Flash Drives: Pocket-size storage devices now help you read and talk

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Remember the floppy disk? Sure, they’re still around, but when was the last time you really used one? Using a floppy as a coaster doesn’t count.

Instead of storing computer files on floppies or burning them onto CDs or DVDs, many of us now use memory sticks—small, thumb-size data storage devices with flash memory chips inside. These memory sticks, which have a USB (universal serial bus) plug on one end, are often called flash drives or thumb drives. (ThumbDrive is actually a trademark of Trek 2000 International Ltd., a major manufacturer of these devices.)

While floppies have a tiny 1.44-megabyte (MB) capacity and CD and DVD disks take time to burn and don’t always burn well, flash drives inhale and exhale data from computers quickly, come in capacities of up to 4 gigabytes (GB) and even come in fashionable colors. Plug one into a personal computer and the flash drive shows up on the monitor as if it were another hard disk.

Now these shirt-pocket-size devices are learning new tricks. In addition to storing data there are now flash drives with built-in dictionaries, units that can manage your phone book and drives you can use to make phone calls.

Spell well. For example, the Merriam-Webster USB Dictionary & Thesaurus Portable Storage Device (model MWD-170) from Franklin Electronic Publishers (www.franklin.com) could come in handy if you’re writing an e-mail to your boss from an airport Internet café and need the correct spelling for the word “nincompoop.” The $49.95 device incorporates a 300,000-word dictionary, a 500,000-word thesaurus, a crossword puzzle solver and 256MB of data storage—some of which is taken up by the preloaded applications. You can spell a word the way it sounds and have a phonetic speller come up with the correct word. A “confusables” button appears when viewing words that are often used incorrectly, such as “sneak peak” instead of “sneak peek.” The unit runs on PCs running Microsoft Corp.’s Windows 2000 or Windows XP operating systems. If you accidentally delete the applications from the flash drive, they can be recovered and reinstalled.

Telephony. There are many ways to make low-cost phone calls using a high-speed Internet connection like a cable modem or a digital subscriber line (DSL). But Vonage (www.vonage.com), a major Internet telephone service provider, recently introduced a new option with the V-Phone flash drive. The $39.99 V-Phone doesn’t have a keypad, speaker or microphone, but does come with a headset that plugs into a small jack on its side. All of the necessary telephony software is built into the V-Phone, which starts automatically when you plug it into a Windows-based PC. Macintosh computers are not currently supported. Once the software kicks in, a keypad appears on your computer screen, allowing you to dial calls with the mouse or the keyboard. You can save addresses in a contact list and make adjustments in speaker and microphone volume when a call is in progress. The unit also has 256 MB of data storage, part of which is taken up by the Vonage software.

VonageUpdates to the Vonage software are automatically downloaded and installed when the unit is connected. The V-Phone requires a Vonage service subscription, which ranges from a $14.99-per-month residential plan that includes 500 calling minutes to a $49.99 per-month business plan that includes unlimited calling and an extra fax line. All plans cover calls to the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico, and the unlimited plans also include free calls to the United Kingdom, France, Spain and Italy. You can select any area code you like or you can have your current phone number switched to the V-Phone.

You can also make low- or no-cost phone calls over the Internet with SanDisk Inc.’s 2GB Cruzer Titanium ($129) and 4GB Cruzer Micro ($189) flash drives. Both come with Skype Internet telephony software preloaded on them. Skype, from Skype Communi-cations S.A. (www.skype.com), a division of eBay Inc., lets you make low- or no-cost phone calls from a personal computer. Unlike the Vonage V-Phone, you plug your headset into the computer, not the flash drive itself. Like the V-Phone, all of your personal data, like your phone book and your calling history, stay on the flash drive, not on the computer. Thus you can safely use these drives to make Skype calls from a public computer.

Not only are calls to other Skype members free, but until the end of the year calls to normal landline and cell phones in the United States are also free. Skype even offers free international calls to specific locations during weekend promotions. For example, on July 15 and 16, calls from the United States to the United Kingdom were free.

The above SanDisk flash drives have a feature that lets you install applications on them with the assurance that none of the data the application creates will be left on the computer. This means that you can install a Web browser, and all of your surfing history and bookmarks will stay on the unit.

Gas gauge. Lexar Media Inc.’s (www.lexar.com) JumpDrive Mercury flash drive has what amounts to a gas gauge on one side so you can keep track of how much data storage space is left in it. The drive comes with Secure II software, which allows you to encrypt and password-protect sensitive data, and a file-shredding utility that completely deletes and overwrites files, making them impossible to retrieve. The JumpDrive Mercury comes in 1GB ($79.99) and 2GB ($119.99) models.

Information manager. Franklin also offers the Rolodex Electronics Mini-USB Organizer, a personal information manager in the shape of a flash drive. The $14.95 unit has no flash memory but offers a three-line screen on one side and software that manages names and phone numbers. Also included is PC Link software that allows you to exchange data with a PC.

Using Flash Drives
All of the above drives work more efficiently on newer computers with USB version 2.0 ports than on older machines with USB 1.1 ports. Check your computer manual to see which one your unit has since you won’t be able to tell by looking at the sockets. USB 2.0 ports can exchange data as fast as 480 megabits per second (Mbps), which is fast enough for smoothly reading videos from a flash drive. By comparison, USB 1.1 ports have a top data speed of just 12 Mbps, which is still fast enough for most applications.

Most flash drives work on Apple Computer Inc. Macintosh-compatible computers, as well as on PCs running a current version of a Windows operating system like Windows XP. In most cases you’ll need to install driver software to make a flash drive work on a Windows 98–based PC. Of course the worse thing you can do with a flash drive is lose it. Most come with chains, straps or links that make it easy to keep them around your neck or on a keychain. It doesn’t hurt to back up the data onto your PC now and then.

So, how far have we come in data storage technology? In 1990, an 80MB hard disk—that’s megabytes, not gigabytes—sold for about $600. At $7.50 per megabyte, today’s 2GB flash drives would cost $15,000. Think about that the next time you plug one in.