity suites to games -- much of it free. PortableApps.com is the most popular resource for such software. In addition to listing individual portable applications, PortableApps also offers a pre-assembled suite of software including Firefox and OpenOffice.
Take Your Set-up With You
If you don't feel like loading applications onto your thumb drive, there's another option: some software will allow you to store information from your commonly used applications on your thumb drive -- such as your e-mail from Outlook or your bookmarks from Internet Explorer -- and automatically access it when you insert it into another PC. The software doesn't leave any traces if your personal data behind on the PC you use, and it'll automatically sync the data if you plug it back into your own personal computer. Check out Kingston's DataTraveler II Plus - Migo Edition for more information and a demo, and visit RoboForm to learn about software focused on letting you take your passwords and login information with you.
Speed Up Vista
If you've upgraded to Microsoft's newest version of Windows, a thumb drive could help boost your computer's performance. One of Vista's new features -- ReadyBoost -- lets you use a thumb drive as an additional memory cache for the operating system. Because flash memory can be accessed far more quickly than the data on your hard drive, this feature will allow cached programs to run more quickly.
Thumb Drive Security
As with any other form of portable media, there are certain security risks associated with thumb drives. They're small enough to be easily misplaced and easy enough to use that most anyone who picks up an unprotected drive will be able to view the contents. The easiest way to protect yourself and your clients is to avoid putting highly sensitive information on the drive and to make sure you know where it is at all times. You can take your thumb drive's security a step further by using software encryption to lock your data behind a password. See net-security.org's Simple Guide to Securing USB Memory Sticks or Lifehacker's guide to On-the-fly encryption for your USB flash drive. Some thumb drives are sold with security software pre-installed, such as the Lexar JumpDrive Secure II Plus or the Kingston DataTraveler Secure.