Tag Archives: Solid-state drive

Lotus Notes, Webaroo on a Stick

It’s been a while since I wrote about software for USB drives/flash drives/thumb drives/key drive, whatever you want to call them. Updating my apparently still popular directory of such software, now more than 18 months old, I came across a few recent bits of news I thought worth passing on:

  • IBM now has a version of its Lotus Notes that will run off a USB drive called Lotus Notes on a Stick. This kind of surprised me, given how terrified big companies are of staff wielding USB drives. Still, could be useful for road warriors. What also interesting, as Andrew Charlesworth of vnunet points out, is that the software allows users to update blogs and publish RSS feeds.
  • Webaroo, the packaged-for-offline-Internet software, will now run on drives running the U3 installation software. Webaroo whittles down the Internet to a modest size based on your interests and then downloads it into a packet you can save to your computer and view offline. U3 is a standard installed on USB drives to allow them to run programs.
  • The visually impaired now have their own USB drive: The Serotek FreedomBox bundles the usual browser, email and other applications but wrapped around the company’s text-to-speech and speech-to-text command interface. I can imagine this would be useful for those people using public computers in libraries or nursing homes, or simply wanting to travel around and use computers that may not have accessibility software installed.

A New Concept In Storage, Or Too Small To Matter?

It’s finally arrived: the USB flash drive that thinks it’s a floppy disk.

It was like this: For years stuff — data, programs — was moved around via a floppy disk. First they were big 5” things, then they shrank to 3”. Iomega tried to win people over with ZIP drives but they never really penetrated much deeper than a few suckers like me who invested hundreds of dollars in stacks of them. (Tip: Never buy a storage device where the intellectual property is held by one company.)

Then the CD-ROM came along, and got so cheap it became simpler to just burn data onto them to hand around as one would a floppy disk. The problem is that they’re not all reusable, meaning lots of CD-ROMs sitting around useless and old. Then the USB flash drive started making headway, getting smaller, easier to use and cheaper. Folk started carrying them on a keychain, or around their neck, and swapping stuff like in the old days. But they were never so cheap that you had more than half a dozen of them, so they never quite became floppy drives. A sentence you rarely heard was: “Here copy the data onto my USB drive and take it; I’ve got thousands of them in the cupboard.”

Now you might. Verbatim/Memorex has today launched the 16MB FlashDisc. At £14 or $20 for a 3-pack, the “new media is set to revolutionise the way in which photos, music and other digital data files are exchanged,” the company hopes.

It certainly looks cute. I can immediately see problems plugging one into crowded and cramped USB ports but the circular thing and colors make it appealing. And there’s some sense in making these things so cheap that people will stock up on them in the same way we used to stock up on floppies. Indeed, “we’ve brought this new product category for sharing digital files to market because our research shows a significant demand exists for low-capacity storage media at a reasonable cost,” Hans-Christoph Kaiser, Verbatim Business Unit Manager, is quoted as saying in the press release. “512MB, 1GB and larger USB drives will remain popular but with FlashDisc we’re providing an entirely new flash-based solution at a low cost that’s within everyone’s reach so providing an ideal solution to everyday needs for storing and sharing electronic data.”

I think the problem is whether 16 megabytes is enough. Nowadays that doesn’t get you very far: four MP3 files, say, or 10 photos of questionable quality. Given the old floppies could hold 1.4 megabytes, the size sounds generous, but that was back in the days of 100 megabyte hard drives. Nowadays they’re 100 gigabytes, meaning these FlashDiscs should store about a gigabyte to make sense. Or is my math all wrong?

Either way, I don’t expect these to raise eyebrows until they come out in capacities that make sense: at least 100 megabytes and I think we might start to listen.

8 GB Is the New 8 MB

At what point do USB flash drives replace iPods, external hard drives or laptops? M-Systems has announced the 8GB DiskOnKey USB drive and promises a 128 GB version by the end of the decade.

AS EverythingUSB comments:

their announcement reminds us how far they’ve the NAND industry has come. In 2000, the Israeli-company brought us a 8MB flash drive; now, a little over 5 years later, we’re getting a 8GB – 1000 times the capacity of the original DOK.

That’s pretty amazing. Of course by 2010 we will be expecting much larger capacities to carry our vast collections of HD videos around on. By then 128 GB won’t sound like much at all.

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.

This week’s column – Flash Drives Aren’t Flash

This week’s Loose Wire column is about Flash drives:

 I LEFT YOU last week in the capable hands of Ethel Girdle, the fictitious octogenarian who took her accusations of built-in obsolescence to the technology giants. One of her beefs was about so-called flash drives–small devices that store data, for example as memory cards for MP3 players, digital cameras or personal-digital assistants, or as ultra-portable drives which can plug directly into your computer’s USB port. These little things have taken off in a big way. Nowadays it’s hard to find a gadget that doesn’t use them–even your cellphone uses the same technology–or a keychain that doesn’t have a thumb drive dangling off it. But Ethel (OK, it’s really me) found that two out of five memory cards in my possession have given up the ghost within a year or so of buying them. So what gives? Are flash drives the future or, if you’ll excuse the phrase, just a flash in the pan?

Full text at the Far Eastern Economic Review (subscription required, trial available) or at WSJ.com (subscription required). Old columns at feer.com here.

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.