Portable storage gets smaller--and bigger

CMS Peripherals Automatic Backup System Plus

Henrik G. De Gyor

Toshiba PC Card Hard Disk

Henrik G. De Gyor

Iomega HDD Portable Hard Drive

Henrik G. De Gyor

Sony Memory Stick MSG-128a

Henrik G. De Gyor

JMTek USB Drive

Henrik G. De Gyor

These devices take a load off bandwidth-starved networks
and let users move data almost as easily as on floppy disks


Portable data transfer devices keep getting roomier than the old 1.44M floppy disk that used to be the data medium of the sneakernet. Now low-cost hard drives smaller than a pack of gum can carry around barrels of data. They're almost useful enough to revive sneakernetting.

Hardly a day goes by in the GCN Lab without our having to move a gigabyte of data from one computer to another. Despite our Fast Ethernet we, like many agencies, must be sensitive to bandwidth use with files that large.
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We evaluated seven carry-around storage devices for their portability, capacity, ease of use, transfer speed and price. We also weighed the value of features such as embedded backup or security software.

The 40G CMS Peripherals Automatic Backup System Plus was very easy to use--fully plug-and-play under Microsoft Windows XP. From the size of the box, we expected something larger than the palm-sized ABS Plus.
It could transfer our 100M test file to a PC with an old Universal Serial Bus 1.1 port in 2 minutes, 3 seconds. A machine with a faster USB 2.0 connection received the data in half the time.

The 5- by 3- by 1-inch ABS weighed a highly portable 5.8 ounces. At $442, it was a bit on the expensive side, but it merited our Reviewer's Choice designation.

The Iomega HDD Portable Hard Drive was lower-priced at $200 and likewise had USB 2.0 connectivity. It too was easy to install. But, unlike the ABS, the HDD stored only 20G and was less portable at 7.6 ounces and 7.5 by 3.5 by 1 inches.
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The larger dimensions weren't what hindered portability. Like Iomega's Peerless cartridge drive and Predator CD-rewritable drive, the HDD must be disassembled for carrying around. An attachment to the main body housed the USB port and power connection. The rather flimsy attachment didn't lock into place and easily came off.
But the HDD was fast. Even with a USB 1.1 port on a notebook PC, the HDD could move 100M in 1 minute, 57 seconds--almost the fastest time in the review.

The HDD received another Reviewer's Choice as well as our Bang for the Buck designation.

Sony Electronics Inc. is known for large-capacity media storage devices, and its Memory Stick MSG-128A is taking off in portable storage, too. We gave it another Reviewer's Choice designation.
The paper-thin Memory Stick was only an inch long and a half-inch wide, but it held up to 128M. Of course, it's easy to lose something so small, and a further concern was interfacing the Memory Stick with a PC. Sony has developed several ways, and we tested two.

Meet the mouse

The $90 MSAC-US5 Memory Stick reader was an optical mouse with a USB 1.1 slot in back where the palm rests. An optical mouse has no trackball to maintain and requires no special surface plane. Despite the extra slot for the Memory Stick, the MSAC-US5 was the standard size and weight for an optical mouse.

The Memory Stick, however, transferred its data far more slowly through the mouse. We moved 100M in an average 6 minutes, 20 seconds--that's only 3 Mbps instead of the rated 12 Mbps for USB 1.1.

Sony also makes a PC Card reader called the MSAC-PC2, which we clocked at an average 3 minutes, 47 seconds for 100M--a little slower than the ABS Plus but much faster than the Sony mouse.
At $70, we judged the MSAC-PC2 more portable but less practical than the mouse, because it wouldn't work with any computer lacking a PC Card slot.
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We expect to see 512M and 1G Memory Sticks in the not-too-distant future. And Sony is developing a silicon-chip fingerprint reader for the Memory Stick that would let users biometrically secure their computers as well as store large amounts of data in a credit card format.

In our last portable storage roundup [GCN, July 23, 2001, Page 38] we looked at the Type II Toshiba PC Card Hard Disk. This year's version was about the size of the Sony MSAC-PC2, only a little thicker and heavier. Weighing less than a pound, it could store an impressive 5G and transfer at above-average speeds.

We moved 100M in 1 minute, 51 seconds--the fastest transfer in the roundup by almost a minute. The Toshiba didn't have as much capacity as the 40G ABS Plus or the 20G Iomega HDD, and at $500 it was the most expensive device in the review. But it would be well worth the price for users who work mostly on notebook PCs. And it receives a Reviewer's Choice designation for the second year in a row.

You might have seen some keychain-size portable storage devices worn around the neck of your network administrator or hanging from a technician's pocket. They're becoming the modern version of the floppy disk and should hit 2G capacity soon, possibly by year's end.

Tiny and cheap

The USBDrive from JMTek LLC wasn't the fastest keychain drive in the review, and it didn't have the highest capacity, but it did have the best form factor. Weighing only 0.6 ounces and measuring 2.5 by 0.5 by 0.3 inches, it transferred up to 128M from a USB 1.1 interface.
The USBDrive was the slowest of the USB keychain drives but the most portable and rugged. We transferred 100M in an average 4 minutes, 3 seconds.

The USBDrive costs only $80 for 128M--real Bang for the Buck. No wonder so many techies are using it.

Like the other devices in this review, the USB keychain drives installed without hassle. They needed drivers only for Windows 9x.
The M-Systems DiskOnKey transferred 100M in a blazing 2 minutes, 47 seconds--almost as fast as the ABS Plus. It was the highest-capacity keychain drive in the review, capable of holding up to 512M. It came standard with encryption software that was easy to use and added a good measure of security for portable data.

The only problem we found with the security software came in enlarging the size of the encrypted partition. The software by default formatted the entire drive, not just the encrypted part, which meant all information was erased before we could change the partition's size.

Despite this flaw, we were pleased to see encryption capability on such a small and useful tool.
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The DiskOnKey was the largest of the USB keychains, weighing 0.8 ounces and measuring about 4 inches long, 1 inch wide and half an inch thick.

The Sony Micro Vault was the lowest-capacity drive in this review, storing only 64M for $150. It was, however, capable of fast data transfers, averaging 50M every 1 minute, 10 seconds. But at 3.5 by 1.3 by 0.5 inches, it was more macro than micro. The Micro Vault was too large to carry around as readily as the USB keychains or the DiskOnKey.

On the plus side, the Vault was easy to use; no drivers were needed for Windows 2000, Millennium Edition, XP or Mac OS 9.0 environments.
Although the Micro Vault ranked a step below the other USB keychain drives, it still could transfer a considerable amount of data in a flash. Its security software was easier to use than the DiskOnKey's.
These small USB devices might not satisfy transfer needs for really large files; a larger external USB hard drive such as the Iomega HDD or ABS Plus would be a better fit.

For a predominantly notebook PC environment, the Sony Memory Stick and PC Card drive are the best combination.

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