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Flash Drives: The Latest, Greatest Gadget

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The one constant about
personal computers is change, and the PC technology that has changed the most
involves storage devices. In 1981, the first IBM PC came with one or two 160-kilobyte
floppy drives. Following the lead of Apple’s first iMac in 1998, most of
today’s PCs dispense with floppies.


Various technologies—from Zip
drives to rewritable CD and DVD drives—have vied to replace the venerable, but
slow and low-capacity, floppy drive. The most versatile is the USB flash drive,
first used by IBM in 1998 on its ThinkPad laptop computers in sizes from 8 to
64 megabytes.


Flash drives are available today
in sizes all the way up to a whopping 64 gigabytes, with Kanguru Solutions’
Kanguru Flash Drive Max costing an equally whopping $2,800 (<span
The sweet spot is occupied by the 1-gigabyte drives, which generally cost from
$45 to $90. A step up, Kingston’s 2-gigabyte U3 Data Traveler can be had for $80
Smaller 128-megabyte drives cost as little as about $10 today. Other popular
vendors include Verbatim (www.verbatim.com), Memorex (<span
), and SanDisk (<span


How They Help


Flash drives can be used for everything
floppy drives used to be used for and then some. You can make them part of a
“sneaker net” and move files by walking the drive from one PC to another, which
can be convenient for very large files. You can back up important files to them
for safekeeping. You can run programs off the flash drive, bringing your own
Web browser or office suite to work or to an Internet cafe. You can create an
emergency drive in case your PC is compromised by a virus or hard-disk crash.


A USB flash drive plugs into a computer’s
USB (universal serial bus) port, available on computers made over the past five
years or so. If you’re running a newer version of Windows or the Mac operating
system, your computer will recognize the flash drive when you plug it in and
will automatically assign a letter to it, just as with your hard drive and CD
or DVD drive. If you’re running an older operating system—such as Windows 98,
Windows NT, or Mac OS 8—you may need to download a software driver (typically
not available for Windows 95).


Flash drives come with a USB 2.0
or 1.1 interface. The newer USB 2.0 drives can be used with computers that have
older USB 1.1 interfaces, but they’ll run more slowly.


They’re called flash drives
because they use flash memory, which is a hybrid between random-access memory
(RAM) and hard-drive storage. Like RAM, it’s lighting fast (the “flash” name
was coined by Toshiba to convey speed). Like a hard drive, a flash drive
retains data when power is no longer being supplied.


USB flash drives go by other names
as well, including thumb drives, key drives, keychain drives, memory keys, pen
drives, chip sticks, USB keys, USB sticks, and memory sticks, among others.
Sometimes the term USB drive is used to refer to a larger but still portable
conventional hard drive that plugs into the computer’s USB port, two examples
being Maxtor’s OneTouch III Mini Edition (<span
) and Pexagon
Technology’s Store-It Drive (www.pexagontech.com/store-it).


USB flash drives are typically in
the shape of a fat stick of chewing gum, but they can take other forms as well,
including a pen that writes. You can slip one into your pocket or pocketbook,
attach one to a keychain, or fasten one to a cord and wear it around your neck
as a geeky fashion statement.


Flash drives are hardier than
floppy disks, hard drives, and rewritable CD and DVD discs, better able to
withstand scratches, dust, drops, and spills. They’re faster and more durable
than rewritable CD and DVD discs, rated for far more write/erase cycles.


One negative, however, stems from
their versatility and convenience. They can be a security risk, giving insider
thieves the ability to smuggle large amounts of data out of an organization,
and malcontents the ability to manually install malicious software on a network.
This is the reason that some corporations and government agencies have banned
their use or disabled their mounting by ordinary users, a feature introduced in
Windows XP Service Pack 2. Other organizations have disconnected USB ports
inside their computers. There are even reports of some organizations filling
USB sockets with epoxy.


All this is unfortunate. USB flash
drives are a useful technology—

high capacity, fast, durable, and
compact—an example of PC innovation at its finest.


Reid Goldsborough is a
syndicated columnist and author of the book <span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway
He can be reached at reidgold@netaxs.com or members.home.net/reidgold.



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