(updated 12/17/2012)

Technical Articles


How to copy files to and from a flash memory- or USB storage device...

These instructions are relevant for...

While each of the devices above may come with additional software to facilitate management, installing this software and learning how to use it is not necessary. Windows Explorer is fully capable of identifying devices such as these, assigning them a drive letter, and making them available for use.

Here is the technique, briefly and simply put...

1) using Windows Explorer, find your source

2) select the files you wish to transfer and "copy" them

3) navigate to your destination

4) "paste" your selection

5) safely remove the device

For those of you desiring more detail...

Windows Explorer is the file managing component of Microsoft Windows. It is always available, and can be called up easily by...

1) right-clicking the My Computer icon and choosing Explore

2) right-clicking the Start button and choosing Explore (you will find yourself exploring the Start Menu folder)

3) right-clicking on any folder on your desktop and choosing Explore

4) right-clicking on other desktop icons like the Recycle Bin and Network (Places or Neighbourhood)

5) clicking on Start > Programs > Accessories > Windows Explorer

These methods are listed in this order to indicate which is preferable. Concentrate on using method 1. If you are using Windows XP and your My Computer icon is not showing, click on Start, then right-click on My Computer and choose "Show on Desktop".

A close approximation of Windows Explorer can also be called up by entering c: in the location bar of Internet Explorer. Follow this by clicking on the Folders button (which appears on screen at this time).

(Some users create shortcut icons for Windows Explorer on their desktops, but this really isn't necessary.)

Windows has many faces, and not all PCs are set up the same. Personally, I recommend the Windows "classic" theme. If you are using the Windows XP theme, some screen pics may be slightly different than what you see here.

In any case, the information above should be enough information for you to arrive at a screen that looks like this...

You will be looking at a depiction of your PC in terms of disk drives, folder and files. All computers store their programs and data in files, their files in folders, and their folders on disk drives.

The original data storage drive was a floppy disk. It was referred to as the A: drive. The B: drive was a second floppy disk, used to make copies of what was in the A: drive. When hard drives first appeared, most PCs still had floppy drives, so the hard drive became known as the C: drive. When hard drive technology advanced beyond the limitations of Microsoft's DOS (disk operating system), partitioning of hard drives became common - splitting one physical hard drive into multiple logical partitions, named D:, E:, etc. When optical drives came along, they received the next reference letter - perhaps a D:, or E:, or F:, etc. Now that digital storage devices and external drives are here, they are receiving the next letters - perhaps G:, H:, I:, etc.

Today, the operating system (i.e. Windows) is typically installed on the C: drive. The A: drive (floppy) may, or may not, be included. The optical drive is the D: drive. Digital storage devices and external drives receive letters in the range of E: and on. Since some of these devices and drives are only visible when the device is physically connected to the computer, the letters may vary - a device or drive known as G: today, may be an H: tomorrow.

It is good practice to name drives so you can use the names to help you tell which is which. I often use the date to label a drive, though other naming techniques will work as well perhaps. (To re-label a drive, right click on it and choose Rename. Certain characters are not permitted, and a reasonable length is 11 or less characters.)

In the depiction above, you can see that I have no floppy drive, a partitioned internal hard drive, an optical drive (DVD-RW), a built-in SD/MMC card reader, and a built-in card reader referred to here as "MemoryStick". Other items represented are: the Desktop, My Documents, Control Panel, Shared Documents, Cam's Documents, a buit-in Web Cam, My Network Places, and the Recycle Bin.

You might realize that I am using a notebook computer. And what you see on your screen will be representative of your PC.

Unforunately, some of what Windows Explorer does is misleading, for Shared Documents, Cam's Documents and the Recycle Bin are just locations on the C: drive, Control Panel is just an association of a certain type of file on the C: drive (with the extension .CPL), and the Web Cam is just a piece of hardware that shows up for no particularly useful reason.

Note that My Computer is highlighted on the left, the "folders" side of the window. What is in My Computer is depicted on the right, the "files" side. As I move up and down on the left, I see different information on the right. I can expand upon any folder with a + sign, and may find more folders there. (This tiered structure used to be referred to as directory trees, and still could be.)

Now back to the task at hand - so how do you copy files to and from an external digital device or external drive that is connected to a PC?

In going from a PC to such a device, the first step entails knowing where the files are that you want to transfer. Files get saved by originating programs to destinations of your choosing or destinations by "default". Files of interest can commonly be found in your My Documents folder, or some sub-folder of that.

In the example below, I have navigated to the My Music folder on my PC, and can see some of its contents on the right.

In step two, I have chosen seven files by selectively clicking on them in the same manner that I might select multiple email in a list, or multiple cells in a spreadsheet. After I made my selection, I right-clicked on the selection and chose "copy". Now, details of the files that I wish to transfer are known to Windows.

Step three entails knowing where you want to copy the files to. In my case, I want to copy them to my USB MP3 player. So, I plug my player into a USB port and wait for it to be recognized. After a moment, I can scroll down on the "folders" side of Windows Explorer until I can see what Windows has decided to call my player today (MSCN, the I: drive), and I click once on it to select that drive as my destination. (As you can see in the image below, I already have some songs on the player.)

The fourth step is to right-click on the destination (in my case, either the I: drive icon, or on the white area below the files already there), and choose "paste" when prompted. You will see a progress window showing the files being copied.

And you will see the files safely there once the transfer is complete.

You can then use the Safely Remove Hardware icon (for USB devices) down by the clock to make sure that the data is not still sitting in cache memory when you unplug your digital device.

To copy files from a device to the PC, simply select the files on the device, choose a destination on the PC, and reverse the direction of the file transfer.

Some tips on this process...

You can open two Explorer windows at one time and arrange them in such a way that you split your screen in a vertical fashion - one window (on the left) would have the source open in it, while the other window (on the rigt) would have the destination open in it. This makes dragging-and-dropping a viable technique. (I don't like to drag-and-drop files within one window as I might accidentally miss my target and misplace the files.)

Don't try to "move" files (copy and delete in a combined command) from drive to drive - always copy the files first, then delete them from the source afterwards. Sometimes the copy will fail yet the deletion will take place, meaning you will have lost data.

Naming files and folders meaningfully and carefully will make sorting through your files an moving them about much easier. Click once on a file or folder to select it, then click it again to rename it. Downloaded music file names typically need a lot of fixing.

If you cannot find files and folders you are looking for, they my be "hidden" or "system" files. Windows likes to hide these from users, to reduce the chance of corrupting the operating system. To make these files visible in Windows Explorer, click on Tools > Folder Options and open the View tab. Select "Show hidden files and folders", and uncheck "Hide protected operating system files".

It is also a good idea to uncheck "Hide extensions for known file types". You should know that all files have a three-letter extension to their file name that determines what Windows will do with a given file. Hiding them just makes things harder to organize and arrange.

Whether music files, data files or program files - any files can be transferred in this manner. The only limitation is the available space at the destination.

MP3 and MP4 players can also be used to transport non-music and non-video files, hence having such a player may preclude the need of having a flash drive dedicated to data transfer. On the other hand, a decent flash drive that is so dedicated may protect your most precious data files longer, as the device has only one job and the ancillary function of an MP3/4 player being used to store and transport data (that of playing music) can't cause the device to fail.


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