BOOT CAMP 260 (28/01/03)




Transferring documents and images or moving large volumes of data from one PC to another has always been fraught with difficulty. Obviously it’s not a problem when the computers in question are connected to one another, as part of a network or via the Internet but there are plenty of situations where the PC you want to transfer the data to, or use, is an unknown quantity.


For example, you may want to move sensitive documents, spreadsheets or a PowerPoint presentation to a regional or overseas office or show your digital photographs on a relative or friend’s PC. Alternatively you might want to make use of someone else’s computer to send or receive email or download information from the web, in which case you’ll need your address book or Favourites list and some means of storing the downloaded messages. 


Of course you can always take a laptop with you – assuming that you have one -- but it’s an added burden if you’re travelling light. On overseas trips there’s also the extra inconvenience of airport security checks – particularly when visiting the USA – and the increased risk of damage or theft.


The solution is to just take the data you need with you on some sort of portable storage medium and hope that it can be read at the other end but until recently the options have been somewhat limited.


The humble floppy disc comes closest to a universal data carrier but it has a number of obvious limitations, not least the 1.4Mb capacity, which is barely enough to store more than a couple of photographs or large word processor documents. That can be overcome to some extent by compression or ‘spanning’ large files over several discs but it is still not very convenient for files over 10Mb say, moreover floppy drives are fast disappearing from desktop and laptops, and the discs themselves are not especially durable.


Recordable CDs solve the file size problem with a basic capacity of 650Mb (you can squeeze in even more if the files are compressed), but it depends on the source PC being equipped with a CD Writer and the destination PC having a CD-ROM drive that can read CD-R/RW discs. Whilst it’s fair to say that most can these days it can still a bit hit and miss on older models. It’s also worth bearing in mind that with a recordable CD it’s usually a one-way journey. If the data has to be modified in any way it can’t be written back to disc, unless the PC it is read on also has a CD writer. We can discount Zip drives and other proprietary storage systems due to lack of support. 


Clearly what’s needed is a highly portable data storage device that can be read by almost any PC and with a capacity of several tens of megabytes (preferably more). It should also be small, light, durable and cheap.


Memory cards used in digital cameras, MP3 players and some camcorders show a lot of potential. The first gigabyte cards are on the way but affordably priced 64, 128 and 256Mb cards are available right now, which should be more than enough storage space for most applications. The main stumbling block is the inability of PCs to read memory cards directly, but that’s easily overcome with portable card readers that plug into the PC’s USB socket or in the case of laptops, the PC card (PCMCIA) slot. Card readers built into floppy discs are also available. Windows treats a memory card as a removable disc drive and files can be dragged and dropped into the drive in exactly the same way as a conventional hard or floppy disc drive.


Lack of standardisation is other drawback to memory cards, currently there are at least five different types: Multimedia Cards (MMC) and the closely related Secure Data (SD) cards, SmartMedia cards, CompactFlash and Memory Stick. Also available are CompactFlash sized MicroDrives, with capacities of up to 1Gb (expensive and better suited to specialist applications like digital photography). We looked at memory cards in some detail back in Boot Camps 191 and 192.


Whilst memory cards come close to a solution the answer to almost all of your portable data needs is a clever little widget called a USB Flash Drive. They’re basically the guts of a memory card attached to a standard USB plug and housed inside a small plastic or metal case. There are lots of different models coming onto the market but most of them are roughly the same size as a pack of chewing gum, which can be attached to a key chain or carried around the neck on a loop.


The ‘drive’ plugs into a PC or laptop’s USB socket – most desktops and laptops made within the past five years have at least one – and Windows treats it as removable disc drive. Capacities of between 16 and 512Mb are available now with larger types in the pipeline. They’re relatively inexpensive (prices for 32Mb drives start at less than £30), reasonably robust and relatively secure in that most of them have a facility to protect the data against unauthorised access with a PIN code type lock (see also this week’s Top Tip).


Another advantage of USB is that it’s ‘hot-swappable’ so the drive can be plugged in and removed without having to reboot the PC. In fact the only downside is that Windows 98 and SE systems usually need a driver file in order to read the drive (Windows ME, 2000, XP and Mac OS’s have built-in support for USB storage devices), but the driver file can be carried separately on a floppy, CD-ROM or downloaded from the Internet.


Next week – Photo tips





One thousand megabytes though purists will insist that it’s actually 230  (2 to the power of 30) bytes, which translates as 1,073,741,824 bytes or 1024 megabytes



Personal Computer Memory Card International Association. Body responsible for PC card standards. PC cards are credit card sized modules (but a little thicker) used in laptops for modems, memory expansion and other peripherals



Universal Serial Bus, high-speed serial data port for peripherals like printers, scanners and digital cameras




It’s all very well transferring your pictures and files to a portable memory device, but what happens if you loose it? There’s only one way to secure your data and that’s to encrypt it. CryptMage is a simple little freeware utility that will scramble your files, making them unreadable to anyone without the utility and the unlock code. The program only occupies 238kb of space so you can put a copy of it on your memory device. The download ‘zip’ file is just 130kb and it can be found at: It’s a powerful tool, so make sure you read the instructions first!

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