Tiny device holds a world of information

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October 20, 2005|By MIKE HIMOWITZ

When Apple Computer unveiled its hypercool iPod Nano in September, it gave music lovers the opportunity to cram 1,000 average-length tunes into a quarter-inch-thick player about the size of a business card.

Apple's fans responded like a pack of wild dogs on meth - it may be months before the company can supply enough four-gigabyte Nano models to meet the demand, even at $300 a pop. That demand could also make it harder for other manufacturers to find the flash memory chips that make the Nano and so many other amazing gadgets possible.

In fact, if I had to pick the most important emerging technology of the last few years, flash memory would be high on the list. Packaged in various shapes and sizes, flash memory chips allow us to store and transport previously unheard-of amounts of information in an unbelievably small space, safely and securely.

Besides making digital cameras, music players and fancy cell phones possible, flash memory has become a symbol of geek chic. Encased in sleek "thumb drives" that techies wear as pendants on fancy chains, flash memory is a symbol that you're so important that you have to take your data with you.

How much data? Well, for a $100 investment, you can tote a gigabyte's worth - that's the equivalent of 800 digital photos, 900 novels, 300 album tracks, or three downloaded episodes of Desperate Housewives.

What makes flash memory so hot is the fact that it stays cool.

The standard memory chips in your computer have to be electrically refreshed millions of times per second to store information. When the power goes off, your spreadsheet, record album or letter to Aunt Rhoda disappears with it (which is why you save everything to your hard drive before you power down).

Flash memory happily retains its information even when the power is gone. That makes flash memory more like a disk drive than a memory chip - only much faster than a mechanical drive, with no moving parts.

International Business Machines Corp. developed the original thumb drive in the late 1990s. It plugged into a computer's USB port to replace the floppy disk - which was suddenly rendered obsolete by multi-megabyte photos and music files.

But until recently, we were most likely to encounter flash memory in cards that plug into digital cameras and become the equivalent of digital film. They're so popular that PC manufacturers often put multifunction card readers in their new models.

When you plug a memory card into one of these slots, the computer treats it like a floppy disk drive, making it easy to drag files back and forth from the PC.

These flat black wafers sell in a variety of formats, including CompactFlash, SecureDigital (SD), SmartMedia, xD Picture-card and Sony Memory Stick. Typically, they're sold with capacities of up to 1 gigabyte.

If you really need high capacity storage, memory cards are available with up to 4 gigabytes of storage, but they'll set you back a lot of money.

In fact, what makes Apple's iPod Nano so impressive is the 4-gigabyte capacity of the popular black-encased model. Apple actually used flash chips to replace the mechanical hard drive in the Nano's predecessor - the first time such high-capacity flash memory has shown up in a high-profile, consumer music player.

Industry analysts believe Apple snapped up 40 percent of Samsung Corp.'s flash memory production just for the Nano - which amounts to about 25 percent of the flash memory on the market. Some are worried that this will create shortages for manufacturers who make other gadgets - including hand-held computers.

Now you may be wondering why, if flash memory is so great, we don't fill computers with it instead of using the regular stuff.

Until recently, one good reason was cost - flash memory was too expensive. Now that it's relatively cheap (about $100 for a gigabyte at retail), it's way too slow for the general operation of modern PCs - it moves data at only a fraction of the speed of regular memory chips.

It's best for information that has to be stored and carried around for occasional use - which is one reason that digital flash drives have become so popular. They allow users to tote virtually all of their e-mail, photo collections, correspondence and other documents on a fob at the end of a key chain that plugs into a computer's USB port.

A group of those flash memory makers, including SanDisk, Kingston Data, Verbatim, Memorex, has organized around a standard called U3. That's an operating system overlay that allows application programs to launch from and store all their data on a flash drive plugged into a PC - without leaving any traces on the host computer's hard drive.

The ultimate goal of this technology is to keep the software and data you need for your daily work on a flash drive the size of your thumb that you can insert in a computer anywhere - with no security worries.

The Verbatim Store 'n Go that I tried out includes a copy of McAfee's anti-virus software that can scan both the flash drive itself and the computer's memory.

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