Storage

Take your data anywhere with these four USB miniature storage devices

Increasingly popular among home users, USB flash storage devices also offer features useful to technical support staff. We evaluated the features, price, and performance of four USB storage devices.

The floppy drive is dead—or at least nearly so. Of course, the floppy's death knell started ringing years ago when Zip drives and Super floppy drives were introduced. So floppy drive fans may still be chuckling at the reports of its impending demise.

This time, however, there might be good reason for the old standby to take notice.

The arrival of portable USB storage devices—so small that they fit easily in your pocket and even sport rings for easy key chain attachment—may finally put the venerable floppy to rest. These portable devices store from 8 MB to 2.1 GB of data and take up a fraction of the space of other storage options. Think about it: A 16-MB ThumbDrive, which, as its name implies, is no bigger than your thumb (but that depends on the size of your thumb, I suppose), stores the equivalent of roughly 10 floppy disks. Walk around with 10 floppy disks in your pocket and see how that feels.

Storage capacity and portability make these devices incredibly convenient tools; their only drawback may be their price. But, as you’ll see, the prices vary widely, and when you break it down to cost per megabyte, some of these devices are beginning to shine as viable replacements for floppy disks and even CDs.

The contenders
We got our hands on four portable devices to try out. What was perhaps most surprising was how different these devices were and how devices so simple could incorporate useful features to differentiate themselves. The products we reviewed are EasyDisk.com’s EasyDisk, M-Systems’ DiskOnKey, Transcend Information Inc.’s JetFlash, and Trek 2000’s ThumbDrive. As you can see from the photograph in Figure A, the devices are all quite small. In fact, I could easily fit all four of them in my pocket without a problem.

Figure A
Portable USB storage contenders


Though one of our review products stored considerably more data than the others, the overall offerings are comparable. The ThumbDrive, EasyDisk, and JetFlash devices pictured store up to 16 MB of data, while the DiskOnKey in the photo above stores 512 MB.

Features
While they have comparable data storage capacities, it's in the additional features that these drives distinguish themselves. In addition to password protection, the devices can also be formatted with boot features. Both of these are potentially useful options that could make the devices very attractive—especially given the cost per MB you ultimately pay for them—as replacements for floppy or CD, but there are some unfortunate caveats that dull the luster for some of the devices.

Security
Three of the USB storage devices we tested offer password protection: the JetFlash, EasyDisk, and DiskOnKey. The ThumbDrive Smart does not include a password protection feature, but this feature is available on the ThumbDrive Secure. One of the unique aspects of the ThumbDrive is that it’s available in a range of different models, each with unique features. You have to consider what you want to be able to do when selecting a model of ThumbDrive.

The JetFlash includes software that allows you to partition the available space on the device into protected and unprotected areas. Installing the security software adds a new icon to the Windows system tray. When you want to copy files to the JetFlash’s secure partition, you must double-click the security icon and log in with your password. A default password is assigned with initial setup of the security function. When you aren't logged in, the files stored on the secure partition aren't visible.

Conversely, when you're logged in to a secure partition, that space is the only partition available for storing data. You cannot view files on or copy files to the unsecured partition. To do so, you must first log out of the secure partition. It’s an odd system that may be confusing or cumbersome to some users.

You must also install the security software on every PC from which you need to access the secure partition. This could be somewhat inconvenient, but the program for installing the software is small and resides on the JetFlash. So you could leave the program where it is and simply install it wherever you are using the device to be able to access secured data. The best part about the security feature is that files stored in the protected area are invisible to users who don't have the password to log in.

The EasyDisk also offers a password-protection feature. Before you can use the feature, you must run the Mformat program included on the accompanying CD to format the EasyDisk and enable the security program. Once you’ve enabled the password protection, you need to unplug the EasyDisk and then plug it back in.

When I tested this feature, the Mformat seemed to work fine, but when I clicked on the system tray icon to unplug the drive, my Win2K system crashed and rebooted.

After the system came back up, I was able to run the Passid executable included on the EasyDisk CD to log in and access the drive. Unlike the JetFlash utility, the EasyDisk protection secures the entire drive, and it also renders files invisible until you enter the password. You must also enter the password to be able to copy files, so the feature essentially locks the drive from use by anyone until the correct password is applied. Again, you must install the password security program on systems where you plan to use the EasyDisk. Since the password protection essentially locks the drive, it’s not as easy to simply carry it on the device.

DiskOnKey’s security is accomplished via its KeySafe utility, which, like JetFlash, allows you to create a secure partition on the device. You designate the size of the protected partition using a slider that graphically shows the amount of space in the secure and unprotected areas as shown in Figure B. KeySafe also lets you enter a password hint to help you remember your password. The KeySafe utility formats the drive and sets the secure zone and password. Once the formatting process is complete, KeySafe prompts you for the password to be able to access the drive.

Figure B
KeySafe utility


The password protection of the DiskOnKey functions the same as that of the JetFlash. When you’re logged in, you are viewing what DiskOnKey calls the Privacy Zone. To copy files to and from the unsecured area on the drive, you must log out of the Privacy Zone. Formatting the drive with the KeySafe feature adds shortcuts to each zone that allow you to quickly move back and forth from one to the other.

In addition to the password security, all of the devices are equipped with a write protection switch that locks the drive to prevent data from being accidentally overwritten.

Boot feature
Some of the devices allow you to turn them into bootable disks, a feature that could be useful if you need to be able to boot machines from disks and also want to carry additional files. You have plenty of room on all the drives to copy whatever you need for your startup disk.

Again, there are some caveats with the feature. The JetFlash’s bootable disk option works only on Win98SE. Transcend reports that the larger JetFlash models are bootable under a wider range of Windows versions, but not under Win2K.

The EasyDisk can be used as a boot disk for Win98/SE/Me and XP only. The boot feature is not supported in Win2K.

According to M-Systems, the bootability of the DiskOnKey is dependent on which version of the device you have and your system BIOS. The FAQ relating to the product states, “Some BIOS versions currently support the DiskOnKey as a bootable device," including Phoenix BIOS. M-Systems recommended contacting the BIOS vendor to determine whether yours supports the feature. M-Systems reports that once the device is detected in the BIOS, you can create a partition on it and format it to serve as a bootable drive.

Performance
The essential performance factor to consider with the devices is their transfer speed. This becomes important when you’re using the larger devices, which can store up to 2.1 GB of data, as on the ThumbDrive Pro. Figure C shows how the devices stack up in terms of speed.

Figure C
The ThumbDrive lags behind in the speed category.


The ThumbDrive Smart is the slowest of the devices; its transfer speed is noticeably slower than that of the other devices. The JetFlash and DiskOnKey proved to be the speediest, but the EasyDisk wasn’t far behind. You would likely not notice the performance difference between the JetFlash, DiskOnKey, and EasyDisk. The ThumbDrive Pro and other models can perform better than the ThumbDrive Smart we tested, but all were still slower than the other devices tested in this review.

Overall thoughts
The most attractive feature of these devices is their portability. They give users an easy way to transport large amounts of data from one computer to another without having to deal with the limitations and hassle of floppy disks or CDs. You can carry them in your pocket, on a key chain, or around your neck.

They are far from perfect substitutes for floppy disks, however, because the boot features are rather limited. For technical support personnel, USB storage devices offer a convenient way to carry large amounts of data, but the lack of true bootability limits their appeal. For home users, however, these are great devices. After having used them for several weeks, I don’t think I’ll ever use another floppy disk, and my CD burner will be relegated to serving as a backup device.

But which one is the best? That’s a tough question. The ThumbDrive is impressively tiny, which makes it the most portable, especially since it is also equipped with a ring for hanging on a key chain. The JetFlash is only a hair bigger, though, and it’s speedy. Although it doesn’t have a key ring, it does fit easily in your pocket. The DiskOnKey is the largest of the devices, but it does have a ring for easy portability and performs better than most.

It really just depends on what you want to get out of them. The ThumbDrive line offers a wide array of features, including biometrics, while the other devices tend not to specialize as much. If price is your biggest concern, then the best bang for your buck may be the ThumbDrive Smart, which you can purchase in the 16-MB size for around $20. You can find most of the 16-MB devices for $25-$30 depending on where you make your purchase. Prices for the larger devices, such as the 512-MB DiskOnKey we tested, can be as high as $500. That's an expensive key chain accessory, especially if you lose it. Compare prices on Shopper.com or mySimon.

Portable USB storage devices will no doubt continue to evolve and mature, and as they do, prices will come down to make them a much more attractive storage option. Though the boot features are currently limited, USB drives may finally put floppy drives to rest.
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