Fixing sluggish write performance of USB flash (thumb) drives

Nov 13 2012 Published by under linux, tech

    This has been noted in various places around the web but in practice what I did seems to be a combination of various writings so I have documented my own experiences here.


    I recently acquired a (yet another) USB flash drive, this a 16 GB “Dolphin” brand. The actual device reports as “048d:1165 Integrated Technology Express, Inc.” when interrogated using lsusb. I am using it to transfer transcoded Kaffeine PVR recordings from my PC to the set top box in the lounge for more comfortable watching.

    On first use, however, it took what seemed like forever to transfer a 250MB AVI file, over USB2, and looking at the GKrellM chart the write data rate appeared to be a very poor 350 kB/sec. So it seemed yet again, I needed to optimise a USB disk before it was adequate for use.

    In theory, to simplify things to one sentence, flash disk (and in particular, modern SSD) should be faster than spinning disks, as access is a true physical random access operation, without having to wait for the heads to be in the right spot. However this is invalidated due the blocky nature of flash disk writes. The actual reason for the poor write speed is that the default partition starts at the 63rd sector (byte 32256) on the disk, and USB flash drives, SD cards, etc. are designed to write data in chunks of say 128kB at a time. Even if you only write one sector, the entire 128kB (or 256 sectors) must be (re-read first and) written. So when a partition is not aligned on a 128kB boundary, more writes than otherwise necessary are required, slowing performance. USB flash drives generally employ FAT32 so they are usable on the widest variety of devices (including set top boxes) and the general experience of FAT32 is that write performance is severely affected if the partition alignment does not match the flash write size, for both the partition and the FAT master table itself.


    The procedure I follow for doing fixing misaligned flash drives is:

    1. Find a Linux computer, or reboot using a live Linux distribution such as SysRescueCD
    2. Destroy the existing partition.
    3. Recreate a single partition, ensuring it starts at the 256th sector (byte 131072, or 128kB)
    4. Format the partition to FAT32. with the following non default options:
      • override the default sectors per cluster to ensure clusters are aligned. This comes at some expense of apparent usable space, but the performance gain for writing large files such as video files is more than worth it.
      • Adjust the “reserved” sectors so that the FAT table itself is aligned to 128kB.

    Detailed Steps

    The following command sequence will accomplish this under Linux. This assumes your drive is at /dev/sdd, this will vary depending on what other disks you have.

    1. Run GNU fdisk with units in sector mode not cylinder mode. Then print the existing partition table (enter p when prompted. Below you can see the start sector of the existing partition is at sector 63. Note this is also a primary partition. This is typical of USB flash disks you might purchase at the local supermarket…

    2. Delete the partition:
    3. Recreate the partition, aligned at sector 256 (131072 bytes), and set the type back to FAT32 LBA (in this case matching what previously existed) (type ‘c’, or 0x0c, i.e. FAT32 LBA). Use of FAT32 LBA allows use to start the filesystem on an arbitrary sector bearing no relationship to legacy cylinders, etc. The final sector depends on the disk size.
    4. Save changes:
    5. Format the partition, setting the number of reserved sectors so that the FAT table remains aligned at a 128kB boundary. Assuming sectors per cluster, s=128 (65536 bytes), and our partition length of 31567469 sectors, we want the first fat to start at the 256th sector within the partition (which is OK as the partition itself is aligned.) For some sizes of flash disk, this can be an iterative process, but generally setting the number of reserved sectors to 256 will achieve what we want.

    6. This is the most important step – verify that the chosen number of reserved sectors has resulted in an aligned FAT table and aligned data area.

      The important figure here, is the data area sector – it must be an integer multiple of 256, and 256 x 17 == 4362 in this example.
    7. Test the result. I copied a 256 MB file onto the drive, and GKrellM is now reporting ~2.5MB/sec. More importantly, it finished in approx. one eighth of the time compared to before reformatting.

    The improved write performance should be just as noticeable from Windows.

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Windows shenanigans – with a little help from our (Linux) friends – part 1

Nov 11 2012 Published by under realworld, tech, windows

Although I use Linux as my primary O/S, I am required to also use Windows at work and most family / friends / neighbours etc. use it. So I need to stay up to date with the Microsoft world to retain my computer geek “cred”, as I am often called upon to fix problems or provide tuition…

Quick tip if you have to use a Microsoft O/S – you may be able to resolve Windows Vista / Windows 7 boot problems using EasyBCD, it is free for non-commercial use. Similar can be accomplished using Grub2 and GPartEd; however EasyBCD can manipulate the native Windows boot manager, and I need to experiment further with my wifes Win7 laptop when she is not around ;-)

A while ago a close relative had a run of bad luck with his system. Amongst other things this involved migrating from an old “slow” Vista Premium to a fresh install, on a clean hard drive. The fresh install ran much faster without the years of crud build up and recent drivers, etc. but he was unable to make it work without the original “slow Vista” hard disk in the machine, which was the system (BIOS) boot disk. The computer involved had several internal SATA and external drives, a situation which had previously eventually lead to disaster as my relative attempted to sort it all out, but more on that another time!

The problem was the “new” Vista was added to the Windows boot menu but with the “old” drive removed, the system was rendered unbootable; i.e. the clean drive had no boot manager installed.

The solution I employed was to use a tool called EasyBCD. The procedure essentially involved first installing EasyBCD onto the old Vista, and using it to make the new drive the default, at which point we went out to lunch at least making his system slightly more usable.
Having confirmed the new Vista was automatically entered on reboot, EasyBCD was installed into the “new” Vista, and used to install the boot manager onto the new drive, and finally removing the old drive. One key step involved using the “Select BCD store” to edit the menu on the alternative disk.
In all cases, it is prudent to take a BCD backup! (And of course backup anything else important.)

This was not completed without some recourse to Linux; at the start of proceedings, in spite of a lot of to-ing and fro-ing of drives and cables, neither Vista system would recognise a new 2TB drive he wished to use for data. I was able to boot using Xubuntu 12.04 and this could not properly see the drive either! As a last resort we swapped it to a USB a caddy and using my Acer Aspire One running Squeeze with a 3.2.9 kernel confirmed the drive was OK. Then running a manual Windows update on Vista actually allowed the system to recognise the drive. Perhaps I should have done this first, but I think it can be useful to experiment a bit longer and it was more comfortable inside on this day anyway… S

It seems therefore that both older unpatched Microsoft systems and older Linux kernels cant see some larger hard disks.

This all happened a little while ago so I don’t have exact model numbers or software versions.

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USBmount tool in Debian Squeeze

Dec 12 2011 Published by under howto, linux

For reasons which escape me at the moment I decided to ditch the default USB auto-mounting that is in the Gnome in Debian Squeeze and try out various alternatives. I ended up using the usbmount package which I installed some months ago.
This package did the job dutifully placing some usb0 or usb1 icon on my desktop when I plug in my USB drives, with some niggles that got more annoying over time… Continue Reading »

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