Don’t trust jump drives

Using a pencil tip to restore power flow to damaged jump drive
Jump drive CPR… with a pencil

“Is there any way to restore files from a jump drive?” asked the professor. He was very insistent, and a little panicked. His graduate assistant had stored ten hours of work on the drive, and now it wouldn’t read.

I plugged the jump drive into the USB extension cable that is always threaded through my monitor stand. There was no Windows sound, and the drive didn’t light up. The USB plug on the drive was slightly bent.  “It appears to be mechanically damaged,” I said. I took out my Swiss Army knife and folded out the can opener attachment. Swiss Army Knife with can opener attachment openIt’s a perfect little tool for prying open plastic cases.

The little circuit board appeared normal. On one side was a large memory chip, with no brand name. On the other side was a tiny quartz oscillator, a control chip, and an LED. The USB plug, like most jump drives, was soldered directly to the delicate circuit traces of the green board. This is where leverage on the plug most commonly damages the circuit.

I folded out a magnifying glass. At close range I could see a tiny crack in the lacquer surrounding the 5V lead of the USB plug. I plugged it into the extension again and propped it up on a plastic pen. Then, using the tip of a pencil, I pressed gently down on the trace inside the boundary of the crack. Instantly, the circuit lit up, and Windows announced the detection of a jump drive.

“Hold gently down on the pencil, and don’t move,” I said. Then, I began working the mouse and keyboard as quickly as I could.

Window+E brought up Windows file explorer. I clicked on the drive. Its contents appeared in the preview window.

Ctrl+A selected all. Ctrl+C copied all. I used the mouse to click on the C: drive, then the \Temp folder. Then Ctrl+V started the files copying. The Windows dialog box showed a progress bar as almost two GB of files were copied from the drive.

“Don’t move,” I said. The professor held still, keeping gentle pressure on the pencil for almost four minutes. Finally, the progress bar announced 100% files copied. Lucky professor, lucky grad student.

I motioned for the professor to lift the pencil. Instantly, Windows sounded the removal, and the drive circuit went dark for the last time.

Jump drives seem durable, but they’re not. Don’t rely on them. Use them for carrying copies of files. Don’t save work-in-progress on them. If you do, copy to a backed-up drive or cloud storage as soon as possible. Two locations is a lot better than one.



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Older technology guy with photography and history background