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Fred Langa
Fred Langa
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Langa Letter: What's Behind The USB Drive Revolution

These small drives can generate huge payoffs in convenience, maintenance, and security. Fred Langa examines the various types and their strengths and weaknesses. He finds there's much to like.

Thumb Drives
Although the largest of the thumb-type drives have sufficient storage space to hold an entire operating system (and we'll come back to this later), they're much more commonly used to transport files and data from PC to PC. For example, you might simply copy all your most-important word-processing documents, spreadsheets, and such from your work PC to a thumb drive, carry it home in a pocket, and work on the files at home.

The larger-capacity thumb drives can even store an entire "My Documents" folder tree, making it possible to use one as your primary storage for those files. With your work and home PCs permanently set up to look for all "My Documents" files on the thumb drive, all you have to do is plug in the thumb drive, start the PC, and you'll instantly have all your My Documents files and settings available, no matter where you are.

Some thumb-drive users have found it helpful to move their browser Cookies, History, Cache, and other transient files to a larger-capacity thumb drive, too: This enhances their security and privacy because no traces of their work need be left on the PC they've used as everything of significance resides on the thumb drive. (See this for more information on moving these types of folders.) Once on the drive, these files can be encrypted or otherwise made snoop-resistant.

Thumb drives can be bootable, so they're also popular for diagnostic or repair work: Instead of having a toolbox of diagnostic and maintenance software on floppies or CD, you can place many of these tools on a thumb drive for fast and easy booting and repair work on any PC that supports USB booting.

Larger thumb drives, in the 128-Mbyte to 256-Mbyte range and up, also offer the prospect of holding a complete operating system, letting you carry everything--your operating system, its settings, your files, everything--right in your pocket. This can easily be done with any basic operating system that normally can boot from a floppy. For example, DOS and command-line Linux are a snap to get running on a bootable USB thumb drive. But it's harder with more complex operating systems that normally only expect to boot from a CD or hard drive; and that expect to "take over" USB support from the hardware. Windows in particular may start to boot fine from a USB device, only to fail when the operating system tries to take control of the already-running USB services. Getting a complete operating system on a USB device is a complex topic, and we'll devote an entire future article to it.

As for cost, at the time of this writing, the 256-Mbyte thumb drive seems to offer the most bang for the buck: A Froogle price search shows several vendors selling 256-Mbyte thumb drives at around $38, or 15 cents per megabyte. Smaller and larger capacities cost more per meg: 16-, 32-, 64-, and 128-Mbyte units, for example, cost 75 cents, 31 cents, 23 cents, and 18 cents per Mbyte, respectively; while 512-Mbyte, 1-Gbyte, and 2-Gbyte capacities cost 17 cents, 20 cents, and 23 cents per meg, respectively.

Of course, there are other factors to consider besides raw cost: Warranty, service, shipping, and ancillary software all can raise the value of a given product. For example, I purchased a 256-Mbyte thumb drive from Crucial for $49, or 19 cents/Mbyte. The Crucial unit is made of an exceptionally dense and rugged plastic that suggests extreme durability; the fit of the removable plug cover is extraordinarily smooth and firm, with none of the "click on" looseness I've seen in other units; Crucial includes software to hide and encrypt sensitive files you may place on the drive; and the device comes with a separate extension cable to allow easy use of the thumb drive on PCs that only have rear-mounted USB sockets. None of those features has anything to do with raw capacity, but they all affect and improve the overall usefulness and longevity. To me, these extras were worth a few extra dollars. But your choices are enormously varied, and you may decide that a different mix of features is right for you.

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