When Good Things Fail

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(Update at bottom of post)

I’m never quite sure what to do when something I’ve raved about in previous columns fails on me. Do I trumpet its failure to the world immediately? Do I go through the normal customer service channels to get it fixed, or do I raise hell with their PR to ensure it gets sorted out by the best and the brightest techies they’ve got available? Do I keep quiet, assuming it’s a one-off?

Here’s the latest mishap: My Olympus DS-20 digital recorder died. Just like that. No warning, no long walk in the rain, no circumferentially advantaged person sitting on it. One minute it was fine, the next it wasn’t. No power, no sign of a flicker, nothing. And I’d only had it for about 14 months. Barely used it, actually (was supposed to be for my Loose Wireless podcasting project,which, ironically enough, was about to start an hour after I discovered the thing didn’t work.) I had recently installed some rechargable batteries in it, approved by the manual.

The thing, well actually three things, are:

  • I’ve long sung Olympus’ praises in this field. This was the fourth Olympus I’ve had; so what happens if someone reads one of my columns or blogs saying how good they are, when it turns out they aren’t?
  • Now that it’s gone bad on me, it’s not enough for it to be fixed. How can I sing its praises even if it is fixed?
  • More importantly, how can I ever rely on it or anything like it again?
  • Besides, I can’t really afford to go buying digital recorders willynilly. Do I look like the kind of person who can?

So, I’m troubled. I’m doubly troubled that there’s no PR person that I can find online at Olympus who might be able to take a good look at this situation and see whether my problem is an easy one to fix (maybe I’m forgetting to do something like turn it on, or look at it from a certain angle) and whether this is something they’ve noted a lot of (I notice the DS-20 is no longer being sold. Why?)

So, for the moment I’m rescinding all recommendations for Olympus digital recorders until I sort this out. It’s not that I don’t think they’re great; it’s just that I can’t be sure whether what happened to me isn’t going to be happening to other people’s. Given that the recordings are stored in flash memory, this is not the sort of gadget you can afford to have die on you at key moments in your life.

In the meantime I’m going to try to find a PR person to offer some insight on this.

Update Jan 21 2008: Olympus tell me the mainboard has died on the device and it would cost me US$125 to have it replaced. Since it’s possible to buy a new one for less than $100 (here, for example) I’m going to decline the offer. I’m also seeking an investigation from Olympus as to why this might have happened. Things do break, and this sort of thing happens. But I’m concerned that this happened without me actually doing anything the manual said I could do, and before I write glowingly about Olympus digital recorders again or recommend them to friends, I’m hoping to get some insight about what happened and whether it’s likely to happen to other people.

Say Goodbye To The USB Flash Drive?

I had an interesting conversation the other day with Trek 2000’s chief financial officer, Gurcharan Singh. Trek, a Singapore company, claim to be the originators of the USB drive, or thumb drive as they call it, and are currently sueing a company called M-Systems in a test case over who owns the patent for putting flash memory on a USB plug.

That’s all going through the courts, and has been for some time, but clearly Trek 2000 are playing a central role in the whole flash-drive-on-a-stick thing, since besides selling their own products, they are the OEM manufacturers of several dozen such USB drives, including folk like iomega. But what intrigued me, among several things, was a gadget he had in his display case that he hinted was the future of USB drives. I had asked him about concerns over the durability and reliability of flash memory (my own experience making me less than sanguine) and while he was careful not to play up such concerns, he pointed to a device that was barely larger than a USB drive, but which contained a 0.85 inch 10 gigabyte hard drive, manufactured by one of Trek 2000’s main strategic partners, Toshiba. “This will address the issues of flash that you’re talking about,” he said. At the moment flash drives get no larger than a 2 gigabytes.

Toshiba has promised to lauch the 0.85” drive early this year, according to The Register, who point out that these drives are about 80% smaller than the hard drives you’ll find in an iPod or similar device. If Gurcharan is correct it sounds like these hard drives will have a larger capacity than earlier expected and they’re likely to be as popular, if not more so, than the USB flash drive.

So will this cause a splash? Yes, I think, because they’re so small. They’ll wow us and make us do a lot more with our USB stick. Not that there aren’t options beyond flash out there already. Of a similar ilk, but using the older, larger drives, take a look at Sony’s new 2.0 GB Micro Vault Pro, which I saw in Singapore’s malls for about S$450 ($275, see illustration) or Z-Cyber’s 1 or 2 GB Zling Drives, which I’m guessing use the same hard drives, but seem to sell for a lot less: I saw the 2 GB version selling for S$200, and the 1 GB for S$129. Then there’s the Emprex range of Micro Storage, from 2.2 to 4.0 GB, selling for S$190 and S$275 respectively. All of these are basically small hard drives on a USB dongle. They’re nice, but they’re not nearly as small as what Trek 2000 are likely to unveil some time this year.  

(If you’re looking for larger storage you’ll have to go to iomega’s Mini Hard Drives, which come in 20GB and 40GB capacities. )

What I think we’re going to see are these microdrives really pushing out flash as folk come to rely on them more and more. It’s yet to be proven that these very small hard drives are as rugged as they claim to be, but I think we’re safe in saying that flash, while excellent, is not reliable enough to be anything other than a short-term means of storage. What’s more, with bigger capacities, micro drives are going to be able to do things, and go places, that flash drives just can’t do: Storing whole feature-length movies, an evening full of musical entertainment on a key-ring, a cellphone that doubles as your hard drive. There’ll be a role to play for USB flash but we may soon be looking back nostalgically at these devices as charmingly limited in what they could do for us.

How Long Do USB Thumb Drives Live?

Had my first USB thumb drive (sometimes called USB flash drives, or USB key drives) die on me today.

They’re a great way to move stuff from A to B, and to keep an extra back-up in your pocket, but don’t rely on them too much. I’ve had several over the years (they first started appearing in this part of the world in 1999, if I recall) and this is the first time one has just refused to give up its secrets.

It’s not a well-known brand, but I guess it’s true of all these devices, which use flash memory to store up to half a gigabyte of stuff. I’ve read they live for “up to one million rewrites and can retain data for up to 10 years”. Not in this case they don’t. This one hadn’t been much further than my pocket for the past couple of years, and my pocket hasn’t been anywhere exciting since the Great Drinking Session of 1996.

My advice: Don’t treat them as any more substantial than floppy disks. Keep them for moving stuff from one computer to another, or as a second back-up (after hard drives, online backup and/or CD-Rs). Assume that you could lose the data, and plan accordingly. They’re wonderful little gadgets, but I just realised they’re not the trusty friend I thought they were.

Apple Excites, Disappoints With iPod Mini

As expected, sort of, Steve Jobs has unveiled a new Apple iPod — smaller, more colourful and cheaper (but not as cheap as people thought). About 3.5 inches long and just half an inch thick, the iPod mini looks a bit like the old iPod, with the same jog dial, but comes in five colours, stores only 4 GB (against up to 40 for the old iPod) and costs $250.

That’s pricier than people thought. A lot pricier: I wrote last month on talk that it would sell for about $100. And given you can now get a bigger iPod carrying 15 GB for $300, Apple may find themselves cannibalizing their own market, rather than opening up a new one. As Techdirt points out, for a lot of folk 4 GB pretty much covers their music collection, and even Apple describe the iPod mini as “enough music for a three-day weekend getaway in a package so small you’ll forget you’re carrying it”. Expect a backlash against Apple from folk who thought they would be getting a cheap iPod as their new year’s present.

What’s interesting is what is under the hood. Whereas rumour had it the iPod mini would be using flash memory, CNET says it is in a fact a mini hard drive made by Hitachi. Hitachi’s success with what was IBM’s technology seems to indicate a resurgence of interest in small devices that can store a lot of data. While CNET talks of video cameras — Samsung apparently uses a 1 inch hard drive in one of their models — I wonder when you’re going to see PDAs and phones using them. Wouldn’t it be useful to store 4 or more GB of stuff on your PDA? Or has it already happened and I’ve missed it?

A Cheap iPod On The Way?

If you were one of the few who didn’t get an iPod in their stocking this Christmas, don’t despair: Designtechnica Articles is reporting strong rumours that Apple may launch a $100 iPod next month. While current iPod units start at $300 and are based around a 10 to 40 gigabyte hard drive, the budget priced iPods are expected be Flash Memory based — and so will not store so much. ThinkSecret, meanwhile, says the new iPods will be smaller in size, hold either 2 or 4 gigabytes of music, and come in different colours — including stripes.
 
If it’s true, it will be a smart move for Steve Jobs. While the iPod has been a big hit this holiday — the BBC says UK stores are having problems keeping up with demand — there is still a big market of folk who cannot afford the $300 or more for an iPod, leaving the field open for other manufacturers.