USB Drives Get Two Thumbs Up

Flash memory is expensive, Steve notes. So why's it so much more popular than those dearly departed floppy disks? Angela's got one answer, brandishing a flash drive in the shape of a dismembered digit--yes, truly a thumb drive. But there are many more conventional designs that tend to be about this size. All these drives use flash memory, and besides their slim good looks (or excellent shock value), all of them can hold a lot of data. These days, the smallest available flash drives tend to hold around 256MB and cost around $20 bucks. The largest, for now, top out at around 4GB, which is, not coincidentally, the size you'll find in midsize MP3 players such as the IPod Nano.

Adding to its charm, a USB drive is truly that--a self-contained drive. Plug it into the USB port, and the computer will see it as simply another new drive, assigning it a letter just as your hard drive and DVD player have (provided you're not using Windows 98 or earlier, in which case you'll have to install software drivers for the drive).

Since the memory chips are pretty small, some manufacturers have gotten creative about the housings they're in, though you may pay a steep premium for that kind of thing. On that note, Steve and Angela display a variety of drives they picked up at a site called Dynamism.com that specializes in imported (and, usually, fashion-forward) Japanese gear. The Duo found drives shaped like rubber duckies, drives shaped like sushi, and that gory little thumb drive again. Angela also picked up a charmer from ThinkGeek, the Mauna Tiki Data, which comes complete with fancy lighting effects and hand-painted detailing. More practically, the Duo were impressed with the drives contained in genuine Swiss Army knives--including a bladeless version you can take on an airplane. Finally, don't go crazy with the stylishness at the expense of usability; both Steve and Angela had trouble getting the sushi drive to fit the available space on their crowded USB hubs.

A few other models that crossed the Duo's desk are relatively sedate-looking, but they're inventive on the inside, using a software system called U3. U3 uses specially designed programs that you can run right from the drive without having to go through all the rigmarole of installing them. Plug the drive in, and you can see a menu of what programs are available to run from it. Angela likes these for people who work on machines that aren't their own. These drives hold files, yes, but they can also handle some system-type responsibilities--running certain programs and managing your bookmarks and e-mail. They're great for security purposes, too; plug your U3 drive into some other machine and you can use a Web browser or e-mail program on it without leaving your footprints in the other machine's cookies and history files. When you plug back in to your home machine, you can sync what's on the U3 drive with what's on your own computer--which can be easy or tricky depending on the software you've got on there or buy to run on it.

U3's pretty fresh yet, but the Duo find it to be pretty stable. Angela's testing was somewhat more limited than Steve's since she uses neither Outlook nor Internet Explorer, but she did pick up a U3-specific version of Trillian, an instant-messaging package she likes. Installation was a little unusual, but once she had it going it worked beautifully. Steve tried four of these, and it turns out there are big differences in what programs you get for free. The Kingston model he tried came with absolutely none except for the option to encrypt the files on the drive and make them useless without a password, while the SanDisk came with a program to encrypt files, a program that can encrypt and store log-on passwords, and a couple of other goodies. A Memorex model in testing came with the Thunderbird mail client, McAfee antivirus software, and Migo, which is another synchronization program. But there are already programs at the U3 site that you can download, and more are on the way. And U3 capability doesn't look as though it's going to add much to the price of the drive.

By the way, note the Duo, encryption is a good thing to keep in mind with these ultraportable gadgets. For instance, Steve suggests putting all your important personal info in a cheap one and tossing it into your home disaster kit. But, cautions Angela, if you're going to store important stuff on there, you really ought to protect it so that somebody without a password can't get at it. And if you're really paranoid, you can get a model like the SanDisk Cruzer Profile, which forces you to swipe your finger across a sensor before you can see what's in there.

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