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Unlocking the USB key

Last Updated March 3, 2006

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Yesterday, my producer pointed at all the gear hanging from the lanyard around my neck -- a USB flash drive, my CBC RFID card and Dexit tag -- and said my "nerd jewellery" was a modern fashion statement. I then went on for a good couple of minutes about all the cool stuff I can do with a gig of rewritable memory the size of a stick of gum.

"Sounds like a column," she said.

It took a while for the computer industry to come up with a viable replacement for the tried-and-true 3.5-inch floppy. Zip disks came along in the mid-90s, but never became as popular. The first time I heard the word "floptical" I had a feeling I wouldn't be hearing much of it after a while. Burnable CDs came along and were fine for backing up data, but rewritable CDs never became a standard medium to replace floppies. They could only be erased and rewritten about 1,000 times before failing.

IBM debuted USB flash drive in 1998, but it didn't really take off at first. Windows 98 couldn't read them without installing extra drivers. The first Apple iMacs were sold in 1998, with no floppy drives, and no connection ports other than USB. While many Mac users bought USB floppy drives with their new iMacs, some turned to the new flash memory drives.

In 2000, two things happened to help USB drives along. The new versions of Windows -- Me and 2000 -- were able to read USB drives without additional software. And a new version of the USB standard, USB 2.0, meant computers could read and write to the drives 40 times faster than before.

The first USB drives could only hold as much data as about six 3.5-inch floppies. The latest USB flash drives are small enough to fit on a key chain and can hold as much information as a 13-storey stack of floppy disks. A USB stick that holds that much could cost about as much as a new computer, though. A typical 1GB USB drive (about an 8-foot stack of floppies) can cost from $60 to $100.

With that much storage, you can easily carry around lots of personal and work documents. You could put all of the digital photos you took on holiday on your flash drive, take it to a photo finisher or a grocery store, plug it into a machine and print off as many pictures as you want.

One of the most common uses for USB drives is to install software on one so you can carry the programs around and run them on any computer you want. The office übergeek might have a "magic stick" hanging from a lanyard, full of anti-virus software, network settings and tools to fix whatever it was you did to wreck your computer.

Users of Mozilla Firefox, a web browser, will often install extensions to add functionality and customize the behaviour of their browser, essentially creating a highly personalized program. This can be a problem if the person is asked to use a computer that doesn't have all of his favourite extensions installed or, heaven forbid, only has Internet Explorer.

For such an obsessive Firefox fan, a USB drive is ideal. He can install Portable Firefox, add all his favourite extensions and carry it from his home computer, to work, to his laptop and to the computer of the local sceptic who doesn't see what the big deal over Firefox is.

You can find Portable Firefox on PortableApps.com, along with USB versions of Mozilla's Thunderbird e-mail application and Sunbird calender, and entire office suite that runs off a USB stick.

Installing programs on a USB drive is also one way to get around corporate IT policies that don't allow workers to install software on their computers. Not that I would endorse such a thing.

Although keydrives can store more information in less space, CD-ROMs are still the standard for shipping software, simply because they're cheap and nearly universally used. Manufacturers will sometimes include free or demo software on their USB drives, but it's the drive you're buying, not the software.

If you live in the U.S., Microsoft will send you a free 16MB (i.e., pretty small) USB drive containing information about Windows licences. The Barenaked Ladies released a USB drive called Barenaked on a Stick, which includes live tracks, videos, and their Christmas album in mp3 format.

While most USB drives are slim in design, to fit in a computer's USB slot wherever it might be hidden, some drives have more fanciful casings, such as sushi, ducks or the decapitated body of a Barbie doll. There's even a Swiss Army knife with a built-in USB drive, y'know, in case you're lost in the woods and really need 256MB of storage. And if you're into visual puns, there's the USB finger drive.

And there are USB designs that are actually useful. Small digital audio players, such as the iPod Shuffle and Creative Labs MuVo, are essentially USB drives that can play music. SanDisk has come up with a Secure Digital card, the type used in some digital cameras, that when bent in half can be plugged into a USB port. And those cautious about sensitive information can invest in a USB key with a built-in fingerprint reader to prevent their data from getting into the wrong hands.

There is one major problem with USB drives, though. The name. I've used five or six different ones so far, and they're all pretty standard. If you're looking to buy one and are searching online or asking a store clerk, you might not know that a "jump stick," a "pocket drive" and a "memory key" are all pretty much the same thing.

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