Buyer's Guide: Flash Memory Drives

Thursday Aug 22nd 2002 by SmallBusinessComputing Staff
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Sneakernet will never be obsolete, but the media on which we carry files from one PC to another is overdue for a change. We test the modern computer traveler's must-have gadgets - pocket-sized, ever-ready flash memory drives - and find that even their premium prices are bargains compared to fussing with 1.44MB floppy disks.

By Eric Grevstad

In the Pretenders' first hit single, Chrissie Hynde sang, "Got brass in pocket." We've been walking around humming, "Got flash in pocket," thanks to today's pricey but perfect replacement for old-fashioned floppy disks - keychain-sized, removable flash-memory storage drives that let you store up to half a gigabyte of programs and data on your keychain and swap files between PCs (or PCs and Macs) in seconds.

Flash gadgets like M-Systems Inc.'s DiskOnKey have been around for a while, but falling costs, improved utility software, and the ubiquity of USB ports on recent computers mean their time has come. We sampled an 8MB DiskOnKey ($30) and a 64MB model of a newcomer, SanDisk Corp.'s Cruzer ($80), and found both to be excellent, even addictive portable storage solutions. The former has nicer security software and a slightly more convenient shape; the latter costs less per megabyte and has the advantage of being upgradeable or expandable.

Got USB? Got Your Files
Both of these gizmos (and others from competitors like CyberKey) work the same way, letting you read and write files to a flash device plugged into a USB port just as you would to a 1.44MB disk stuck into a floppy drive. But even the smallest-capacity flash drives can hold presentation or graphics files that are too big to fit on a floppy, reliably storing them for as long as 10 years, while larger models let you take along your favorite Web bookmarks, music or video files, and applications - OK, perhaps not Microsoft Office or Adobe Photoshop, but the entire OpenOffice.org suite installer is a perfectly portable 51MB.

And while they can't match the capacity of a CD, they transfer data at speeds nearer a hard disk's, and let you add or erase files via Windows Explorer with drag-and-drop convenience instead of CD-R or -RW hassle - not to mention the fact that, while you can take a homemade CD to a client's or friend's site in hopes of finding a PC with a CD-ROM drive, you can't yet count on finding a CD burner if you need to take away edited files.

The DiskOnKey and Cruzer plug into any desktop's or notebook's USB (1.1 or 2.0) port -- and get their power from it, with no batteries or AC adapter required. Like the latest digital cameras, they're automatically recognized as removable drives or USB mass storage devices by current operating systems - Windows Me, 2000, and XP and Mac OS 9.1 or higher - with no driver or software installation required. Both vendors offer a driver for Windows 98, with M-Systems earning extra points with a driver for NT 4.0 and mountability under Linux 2.4.

On our Windows 2000 system, both flash drives required us to right-click the system-tray "Unplug or eject hardware" icon and dialog box to turn off the device before removing it. On our Windows XP machines, we could plug in and yank out the devices as we liked, as long as we waited for the end of the glowing LED blinking that each uses to indicate a read/write operation in progress. Read/write rates of nearly 1MB/sec mean relatively small Word or Excel files are transferred almost instantly, but the Cruzer's LED flashed and Windows' file-transfer dialog stayed on screen for almost a minute after we dragged a 50MB folder to it.

M-Systems' pioneering DiskOnKey is currently available in seven different colors and capacities - 8MB ($30), 16MB ($50), 32MB ($80), 64MB ($100), 128MB ($150), 256MB ($250), and 512MB ($500); prices vary at resellers and OEMs including Targus and Fujifilm (who call the product the Go-Anywhere Keychain Drive and Fujifilm USB Drive respectively).

Shaped like a stubby pen or highlighter, the DiskOnKey measures 3.9 by 1 by 0.75 inches and weighs 0.8 ounce (0.5 ounce if you remove its keyring-and-pocket-clip cap). After formatting, Windows XP Explorer reported that the 8MB key had 7.53MB of storage room - or 6.85MB after we copied the supplied KeySafe 2.1 security program (660K) onto the drive.

While no microdrive manufacturer can do much about the expensive possibility that you'll accidentally lose the widget holding your precious files, KeySafe is simple yet sophisticated insurance against the concern that someone else will pick up your DiskOnKey, plug it into his or her PC, and read your documents. You can ignore the KeySafe icon, leaving it alongside the other (freely accessible) files in the root directory of the removable drive, or double-click it to enter a password and log into a "privacy zone."

The latter is like a partition on the drive - you specify its size, up to 90 percent of the total capacity, along with your password (and a hint for the latter if you like) - that's invisible until you log in. Windows Explorer shows you when you're using the private rather than public portion of your DiskOnKey by showing filenames (icon captions) on orange backgrounds until you log out or return to the unprotected zone.

The snoop who swipes your DiskOnKey need not know your password to reformat (empty) and use the device, but at least KeySafe will keep him or her from seeing your secrets - and M-Systems says it's just the first of a promised series of utilities that the microprocessor-equipped DiskOnKey will be able to run.

SanDisk's 1.1-ounce Cruzer, currently offered in 32MB ($60), 64MB ($80), 128MB ($100), and 256MB ($200) models, sports a different shape - like a chunky cigarette lighter, 3 by 1.75 by 0.75 inches, with a sliding switch that extends its USB connector for use and retracts it for travel. Our 64MB test unit yielded 58.5MB of formatted storage according to Explorer.

It's even more pocketable than the DiskOnKey, but not as handy as a keychain - the Cruzer comes with a tiny pouch or carrying case with a key clip - and too plump to plug into a couple of PCs we tried whose USB ports were slightly recessed behind front-panel doors or rear brackets. For such systems, SanDisk includes a two-inch USB extension cable; it worked like a charm, but is one more piece to carry.

Push the sliding switch the other way, however, and the Cruzer shows a unique advantage: It ejects a stamp-sized, digital-camera-compatible Secure Digital (SD) flash memory card, which you can swap with other or higher-capacity cards for extensible storage, or take advantage of the write-protect switch on the card to turn the Cruzer into a ROM device. That's a major plus over the DiskOnKey and other one-piece, fixed-size flash drives, although 512MB SD cards are currently rare.

While it wins in hardware versatility, the Cruzer loses the security-software showdown; compared to the sliding-partition SafeKey, its 497K CruzerLock is merely a Windows encryption utility that lets you specify a password to encode or decode selected files, with an option to delete or keep the previous versions. Encrypted files are stored (with a double file extension, such as readme.txt.cef) in a folder named "secure" on the flash drive.

All told, the Cruzer is simply an ingeniously small and portable SD card carrier or version of the plug-in memory-card drives used by many digital camera buffs, while the DiskOnKey is a slightly more elegant or smart storage solution. (Our dream flash drive would be a slightly smaller DiskOnKey with Cruzer-style modular silicon.)

But both work wonderfully, moving files between systems without a hitch. And if the price of the desirable 128MB or 256MB units is daunting, try to think of it this way - a one-time cost to have PC storage always on hand, while never having to tote around floppies or CDs again.

Reprinted from Hardwarecentral.com.

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