|There are gobs of products out there to help you send, store, and transport your data, but few can match the
simplicity and sheer portability of a tiny USB flash drive.
Like an old-school floppy disk retailored for the twenty-first century, USB flash drives offer the capacity
of a modest hard drive, the portability of a cigarette lighter, and the plug-and-play simplicity of a modern
These portable devices go by a colorful assortment of names--keychain drives, memory sticks, iDucks, and
so on--but they all work pretty much the same way. Plug one into a USB port on the back of your PC,
and it'll show up like any other hard drive. Drag and drop your data onto it from your PC at work, pull
out the drive, and plug it into your computer at home.
Who needs a flash USB drive? Erik Aldana, vice president of the USB Flash Drive Alliance, says that the
portable drives are perfect for people who regularly work on two or more different PCs--particularly
students and business people--and need a dependable way to transport data. Flash drives are also popular
in Asia, where not everybody has their own computer.
A 256MB flash drive can hold a surprising amount of data: dozens of digital pictures, a couple of hours of
MP3s, or hundreds of Microsoft Word documents. While they come in a variety of capacities, ranging from
8MB to 2GB, the 128MB and 256MB models hit the sweet spot. Lesser capacities are too small to be truly
useful, and larger capacities are prohibitively expensive (2GB drives run about $700). Still, prices
will continue to come down, and we expect drive capacity to hit 4GB by the end of 2004.
In these days of cross-pollinated cell phones, PDAs, and cameras, some may find a basic flash drive too
one-dimensional. If you're looking for convergence, there are USB drives that also function as MP3 players,
voice recorders, and even FM tuners. In fact, we looked at two USB drives that function as wristwatches
and one that doubles as a pen. Whatever form they take, however, USB drives are pricey storage devices
when you consider the cost per megabyte. You can buy a high-quality 250GB internal hard drive for around
$250, or $1 per gigabyte, whereas a 128MB USB flash drive runs about $50, or 50 cents per megabyte.
If you're using an older operating system, take note: Most USB flash drives will work with both Windows and Mac
systems, but if you're still using Windows 98, you'll need to download a driver before you can use the drive.
Same goes for Mac fans running anything older than OS 9.