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USB storage devices offer more than meets the eye

USB devices have come a very long way since they first entered the scene a few years ago.

At a meeting the other day, somebody mentioned that they had a terrific PowerPoint presentation on RFID and embedded wireless systems. Now, in the old days, participants in this meeting might have asked that person to download the presentation onto a floppy disk -- although if the size of most these presentations is any indication, they could have run up against the limited storage capabilities of traditional floppy media. If a wireless system were in place, the keeper of this golden PowerPoint could have sent the file via e-mail to everyone at the table -- or, in the case of Bluetooth, he could have just shared the file with anyone within the 10 meter bubble of the technology's capabilities.

Instead, four or five of the executives sitting at this table simply tossed their USB storage keys to this person, asking him to fill 'er up with the pertinent data. In some strange sense, the actions were reminiscent of a tawdry Las Vegas lounge act, only in this case USB devices substituted for room keys and the object of affection was the data on a notebook's hard drive. Ah, how things have changed!

In fact, USB devices have come a very long way since they first entered the scene a few years ago. The first chance we had to see and use them was at an executive management conference in Arizona, where IBM distributed slick black devices (each offering a then whopping 8 MB of storage capacity) as a way of promoting the capabilities of its flagship ThinkPad line of notebooks (the USB devices and a little video device that snapped on top of the LCD screen were positioned as methods to extend the flexibility of the ThinkPad systems). Little did IBM know that these simple little devices would soon give its more expensive and complicated Micro Drive (actually a small hard disk) a real run for its money!

Today, these small key chain devices are capable of storing from 32 MB (which we consider the absolute minimum storage capability to fit most mobile objectives) to several billion bytes of information. In fact, there are some devices on the market that can store in excess of 20 GB of data, although many of these devices no longer fit into the comfortable skin of a key chain, but need a larger packaging format.

In any case, we are always searching for neat little mobile devices that can do double or even triple duty by offering additional features and technologies, in addition to their core competencies. Such devices are not only incredibly interesting, but useful since they reduce the baggage we have to drag through airport security checkpoints and dinner countless meetings.

One particularly clever device is available from Wolverine Data Inc.. Called the Syllable Series (S-Series) this USB drive is actually a three-in-one device that offers either a 128 MB or 256 MB storage capacity, an MP3 music player, and is a clever multifunction USB Drive. The basic device offers 128 MB of memory and lets you save data, listen to music and record notes, all in a unique compact design. The Syllable Series is a combination USB Storage device, MP3/WMA Player and digital voce recorder -- all in a single, compact package. The system can not only be used to store that important PowerPoint presentation, but can capture approximately two hours of high quality music, eight hours of voice recording or the data equivalent of about 178 floppy disks (with the 256 MB model). It features single-button control, a back-lit LCD display and a variety of recoding modes ranging from extended voice recording to high-quality music modes.

The Syllable device is extremely compact and is priced at just under $90 for the 128 MB model and under $150 for the 256 MB version.

Just as USB key chains are all the rage, we predict that USB pens will also become very popular because of their double-duty attitude. Wolverine Data has this area covered as well with its Pennacle Series of devices. Okay, the product name sounds like something out of a Jules Verne novel, but the concept is a good one. The device offers up to 256 MB of storage (with an average transfer rate of 1 Mbps, depending on your host PC system), and you have a pretty decent writing device when you need one. The cost: Just under $100.

JMTek Corp. is another company that has taken USB storage devices to the next level, this time with less of an emphasis on the James Bond coolness, and more concentration on what enterprise uses are really interested in: Security and reliability. The company's USBDrive Professional is a multi-function device that offers 2 GB of storage (more than 1,000 floppy disks), and has a number of built-in applications that are aimed at protecting data, safely capturing and storing electronic mail and compressing and encrypting everything else you might keep on this little device. Built-in applications include:

USB-Lock: Programming that allows your USB device to act as a key on the host system. Remove it, and the system is effectively locked down and inaccessible to unauthorized personnel. You can also pre-set lock-down times on your PC.

USB-SecureZip: Automatically compresses and decompresses files stored on the device, and password protects them if the user so desires.

USB-Mail: Contains a POP3/SMTP e-mail client that lets you plug the drive into any computer to automatically and securely access and download your email from an unlimited number of e-mail accounts. All communications are recorded on the USBDrive Professional, and can later be reviewed on your personal notebook or handheld system. This is great when dealing with airport Internet kiosks, or borrowing your associate's system to gather you own e-mail.

USB-Backup: An application that lets users backup files either from or to the USBDrive after every computer use. You just pre-designate which files must be backed up and they will be saved to the USBDrive or computer location.

Prices for the USBDrive Professional range from just under $80 for the 128 MB model to a hare's breath less than $1,000 for the 2 GB version.

One of the inherent problems of using small and portable USB storage devices is that they will inevitably slip from your pocket or briefcase and fall into a puddle. Or, maybe you'll try to impress your friends and associates by using it to stir that martini at the next informal meeting. The point is that these devices have the capability to store a lot of information, and are extremely susceptible to environmental hazard and mishaps.

Fortunately, there is a solution, and it comes in the form of the USBDrive Weatherproof, which is a fully-functioning USB drive that is snuggly wrapped in a hermetically-sealed casing. Storage capacities range up to 2 GB (roughly 1,400 floppies), and the unit can actually be immersed in water without any damage to the drive or the data. The device also offers an average 8 Mbps read and 7 Mbps write speeds.

More realistically, the USBDrive Weatherproof is ideal for rugged applications such as law enforcement, geological digs, and marine biology. It is also great if you do occasionally whip your USB device across meeting tables to request a quick fill up, and do not want to worry if it should splash into a water glass or nearby aquarium. The price for this USB storage peace of mind: $999 for the 2 GB model.

Tim Scannell is the president and chief analyst with Shoreline Research, a Quincy, Mass.-based consulting company specializing in mobile and wireless technology and initiatives. Shoreline works with end users, looking to implement mobile solutions, and vendors, developing new products and seeking business and customer opportunities. The company also specializes in training and strategic planning projects. For more information on Shoreline Research and the company's strategic services please go to

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