Floppy disks had stick-on labels. Optical discs can be written on with a Sharpie, or printed with special ink-jet printers, or round stick-on labels applied.

USB sticks have zero affordances for labeling. They are often bubble shaped or covered with rubber so you can't easily stick on a generic sticker such as an address label or file folder label.

Meanwhile, they are sold with color-coding to indicate capacity and USB generation, presumably to prevent mistakes at check-out for bulk non-carded products. This means that you tend to have a bunch that all look alike.

Beyond the question of how do I tell them apart... Why were they not designed to be labeled with a pencil, or sticker, or coding of any kind?

Sticking them one by one into a running machine to see what's on them is not going to work for boot images, which, e.g. this Mac Book Pro shows as "unknown" and un-helpfully offers to reformat instead.

  • I purchase any of the ones that have a hook on the end , and I put a string through it with a homed-made ID tag. Easy as pie.
    – user83068
    May 1, 2016 at 23:02

4 Answers 4


Two reasons:

  • Flash drives are, in contrast to floppy disks, seldom used to store data permanently. They are used for temporary storage mostly. E.g. transfer data from one computer to another, hand over a large collection of photo's to another person etc. For permanent storage we use harddisks and/or cloud storage these days. Floppy disks where often used to store copies of software (backup copies obviously) which was often spanned across multiple disks.
  • Size. Flash drives are simply too small physically to accommodate a label that is large enough to accurately describe the huge amount of data it can hold.
  • I think you miss one thing: Many flash drives are "personal" -- you may own 10 of them that you got for free somewhere, but you use only one, whence no need for labelling.
    – yo'
    Feb 13, 2016 at 21:40

A floppy disk had a pretty small capacity, and could generally only store one thing or a small set of things. 5 1/4" floppies, notably, had plenty of room to write vs. the amount stored.

(Leaving aside the bit where writing on a 5 1/4" floppy with a ball point pen was asking for disk damage.)

Likewise, because they didn't store much, you usually had a LOT of them kicking around--dozens or hundreds--and read times were slow, so it was crucial to know you had the right disk before putting it in the drive.

Modern devices can store incredible amounts and are physically tiny. Attempting to write the contents on them is entirely impractical. And because they store a lot, you often only have one, or sometimes two, so it's easy to tell them apart.

Professional photographers, who routinely carry many SD cards with them, sometimes use carrying cases which allow them to keep the cards straight:

a plastic carrying case for SD cards; each flip-open slot has writing on it

So the short answer has three parts:

  1. USB sticks are physically small, so it's hard to write sensible things on them.
  2. USB sticks have a large capacity, so labeling the contents is futile.
  3. Folks usually only have a few, so it's easier to tell them apart.

FYI, Lexar makes 8GB (3 pack) USB 2.0 jump drives with clear plastic areas to insert the provided writable info. Easy to add to an envelop which will easily go through snail mail. Available through Office Max (depot).

enter image description here lexar


I'm not sure about this, other than the incredibly small drives seen here:

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and gimmicky flash drives like so:

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Most flash drives have plenty of affordance for labels:

enter image description here

Of course you would have to add your own labels though, which is likely because most people outside of the technology sector don't carry multiple flash drives so they don't need to label them to keep them separate.

  • some of the styles you showed have a surface that is flat or only curved in one direction and is large enough to write on. But that's not a given: curved surfaces and blisters is the norm. Note that even food leftover bags have a frosted area that can take a pencil mark.
    – JDługosz
    Aug 24, 2015 at 13:26

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