USB Flash Drive Advancements

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This article was published by ComputorEdge, issue #2452, 2006-12-29, as a feature article, in both their print edition (on pages 19-20) and their website.

When you need to transfer large quantities of data — such as multi-gigabyte files — from one computer to another, by far the fastest way to do so is to network the two computers together. That may be fairly doable if both computers are in the same location, and a crossover cable is available, and you know how to use it. Or, you might have a router and some Ethernet cables, or a wireless router with a couple of wireless network cards.

Even if both computers are not in the same location, but they are both connected to the Internet via broadband connections, you may still be in luck if one of the computers can run an FTP (File Transfer Protocol) server program, and the other computer can download the files using an FTP client. Or, you could use a Web host account as a way station; but you would still need to know how to FTP the files up to the Web account.

If networking is not an option, then you could burn the files to an optical disk, such as a CD (CD-R or CD-RW) or a DVD (DVD-R or DVD-RW). But burning disks can be rather time-consuming, and for the CD-Rs and DVD-Rs, there is always the danger that you will simply create another unusable "drink coaster" should the burned disk prove unreadable.

Flash to the Rescue!

Fortunately, flash memory has provided an alternative that is remarkably convenient, in the form of USB flash drives — so named because they use the Universal Serial Bus interface protocol, the current most common standard for allowing separate devices to communicate with one another. USB flash drives are also known as key chain drives, thumb drives, handy drives, and pen drives.

But we should first review flash memory itself, for the benefit of any reader who is unfamiliar with this technology, and also because it is truly the data storage hero that makes possible a plethora of devices used for computer applications, portable games, cell phones, and so many other fruits of the technological harvest.

Flash memory is a type of memory that can be quickly erased and rewritten, at speeds greater than what is currently possible using magnetic hard drives and optical disks, but not as fast as DRAM memory, which is used as the system memory for desktops and laptops, as well as video display cards. DRAM memory obtains its speed advantage because it is volatile in nature (though not in the same way as your crazy Uncle Ed). In this case, "volatile" means that the DRAM requires a steady supply of electricity to retain its data.

Flash memory, on the other hand, is nonvolatile, and thus retains its information even without a continuous power supply of electrical juice. The magnetic platters in hard drives, and the optical disks mentioned earlier, are similarly nonvolatile. Otherwise, those devices would lose all of their information every time they were disconnected from the juice (just like Uncle Ed). Personal computers would then be nothing more than expensive, nonprogrammable calculators.

Because flash memory offers nonvolatile data storage and speedy access, in a small package, it is the ideal solution at this time for transporting sizable amounts of data, with far greater convenience than optical disks, and with capacities that make floppy diskettes (remember those?) pale in comparison.

Size Does (Not) Matter

How would you like to be able to store an entire operating system, along with all of your favorite applications, on a device not much larger than a regular pack of gum? Or perhaps you have a collection of MP3 files, averaging about 5 MB each, and you want to put all of them — all 13,000 of them — on a single USB flash drive? Then you want the Flash Drive Max.

The same way that a mother kangaroo can hold and transport a quite substantial joey in her front pouch, Kanguru offers their Flash Drive Max, which can hold an incredible 64 GB of data. It has 480 Mbps USB 2.0 connectivity, and is compatible with Windows, Linux, and Mac.

However, if you ever add this item to an online shopping cart, without paying attention to the price, then when you receive the invoice or your credit card statement, it will feel as if you were kicked in the gut by a protective mother kangaroo. Flash Drive Max comes in several sizes, and the 64 GB version lists for an equally sizable $2800.

Other Improvements

Not only have the various USB flash drive manufacturers offered increasing storage capacities, but built-in encryption is also a common option. This can be essential if you plan on carrying sensitive information on your flash drive, in case the drive is lost or it "hops away".

For instance, the Kanguru Flash Drive Max comes with KanguruShield security software, which allows Windows users to encrypt their data using a password. The KanguruShield software also gives you the capability to format and resize the drive's space into public and/or private partitions.

Lexar, another well-known innovator in this field, has equipped their JumpDrive Secure II with Dashboard encryption software, which supports Windows 2000/XP and Mac OS X 10.2+. The 1 GB version may have a much smaller capacity than the Flash Drive Max, but can be found for about $40 on the Internet — thus delivering a much lighter kick to the wallet.

USB flash drives are great, until you run out of space when loading files onto one of them. You will get a much earlier warning if you choose the Lexar JumpDrive Mercury, which sports a capacity meter on the side to provide you with a rough estimate of how much free space is available on the drive.

Visual capacity meters may be of little advantage when the drive is plugged in and you have the time to check its usage level. But if ever you are in a rush and you have to grab an empty drive from among several, this feature could come in handy.

As the USB flash drive manufacturers continue to dream up new variations on these ultra-portable devices, we will likely see flash drives being integrated into everyday objects. Would you believe even a wristband? Check out the Imation Flash Wristband. Now you can accidentally leave your keys behind, but still have your data.

Copyright © 2006 Michael J. Ross. All rights reserved.

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