Flash drives grow smaller, more durable

Memory: The smallest computer storage devices on the market today act like small hard drives but don't need electricity to run.

April 15, 2004|By Lauren Harner | Lauren Harner,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

In the world of computer memory, the floppy disk has officially reached brontosaurus status. In other words, it's ancient history.

The technological meteor that will soon replace it is the new, compact flash memory card. In the week and a half I spent running PQI's Intelligent Stick 2.0 ($44.99 to $124.99) through the gauntlet, I found it to be durable, fast and remarkably easy to use -- in addition to being much smaller than a floppy disk.

Flash memory, for those who are still on the floppy disk wavelength, performs the same tasks but with no moving parts and no magnets. It works in the same way as a computer hard drive except that it doesn't require external power.

The flash memory cards that have preceded these "memory sticks" are stamp-sized and require PC adapters. You plug them into your USB port and simply move files from your computer to the extra drive.

However, they look very breakable, and sometimes even intimidating, with their small size. Replacing these flash memory cards are products such as the Intelligent Stick, which appears to be more robust and is aesthetically more reassuring to someone who is concerned about a memory card being crushed and broken by accident.

Storage devices haven't gotten much larger, but they have gotten more durable.

The Intelligent Stick can hold 20 or so songs, plenty of digital images and at least 50 or so word processing documents ranging from 26 kilobytes to 40 KB each in size. This particular device has a capacity of 128 megabytes, though others on the market can carry up to 512 MB.

One of the most appealing features of the Stick is how easy it is to use. For someone who is floppy-friendly, it wouldn't be much of a leap. For consumers who have PCs operating on Windows XP, or Macs, it's as easy as plugging the device into the computer. Older operating systems such as Windows 98 SE require you to install software, but the computer still does most of the work.

Another characteristic that I found helpful was a security feature that allows a user to put a password on the flash drive, making it difficult for someone to steal the device and then use all of your files. It was tricky figuring out how to use the password feature, but once I got it started, it was smooth sailing.

Weighing 1/10 ounce and measuring 1 1/2 inches long, it is about the size of a paper clip. The drive comes with its own adapter and a convenient cap with a clip on it so you can attach it to your pocket or a folder. However, its size might prove a disadvantage for those inclined to lose small devices.

Another disadvantage could be its limited availability. It seems as though you can't just walk into any electronics chain and pick one up. The technical lingo on the packaging and in the instructions also makes the product seem a bit daunting, which is quite a feat for such a small device.

When the Stick appeared on the market in August, its maker believed it was the fastest and most durable product of its kind, according to Greta Tseng, marketing director for PQI.

But in Silicon Valley, a few months can make all the difference in the world.

Enter SanDisk Corp. and its Cruzer line of flash memory drives. SanDisk offers three different models of flash drives, following what product line manager Eric Bone calls the "good, better, best" strategy.

SanDisk's "good" and "better" options are the Cruzer Mini and the Cruzer Micro, which range in price from $39.99 to $129.99, depending on whether you want 128, 256 or 512 MB. Cruzer Micro is one step up because it is slightly smaller in size and has the ability to become an MP3 player, with accessories.

Both products are comparable to the Intelligent Stick.

Another feature that may put SanDisk slightly ahead of the Intelligent Stick is its ability to encrypt individual files, as opposed to the hardware as a whole. This would allow someone to make certain files public and protect others from prying eyes if an owner lent the memory device to others.

For the consumer who must have the best of everything, SanDisk also offers a James Bond version of the flash memory drive -- the Cruzer Titanium. It is sleek, silver and made mostly of titanium, making it the most durable and, at $159.99, most expensive in this lineup.

"We've received calls from people who have put these things through the washing machine and they've come out OK," said Bone, who claims the Cruzer Titanium can withstand 2,000 pounds of crash force.

Floppy disks may be considered durable to some, but I know from experience that putting one through a washing machine never ends well.

The Cruzer Titanium, despite its flashy appearance, is no more difficult to use than the Micro or Mini, according to Bone. It's just far more durable and faster, with a write speed of 15 MB per second and a read speed of 13 MB per second.

The Intelligent Stick 2.0 trails the Cruzer Titanium with writing and reading speeds of 8 MB per second and 7 MB per second respectively. Most people wouldn't notice the difference.

As for trimmings, the Intelligent Stick 2.0 comes with a credit-card-size holder for the flash drive itself, as well as a USB adapter. The SanDisk products have an array of extras that may be purchased separately.

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