Friday, March 28, 2008

An Update on USB Flash Drive Features

The Best Features of the Newest USB Thumb/Flash/Pen/Key Drives

Regardless of what you call them, today's USB thumb drives (aka: Flash drives, aka: Pen Drives, aka: Key drives) are all USB 2.0–ready and boast capacities as high as 32GB—with high prices to match. The sweet spot is 4GB. There you'll find reasonably priced USB flash drives with worthwhile extras and all the space you will need (at least for now). One of the two best uses of thumb drives today is for portable applications—software you can run from the drive without installing it to Windows. With portable apps, you can slip the equivalent of your entire PC into your pocket using any USB thumb drive, as long as you can find an actual PC to plug into.

They're a great way to maintain privacy and sometimes even circumvent the rules. For example, your IT person might deny use of certain browsers or e-mail clients on a computer, but you can run them from the thumb drive (which stores the cookies and history for your portable browser) and have all the messages downloaded to your portable e-mail. That's right, portable e-mail. These thumb-sized drives are also a safer way to use your portable apps at any public-access PC, such as an airport, library or hotel room where, for instance, you may forget to log out of a Web-based application like GMail. In either case, you won't leave a trace of your activities on the computer you were using, since all of the portable apps should read/write only to the thumb drive (not to the hard drive). But for heaven's sake, don't forget to take the drive home with you when you're done.

USB flash drives can support platforms specifically designed for running portable apps. The best known is the U3 platform, which is exclusive to a few select "smart drives," mostly from SanDisk. Another is Ceedo, which powers the PowerToGo software on Lexar USB flash drives. Almost any USB thumb/flash drive can run the Ceedo Personal Installer ($29.95). Both work under Windows XP and Vista. Many applications, including AbiWord (word processor), Firefox (web browser), GIMP (photo editor), and Thunderbird (e-mail), can be run in a portable mode without U3 or Ceedo (See for a great list). The problem is that you have to install them yourself. Combining them with a portable-app launcher is much simpler. In fact, the download sites for U3 and Ceedo can install some of the programs on a USB thumb drive in only two clicks. Aside from these individual portable apps, how about the entire WinInizio PenSuite from which you can pick exactly which collection of free and open source software you want. You want multimedia tools? Go ahead and pick the Multimedia package. You want networking tools? There is a separate set of those. The list goes on and on. I was completely amazed when I was introduced to this site. The WinInizio software suite(s) can be copied onto a USB pen drive or used from a hard disk. But USB keys aren't just for apps, of course.

They provide general storage for anything and everything, from simple documents to entire digital movies. They're handy for transporting photos to a photo printer with an integrated USB port, or dragging around that giant PowerPoint instead of lugging your laptop and a projector. A USB flash drive isn't just for Windows storage, however. Nearly all of them offer storage for Mac OS, and most work fine with Linux flavors as well. It's that kind of versatility, along with portability and large capacity, that really makes these drives worth getting. What are your feature or style options? You can have the convenience of the Imation Swivel Flash Drive or the retracting feature of the Sony MicroVault (the 4 GB MicroVault is my personal favorite at the moment). Still another excellent drive is the SanDisk Cruzer Contour. If you don't have at least one of these gadgets, you need to throw away your floppy disks now and make the leap to truly portable applications and storage.

Thanks to PC Magazine's Web site for the details and reviews for this post.

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