by Bob Walters | February 01, 2004

Not too long ago, hardware and software manufacturers worked together to create a standard universal connection, called the Universal Serial Bus (USB) port, that plugs external devices into a wide range of computers. The technology even lets users move data between PCs and Apple computers.
   The port, which has a data transfer rate of 12 Mbps (million bits per second), was first used as an alternative to the old serial and parallel printer cables. Then came scanners and digital cameras with USB plugs, where the higher transfer rate was critical for handling large pictures and graphics. Now, one of the USB port’s most popular uses is for off-loading music to MP3 players like the iPOD from Apple. 
On the cutting edge, new “thumb,” “flash” or “key chain” drives are opening a whole new use for USB ports.
   Plug one of these pen- or cardlike devices into the USB port of the PC in your office, download as much as 2 gigabytes of data, unplug the device, slip it in your pocket and go. When you reach your new destination, just plug the device into the USB port of any desktop or notebook to retrieve the data. These pocket drives are increasing in capacity just as they are dropping in price.
   Several manufacturers have jumped into the market; planners can even buy in bulk and emblazon the devices with their organization’s logo. The hottest corporate gift of the future might be a USB flash drive loaded with marketing brochures, freeware and/or unique applications.

In researching this article, I realized the value of the devices and went to my local Best Buy to pick up a SanDisk Cruzer Mini ( with 128MB of storage for about $50. This solves one of the problems I’ve had with moving data between non-networked PCs at one of my clients. Instead of burning (and wasting) CDs, I simply plug the Cruzer into the USB port of one PC, copy the files, unplug from there and plug into the next PC to copy the files from the flash drive.
   A wide range of products is on the market, including Belkin’s USB Flash Drive (, Sony’s MicroVault ( and one of the more novel solutions, the USB Card from Freecom (, which is roughly the size of a credit card with a built-in connector. Simply remove it from your wallet, flip the connector out and plug into any USB port.

With few moving parts to wear out, the life cycle of these drives is pretty high some estimates are that you can reuse a flash drive up to a million times. Equally attractive is the average price of less than $100 for a 1 GB drive.
   There are two standards for the drives USB 1.1 and USB 2. Most are USB 2-compatible and will run on the older USB 1.1 standard. But buyer beware: You might find deep discounts on flash drives that are only USB 1.1 compatible, but they won’t work on the newer computers and PDAs with USB 2 ports.
   Also give some thought to security. If you lose or misplace a flash drive and the data has not been encrypted, anyone else can easily slip it into a USB port and have access to your files. Some drives come with built-in encryption software, and others will work with the existing encryption software you are using on your main PCs.
   ClipDrive ( and BioStik ( include biometric fingerprint technology and a built-in scanner. These drives, which start at $170 for 128MB, offer encryption/decryption software and can be used to prevent access to your PC as well as to protect your data.