Feature-filled flash drives

These tiny devices can pack in a lot of data and a lot of uses

If you've got a flash drive sticking out of a Universal Serial Bus port, chances are it has more data stashed on it than a couple of spreadsheets and photos of your dog. Thumb drives, keychain drives, USB flash drives or whatever you choose to call them long ago ceased to exist just for file storage.

Sporting new designs and preloaded with a raft of mobile utilities to handle tasks such as file transfer at USB 2.0 speed, anonymous Web browsing or even recreating your computer's desktop on some other PC, these devices just keep getting more interesting.

JumpDrive Mercury

The JumpDrive Mercury includes a meter that shows how much storage is available.
The JumpDrive Mercury includes a meter that shows how much storage is available.
Some, such as Lexar Media Inc.'s JumpDrive Mercury, which started shipping last week, fall into the "tell me more" category. It features a capacity meter right on the device that shows how much storage is available on the stick. Using E Ink display technology to create this visual cue, the JumpDrive Mercury doesn't need to be plugged into a computer for the meter to work.

My only quibble is that the meter displays percentages rather than an actual number of megabytes, but that beats a blank. It will work with Windows XP/2000 and higher and Mac OS X 10.2 and higher. Pricing is $99 for 1GB, and $169 for 2GB.

EZVue Vista

EZVue Vista has a scrolling two-line display for file names and drive capacity.
EZVue Vista has a scrolling two-line display for file names and drive capacity.
Then there's Royal Consumer Information Products Inc.'s EZVue Vista line, which will tell you even more, such as which files are stored on the device. File names, drive capacity and free space remaining can be perused on the EZVue Vista's scrolling two-line display.

It's available in 256MB ($49.99), 512MB ($79.99) and 1GB ($99.99) flavors. The company also offers a Secure Digital card reader with the display for $29.99.

StealthSurfer II

StealthSurfer II has applications for concealing your identity.
StealthSurfer II has applications for concealing your identity.
Concerned about identity theft? I recently test drove Stealth Ideas Inc.'s newly upgraded StealthSurfer II ID Protect. It's preloaded with applications aimed at covering your tracks.

The drive comes bundled with the Firefox Web browser and Thunderbird for e-mail, Anonymizer Anonymous Surfing for secure Web browsing and RoboForm Pass2Go, a password keeper/form filler.

Anonymizer encrypts your browsing and masks your IP address via a proxy server. It's handy when you need to browse the Web on someone else's computer without leaving a trace and for times when you're concerned about sending sensitive information over a wireless connection, say in an airport lounge or coffee shop.

I found the device easy to configure but was surprised to find that Anonymizer was not set to load by default. When you fire up Firefox, you'll have to remember to launch Anonymizer, too. (Note: The manual includes instructions on how to add additional applications to the start-up file.)

I've been a fan of the desktop version of RoboForm ever since stumbling on it several years ago in a search for a password keeper that was spyware-free. Pass2Go, the USB edition, adds key functionality to the StealthSurfer. Too bad the company's latest product, GoodSync, a useful file-synchronization utility, isn't included.

Pass2Go stores passwords and personal data in a password-protected, encrypted file. Yes, your operating system handles password storage, but RoboForm is much more full-featured. One gotcha to keep in mind: After 30 days, this trial version of the product limits the number of accounts you can store to 10. You'll have to pay up for an upgrade.

StealthSurfer works with Windows 2000 and XP and is available in sizes from 256MB ($99) up to 2GB ($279).

USB flash drives are being transformed in part thanks to U3 technology developed by SanDisk Corp. and M-Systems Flash Disk Pioneers Ltd., which makes it possible to run applications directly from the drive. You'll find these U3 USB smart drives running everything from Skype to office suites. They feature a launch pad for opening applications running on Windows 2000 and XP.

Kingston Technology Co. recently updated its U3 DataTraveler USB smart drive, which comes bundled with applications for storing passwords, managing photos and reading digital magazines.

A reader recently took me to task after I reviewed a new high-capacity USB drive because I didn't mention that, obviously, you need administrator access to a computer to use it, nor did I point out the sticky security issues for IT folks in letting users plug in removable storage.

True, many companies for good reason don't allow that sort of thing. But don't think that the purveyors of these gizmos haven't taken note of this impediment to boosting their bottom line.

On Monday, M-Systems announced mTrust Manager, which it's touting as "the first complete enterprise management system for USB flash drives." MTrust gives IT departments tools to secure company issued USB drives, including remote password administration, data backup and restore and remote shutdown of drives that have been lost or stolen. And GFI Software Ltd. offers a package to manage user access to USB drives, MP3 players and more.

MTrust is compatible with "mTrust-ready" USB drives including Kingston's DataTraveler Elite Privacy Edition and Verbatim Corp.'s Store 'n' Go Corporate Secure.

What you do with a giant flash drive?

In the aforementioned column about the high-capacity Kanguru USB flash drive, I asked readers what they would do with such a king-sized device. The most popular response: "ditch the computer's hard drive."

"Maybe a hard disk-less laptop? Think about the savings in power, size and weight. Boot from the flash drive, and treat the flash drive as a hard disk," one reader wrote. Another dreamed of running "a bootable Linux kernel and having my own PC around my neck wherever I go. My own desktop, all my files, etc., at my fingertips wherever I have access to a PC."

Finally, some of you shuddered to think what would happen if one of these tricked out drives disappears. "Next thing you'll read in the papers is the IRS or some bloke lost a database with millions of names and Social Security numbers," one reader lamented.

Michelle Johnson is a freelance writer in Boston. Her e-mail address is mijohn@mail-me.com.

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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