M-Systems Speeds Up USB Flash Drive

M-Systems is unveiling what it claims is the fastest USB flash drive on the market, boasting read rates as high as 23 megabytes per second and writing at 15 MBps--about 25 percent faster than typical rates.

The first entry in the M-Systems Smart DiskOnKey product line of keychain-size devices will initially be available in a 2GB capacity priced at $500.

Will Speed Sell?

The speed makes the newest DiskOnKey suitable for high-quality video playback, says Blaine Phelps, M-Systems' director of worldwide marketing.

"We are trying to change the perception that USB flash drives have storage limits and are slow," Phelps says.

The 2GB drive is available only through M-Systems' Web site. Its underlying technology, called DOK T5, will be used in all future M-System USB flash drive devices, which will ship in a variety of capacity sizes, Phelps says.

M-Systems makes USB flash drives for Hewlett-Packard, Apple, IBM, and others who brand drives as their own.

Flash Perceptions

With this release, M-Systems tries to address several flash drive shortcomings that are sometimes blamed for slowing the proliferation of the tiny drives. Besides balking at initially high prices, users have complained that USB flash drives are single-purpose dumb storage devices that suffer from slow data transfer speeds.

Drives that support greater speed and capacity can easily handle tasks like PC system backups and playback of video and audio content, says Rob Enderle, principal analyst with the Enderle Group.

"The USB flash market is changing to meet new needs at affordable prices," Enderle says.

The new M-Systems drive's closest speed competitor comes from SanDisk, which sells a $200 512MB Cruzer Titanium USB 2.0 flash drive with read/write speeds of 15/12 MBps.

On the price front, M-Systems is following the flash industry trend of falling prices.

Although users sometimes complain prices are too high, flash drive prices have dropped dramatically over the past year. For example, last summer M-Systems was selling a 128MB USB flash drive to other vendors for $100. Today the same product goes for $40. M-Systems sold its 1GB flash drive to vendors for $420 a year ago; now it is priced at $240.

USB Drives Everywhere

USB flash drive devices are becoming a commodity, analysts say. The market will more than double in 2004 to 50 million flash memory-based USB storage devices sold, compared with 23 million sold last year, according to Semico Research.

The 30 percent annual drop in prices is driving sales, says Jim Handy, Semico's director of non-volatile memory services. "You can buy a 256MB flash drive today for the same price a 16MB drive cost two years ago," he says. The move to USB 2.0 by many manufacturers has also boosted the appeal of the USB flash drive, because it is faster.

Competitors Lexar Media and SanDisk are also advancing their USB flash drives. SanDisk released a USB drive that can be loaded with software that lets you synchronize Microsoft Outlook on two or more computers simply by plugging the drive into a USB port.

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