BOOT CAMP 328 (01/06/04)




A little over a year a go we devoted a Boot Camp to portable storage devices, including the memory cards used in digital cameras and MP3 players and what was then a relatively new class of computer widget, USB ‘Flash Drives’. Few technologies have evolved so rapidly in such a short space of time and this week we’re paying a return visit, to catch up on some of the latest developments.


Flash drives are now well on their way to replacing floppy discs as the simplest, quickest and most convenient way of transporting data and overcome the floppy’s most obvious weaknesses, namely limited storage capacity, fragility and unreliability.


These little devices are extremely robust and largely unaffected by mechanical shock, strong magnetic fields or airport X-Ray machines so they’re ideal for business travellers, holidaymakers and anyone who wants or needs to carry a large amount of data but doesn’t necessarily want to lug a PC around with them. Obvious applications include AV presentations, documents, spreadsheets, address books, photographs, music files and so on. They are very secure and data can be further protected by a variety of means, from encryption to fingerprint recognition moreover drives can be easily concealed or disguised. Stored information is also reasonably safe from the ravages of time and most manufacturers claim data will be retained for at least 10 years.


USB flash drives come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes but the commonest form is the ‘pen’ drive, about the size of pack of chewing gum, usually with a key ring or neck or wrist strap attached. We’ll look at some of the more exotic variations in a moment.  


Prices have fallen dramatically in the past year or so when the cheapest 32Mb pen drives were selling for between £30 and 40. Now they are literally being given away. Smaller capacity pen drives are now being handed out as promotional freebies at exhibitions, seminars and conferences, branded with a company logo and pre-loaded with sales information and photographs. 


A flash drive, however acquired, is exceptionally easy to use, just plug it into a vacant USB port on a computer using Windows XP or Mac operating systems (and many recent Linux distributions) and it will be instantly recognised as a ‘removable storage device’. It can then be treated like a large floppy disc by dragging and dropping files into or out of the drive. Virtually all USB drives have a simple write protection switch to prevent stored data being accidentally erased and many come with security software that encrypt or PIN protect the data. Like floppies flash drives are compatible with the vast majority of PCs though there are a few notable exceptions.


The biggest problem lies with USB flash drives and Windows 95 PCs, they don’t work! USB support was first incorporated in Windows 98, SE and ME but in most cases it will be necessary to load a driver program before the drive can used. This can be a nuisance and the only solution – if you are away from home and want to exchange data on someone else’s non-XP computer -- is to take the drive’s installation disc with you though ironically driver files are often small enough to fit onto a floppy. Alternatively, if the PC concerned has an Internet connection a driver can be usually downloaded from the manufacturer’s web site.


All flash drives conform to the USB 1 standard though some recent models are designed to use faster USB 2 ports now fitted as standard to most new computers but these drives can still be used with older PCs.


Pen type drives are widely available in a huge range of capacities from 16Mb up to 1 gigabyte. The EasyDisk from Maplin ( 0870 264 6000) is typical and comes with a range of utilities for security, partitioning, data compression and email encryption; prices start at £24 for a 64Mb module. Vivanco’s VivaDrive has a 128Mb capacity, it is USB2 compatible and sells for just under £60 ( 01442 403020). If you are in the market for promotional giveaways that can be customised with your company logo have a look at the USB Disk Pen, which is an actual pen with a built in flash drive. More details from: 0113 2817788.


Victorinox, ( 0845 125 9067) makers of the famous Swiss Army Knives has recently launched the Memory Knife with a 64Mb flash drive in place of the thingummy for getting stones out of horses hooves. It goes on sale this month for £59 and there’s an ‘Air Travel’ version (USB drive, light and pen but no blades) for £49.


Memory Mouse from Vivanco is a tiny optical USB mouse designed for use with laptops, it has a built-in 64Mb flash drive, costs around £40 and comes with its own soft carry case.


Sony are into flash drives in a big way and its MicroVault range includes models with built-in Memory Stick readers and a soon to be launched device with a fingerprint recognition pad to prevent unauthorised access. More information at:


Finally, for something really different there’s the Laks Memory Watch, which in addition to telling the time stores up to 256Mb of data. Gadget Shop ( 0870 8400 567) is currently selling the 128Mb version for £70.


Next week – Internet telephony





Electronic ‘non volatile’ memory device that retains data without using a power supply or backup battery



Motion Picture Experts Group audio layer 3 -- digital audio compression system commonly used to send files containing audio and music over the Internet



Universal Serial Bus, high-speed industry standard connection system for computer peripherals




Whilst flash drives are very convenient there are other ways of transporting or carrying important data around with you. If you have a digital camera or MP3 player you can normally use the memory card or drive to store word processor documents, spreadsheets etc. The card or drive will usually show up as a removable storage device in Windows Explorer whilst downloading pictures or tunes when the camera or player is connected to the PC by a USB cable. You can also drag and drop files into the card using a USB memory card reader, which you can take with you, when travelling on business or holiday, so the contents of the card can be read on other computers.

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