- The Washington Times - Monday, August 21, 2006

Here’s an interesting proposition: Get rid of your computer. Instead, carry your applications and a document or 2,000 on a thumb-sized “drive” that uses flash memory chips. Plug the drive in anywhere and, presto, you’re computing. Get up and leave, and all your data, including the confidential stuff, stays with you.

That’s not exactly the business proposition behind the “U3” flash devices being marketed as “smart drives,” but it’s not too far off. Instead, the idea is that you’ll carry some key applications and files on the aforementioned smart drive and be ready to work anywhere. In these days of heightened airport security, it’s an idea for which time may well have come.

In the U.S. market, according to the U3 trade group, vendors selling the drives include M-Systems, SanDisk, Best Buy’s Geek Squad, Kingston Technology Co., Memorex and Verbatim. The SanDisk folks were kind enough to send over a 2-gigabyte Cruzer Titanium U3 device, and it’s really difficult not to like the little thing. For one, the $110 list price isn’t too much to ask for that much storage. Then there’s the U3 bit.

Here’s how it works. There’s a partition on the flash drive that stores small programs and lets you open them from a system tray pop-up menu in Windows. There are several applications you can download for the SanDisk U3 drive, some free and some for sale.

I selected a Web browser called Maxthon and the Weather Bug utility to join the pre-installed Skype Internet telephony application, an antivirus program as well as software to synchronize data on the USB drive and a given computer. Two final programs on the drive offer a “tour” of the LaunchPad menu software and a password-management program.

If I wanted, I could pack the OpenOffice productivity suite, or, presumably, parts of it, on the drive, as well as various games and other utility items. Of the list of programs at the SanDisk download site, I found none larger than 230 MBs, which, at about 1.15 percent of the drive’s capacity, isn’t so onerous as to make the Cruzer unusable. Indeed, with an office suite, a Web browser and an e-mail program, most of us would be “good to go,” mobile computing-wise, and still have a vast amount of storage space — 1.25 GBs or more — in which to keep a variety of files.

The operating speed of the programs on the flash drive matches those of programs I installed on a computer’s hard drive. There were no speed bumps in using the software or in saving files to the flash drive. In short, it worked just as well as an internal computer disk drive.

These drives are really small — 1.875 by 0.75 inches — and easily can fit on a key chain. Each features a retractable USB port. With capacities of up to 2 GBs, the maker says it can hold the equivalent of up to 1,400 floppy disks.

Mac users won’t be able to take advantage of the U3 system, which is designed for PCs. But the capacity of the Cruzer Titanium and its relatively low “street” prices, which range from ridiculously low at Web sellers I don’t recognize to $80 at NewEgg.com, a mail-order firm I’ve used, up to the list price, make this a good value.

What’s next for these items? I’m not sure, but I’m glad they’re around.

Information on the SanDisk products can be found at https://www.sandisk.com.

• Read Mark Kellner’s Technology blog, updated daily on The Washington Times’ Web site, at https://www.washingtontimes.com/blogs.

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