Roundup: Fast USB 2.0 Flash And “Smart” Drives; We Test The Compact Storage Devices With Great Speed/Capacity. Does This Mean The End Of The Memory Card Reader?

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Smaller than a pack of Wrigley's gum--or a mini Bic lighter in some cases--a USB flash memory drive can be a useful device. Its primary purpose is for transferring data from one computer to another: from a laptop used when traveling to your home desktop, for example. A USB flash drive simply plugs into a Mac or Windows computer's USB port where it's recognized as another drive. No driver software is required, except with older operating systems. While the earlier USB 1.1 flash drives were extremely slow, the latest devices--with the USB 2.0 Hi-Speed logo--are remarkably fast.

Hence, they're ideal for transferring numerous high-resolution image files from one computer to another.

Identical to USB 2.0 flash drives in most respects, the U3 devices--available in capacities up to 2GB in many brands--include additional features that are available when using any computer with certain Windows operating systems. (Memorex's Mini TravelDrive U3 series.) Photo Courtesy of Memorex Products, Inc.

Similar to a memory card in solid-state technology, a USB flash drive is larger and less likely to get lost. (Hang it on a keychain or around your neck on a lanyard cord.) Sure, you could use a memory card for data transfer instead, but the USB devices are more convenient: they do not require that you connect a memory card reader to your computer. While a CD can also be used for the same purpose, a USB flash drive is quicker and more convenient for temporary storage. As a bonus, even the affordable ($55) 1GB models hold more image files than a CD, and they can be reused 50,000 times. You can also find 2GB devices (for about $129) and 4GB flash drives ($299); Pretec markets an 8GB i-Disk II model that's just as small, but it's pricey at about $599.

The USB 2.0 flash drives and U3 smart drives are easy to use, convenient and fast, great for data transfer or for short term storage of image files. Photo Courtesy of Verbatim Corporation.

New "Smart" Drives
The USB 2.0 flash drives have been available for a couple of years, with few cool features except one: fingerprint biometrics security, available with the Pretec "i-Disk Touch" series. But there's another development that's even more interesting. Some of the latest flash drives are available with an entirely new feature that converts the basic devices into smart drives for truly "mobile computing." Called U3, the technology is somewhat complicated to explain, but is easy to use, as discussed later in this report.

For now, I'll just provide an overview of the benefits offered by devices that bear the U3 Smart logo.

The U3 features are available only with computers running Windows XP 2000 (SP 4 or later) and Windows XP. It is not available for Mac OS or PCs with older versions of Windows. With those operating systems, a U3 device will work only as a
conventional USB 2.0 flash drive without the extra features.

In a nutshell, the U3 technology converts a USB flash drive from a simple storage device into a "smart" drive. The small accessory then becomes a password-protected "personal work space" for files, software programs, and user preferences. The actual software that's pre-loaded varies from one manufacturer to another. A few applications are available as soon as you plug in a U3 smart drive. Others must be downloaded from the www.u3.com Software Central catalog where some are free of charge. The most sophisticated programs for U3 smart drives require you to pay a fee however, often between $20 and $30. Many Free Trials are available and it's easy to uninstall any software that does not meet your needs.

Courtesy of U3 LLC

"That's cool," you may be thinking, "but what's the point of all this extra stuff?" The primary benefits are mobility and security. With a U3 smart drive you get a private and personalized computing work space that's available when using publicly accessible PCs. In other words, you can use a password-protected smart drive in any computer, working with your own familiar U3 software and leaving no information behind. As discussed later, that can be useful when visiting friends and when using a PC at an office or an Internet café.

The Software Central page on the U3.com website includes a variety of applications that you can download for use with any U3 device. New programs are added regularly so it's worth registering for e-mail updates if you own a compatible smart drive.

Note: A few conventional USB 2.0 flash drives--with the Migo designation--are also "smart" drives but not U3 drives. For example, the (password-protected) Kingston DataTraveler II Plus Migo Edition allows you to work on multiple PCs using your own Microsoft Outlook e-mail contents, Internet Explorer settings, favorites, cookies, and history, plus your files, folders, and icons. After you're finished, there will be no trace of your personal data in the computer. This feature is made possible by Migo software that works with any Windows XP or Server 2003 system. However, Migo for USB 2.0 is not as simple/convenient as the U3 platform; also, it includes few applications and offers no imaging software. The many programs available from www.u3.com cannot be used with Migo USB drives that do not include the U3 Smart logo.

How We Tested
All flash drives are said to be fast, but it's likely that some are faster than others. In order to determine relative speed, we asked several manufacturers to provide samples of their latest USB 2.0 Hi-Speed flash drives, including some U3 models. All are much faster than devices certified for the other standards: USB 1.1, USB 2.0 Full Speed, and USB 2.0 Low Speed. Naturally, a computer with a USB 2.0 port is required to take advantage of the Hi-Speed connectivity. Older computers can be upgraded by installing a device such as the Adaptec 4-Port USB 2.0 Card Kit ($40).

Full scientific testing--using a vast range of different computers and image files--would have required a well staffed computer lab, but that was beyond our resources. Consequently, I conducted practical testing: transferring image data to and from a computer that's roughly "average" in speed and RAM memory. The PC used was a Compaq Pentium 4 2.8GHz laptop with a 4200 RPM hard drive, USB 2.0 ports, 512MB of RAM, and Windows XP Home OS. In order to assess the read/write speed of the various flash drives, I copied numerous Nikon D50 image files (JPEG and raw) to each device and later, back to the computer.

Note: The actual speed would differ depending on the exact computer and the mix of image files that were used. Consequently, the results of my tests should be viewed only as an indicator as to which products may be very fast and which may work at a snail's pace. Still, it's likely that the relative performance of a device would be similar under other circumstances: a super-fast model is unlikely to be slow with other test standards. Even so, a difference of less than 10 percent in speed should not be considered significant.

Working With A Smart Drive
While it includes complex technology, a U3 smart drive is simple to use after a single viewing of the tutorial or Help file that's included with most devices. Here's a brief summary of my experience with a Kingston U3 DataTraveler. All other brands work in the same manner because all employ the same basic U3 operating software. They do differ in terms of the software programs that are pre-loaded by each manufacturer but it's easy to add extra applications.

After inserting the smart drive, clicking on the U3 icon (at the bottom of the Windows screen) produced a pop-up of the Launchpad screen for access to pre-loaded applications. This also provides access to the feature for downloading extra programs at the touch of a button (from the U3.com website), for setting security passwords, for selecting a tutorial or helpful hints, etc.

By the time you read this, many more U3 "smart" applications should be available. The list will include software for Internet chat and voice capabilities (Skype, etc.), anti-virus options, various business programs, entertainment, photo, and design software as well as security features. During the test period, some of the most advanced programs were not yet available but I did try several of the more basic free applications.

As these screens indicate, the U3 interface is convenient with its icon based navigation. Simply touch one of the buttons with your cursor to access various features or a Help and Support function. You can also download software from the U3 website using the Add Programs button in the Launchpad screen. Note, however, that each U3 drive manufacturer pre-loads different applications in their devices, so the screens will show their specific features. Courtesy of Memorex Corp.

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