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Your Transfers in a Flash

Basics of Using Flash Drives for Beginners

By Steve Puffenberger on
Your Transfers in a Flash

The “flash drive” is the now-ubiquitous file transfer medium best suited to delivering digital transfers. We’ve had some questions about how they’re used, so here is some information about the why and how of flash drives. To get started, we have to go all the way back to the very basics of computers...

Bits and Bytes

To “digitize” something means to convert it from an analog format (continuously varying colors or sound) to a digital one.  The image or sound is sliced up, either by picture area or by time (or in the case of video, both) to create “samples” (in audio) or “picture elements” (in photos or video, aka “pixels”). Those samples or pixels are further divided into what a digital computer can compute and store, a digit: a one or a zero.

Just like a light switch, the memory of a computer has transistors that can be either on (1) or off (0). That information stored by one transistor is called a “bit.” On or off is OK for a light switch, but it doesn’t store much information, so we combine bits to make something useful.  Eight bits is called a “byte.”  One byte can have 256 iterations of ones and zeroes, and in fact each letter on this page is one byte of information displayed on your screen.

I could go into great detail about how many bits per color, or bits per audio sample are required to make high quality digital media, but I’ll just summarize to say that it takes a LOT of them. The higher the quality the more it takes. Because it takes so many bits and bytes to produce quality images, they introduced the names that you've probably heard before:

  • Kilobits/kilobytes = 1,000 bits/bytes (Kilo = 1,000).
    • Small digital photos or documents without large photos will be several KB in size.
  • Megabits/megabytes = 1,000 kilobits/bytes (Mega = million)
    • Audio recordings, short videos and large, high-resolution photos will be several MB in size.
  • Gigabits/gigabytes = 1,000 Megabits/bytes (Giga = billion)
    • Longer videos (like a whole 2 hour VHS tape) will be several GB in size.
  • Terabits/terabytes = 1,000 Gigabits/bytes (Tera = trillion)
    • The sum total of a large transfer job may be in the TB range

The abbreviations are Kb/KB, Mb/MB, Gb/GB, Tb/TB.  If the “b” is lower case it’s “bits,” and if it’s a capital B, it’s bytes (bits divided by 8). Storage capacities are always stated in bytes (capital B). Bandwidth, or internet speed, is always expressed in bits per second (small b).

When we transfer media to digital, the result is a computer “file,” just like any other computer file for business or home, or like the files that you make when you use a digital camera or cell phone. The question is, how best to get them to you?

Why the File?

A long time ago the computer developers decided to use the analogy of a filing cabinet to name the way digital content is stored:

  • File: The basic “document” that would be stored. Imagine opening a filing cabinet drawer and leafing through the contents. You’ll find typed documents, photographs, or maybe an audio or video tape, or a box of old memorabilia. Because they're filed in the cabinet, the items are "files." In computers, we have all sorts of things that are filed too. The files have names with extensions (the part after the period, e.g. filename.ext.) The extensions tell what kind of file it is: photos are usually .JPG, videos .MP4, and audio .MP3. There are many other types of media files described here. And you'll find text files, word processing and spreadsheet files, and system files that make the computer and programs work among other things.
  • Folders: In a filing cabinet the files are usually kept in folders. Folders have labels (names) that identify what they are, and so folders make it easier to find files. (Originally, they called folders “directories,” so if you talk to an old computer guy he might say “directory” and mean a folder.)  Folders can have folders within them, so those are called “subfolders.” In computers it's important for you to logically arrange folders and subfolders in a "tree" structure so that you can easily find the files you stored.
  • Drives (Drawers):  Early on, at least one software maker called drives “drawers.”  They were right; a drive is more like a file drawer because it contains folders. They call it a “drive” because when computers first started using spinning disks, they needed an electric motor to “drive” them, and the term “drive” stuck. A filing cabinet can have many drawers. In the same way a computer can have several drives, each with a series of folders. You can temporarily attach portable drives and copy or move content from one drive’s folders to another.

Storage Basics

If it weren’t for the drive, your computer would forget everything when it shuts down. The computer reads data from the drive into RAM (Random Access Memory - where the computing is done) and then displays or allows you to modify it before writing it back to the drive. Thus the drive is a critical component in every computer.

There are 3 types of drives in popular use today:

  • Magnetic drives store digital 1s and 0s as magnetic pulses on a spinning disk in a method similar to video or audio tape.
    • Hard drives. These use permanently-installed rigid metal platters that spin at very high speeds to hold data. Heads on a wiper arm skim across the surface of the platters, reading and writing the digital pulses. You may hear the heads "chatter" as a drive is reading or writing, especially when you first start your computer. Modern hard drives can hold several TB of data, and are common in older or lower-priced computers. Portable hard drives can plug into the computer via the USB port to provide extra storage. Some devices, such as your cable company's DVR, will have hard drives in them.
    • Floppy drives (now obsolete) use a removable flexible magnetic disk that’s made from the same stuff you'd find on recording tape. The drive has a head that reads tracks on the disk. Floppies were very slow and only held 1.44KB of data, but their shape is still the icon in many programs that means “save.”
  • Optical drives. These store data as minuscule dark or light spots on a removable disc, which is written or read by a laser beam within the drive. Three types are currently in use, though their popularity is waning:
    • CD (Compact Disc) is commonly used for audio, and holds 670MB of data or up to 74 minutes of audio. Discs formatted for audio can play in dedicated CD players or computers with CD drives. “Data CDs” can store general data, readable only on a computer with a CD or DVD drive.
    • DVD (Digital Versatile Disc) is what killed the VHS tape. They hold up to 4.7GB of data, and are fast enough to play standard definition video in real time. Formatted for video, they can play video in dedicated players or computers with special software. Standard DVDs can hold up to 2 hours of standard definition video. “Data DVDs” can archive read-only data accessible on a computer with a DVD drive.
    • BluRay (BD) holds up to 25GB and is much faster thanks to using a blue laser to make smaller dots. Properly formatted BluRay discs will play on a BluRay player or computers with special software and a BD drive. “Data BD” disks can also archive general data readable on a computer with a BluRay drive.
  • Flash Memory is the newest storage medium. It holds data in random access memory chips that “flash” the digital pattern of 1s and 0s onto the silicon so they don't forget when power is removed - hence the name “flash drive.” Unlike optical discs which are mostly read-only, flash memory can be erased and rewritten, just like a hard drive.  Best of all, no moving parts, and they can be exponentially faster than hard drives. You’ll find flash memory in three types:
    • Flash drives – the portable little memory sticks or “thumb drives” that plug into a USB port on your computer.
    • Memory Cards – the “film” for digital cameras, also called “chips,” comes in several varieties, such as SD (Secure Digital), CF (Compact Flash), and other proprietary types.
    • Solid State Drives (SSD) – these are replacing hard drives in new computers and laptops, and are also found in phones, tablets and other personal devices. With no moving parts, they are capable of extreme speeds, and storage capacity is approaching hard disk levels.

Because flash drives are cheap, they hold a lot of data, are relatively fast, and will fit in your pocket, we recommend using them for transfer delivery. When you have more data than a flash drive can hold, we commonly provide a portable hard drive. If you need to play the content on a set-top disc player, we can make optical discs, though there are limitations in playing time per disc.

What about the Cloud?

Can we deliver your data “in the cloud?" Yes, but.  Here’s what to know about “The Cloud.”

It's been said the “Cloud” simply means “someone else’s computer.” It’s called the cloud because diagrams of how the internet works depicted the mysterious array of computers on the internet as a cloud, and the name stuck. Technically, cloud storage is very complicated, because it can be distributed among servers in multiple datacenters around the world. Supposedly that makes the data more resilient, so that if one datacenter goes offline, the other will be there to step in. But those redundant cloud services are very expensive, and here’s the kicker – they can turn your storage off or delete it if you forget to pay the bill (or if they decide they don't like your politics) because it’s not on your device! It is rented storage that you do not own and do not fully control. Therefore we do NOT recommend permanently storing your data on the cloud. As a backup, sure, but not as your primary storage.

That said, cloud services can be a great way to temporarily transmit large files to other people. There are a number of paid and free services that can do this. If you have a Windows PC, you have access to Microsoft OneDrive. If you have Apple, you have iCloud. You can also use services like Dropbox, Smash or others to send files that are too big to email.  However, there’s one big problem with all of it…Bandwidth.

Depending on the speed of service from your internet provider, it can take a very long time to upload the files to the cloud provider.

While we can upload files to the cloud for you, we charge a premium to do that because of the time it takes. We also cannot upload high-resolution “source files” because they’re just too big for storage quotas that the cloud providers impose.

Video sharing is another topic I'll touch on briefly here, and more in detail in another post. Video sharing services are, by nature, cloud services. You will be uploading your video to their servers, and they will transcode (convert) the video to various resolutions so that it can play on desktop or mobile players, regardless of the viewer's download bandwidth.

The process with a streeaming service  is simple. First you establish an account with the service, then you upload the video we give you on the flash drive. Once it's uploaded (which can take a long time), they'll provide a link, and you can share that link with your family and friends. 

There are several streaming platforms to choose from, both free and paid. Google's YouTube is the most popular of the free ones, but there are limitations both in file size and privacy. Youtube now has two options, public for everyone to see, or private, requiring a password. Google can also insert ads if they want to. And Google's terms of service provide that you grant them ownership of your content. Paid services provide more flexibility and no advertising. Services such as Vimeo, Metacafe, Rumble and others offer alternatives to YouTube that may be better for your needs.

That’s why the flash drive or portable hard drive is our method of choice for file delivery. If you have any other questions, be sure to ask.

Request a quote on your next transfer job!