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date 6.Jan.2013

■ Safely remove that removable USB drive

Are you old enough to remember what a floppy disk was? Those big plastic, feeble, noisy and ridiculously small in capacity disk was the primitive removable medium everybody used in the times that a complete windows distribution would fit in five 1.4MB floppies. You knew that once the floppy drive stopped making those ghastly sounds you could press the eject button and remove the disk from the drive. Life was simple but easy back then.

Now we all have USB sticks for carrying our files around. But how do you remove one after you saved some files in it? It doesn't make any sounds, and the indicator light (if any) flashes in mysterious rhythms. There is no eject button but that doesn't mean you can just yank it out of the USB slot. How long do you have to wait to avoid any data corruption?

The correct answer is to use the Safely remove hardware icon in the taskbar notification area (see picture). This looks like a green arrow in older windows. Just click on it, and from the menu pick the device you want to eject. This will make sure that all data are written to the USB drive and you can unplug it.
safely eject media icon

In some cases a removable drive cannot be ejected. You get an error message saying "This device is currently in use. Close any programs or windows that might be using the device, and then try again". If you see this message then look around your desktop, perhaps you are still working on a file located on the USB stick? Or perhaps you have the USB folder open in xplorer²? Quit all applications that access the USB drive, and close all folder tabs in xplorer² (or windows explorer) that access it, then try the safe eject command again.

What format for USB sticks, FAT or NTFS?

There are many parameters in this eject game, and they have been changing as newer windows versions came along. In the old days you got a really nasty warning whenever you ejected some USB stick without using the safe removal command. In more recent windows, the warning is gone but the risks for data loss are still with us. Microsoft know that most people won't eject properly so they have turned off caching by default in such drives so as to mitigate the risk. In general you should be more careful with NTFS formatted removable drives.

This is one of the main reasons why USB sticks are FAT formatted instead of using the more robust NTFS filesystem. Also the low-techiness of FAT ensures that USB sticks can be plugged into other people's computers without access permission problems. You may have noticed that if your external USB hard disk is NTFS formatted you get all sorts of troubles when you plug it to a different PC; you cannot even read folders without taking ownership or removing the security permissions altogether.

So all things considered, it's best to keep your USB sticks FAT formatted. The only problem you would have is files over 4GB in size.

Oh, and by the way, Happy new year 2013!

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