Storage keys: Not all are equal

These eight portable drives store anywhere from 256M to 1G of data, and most include encryption software or other extras. One has a fingerprint reader; another is waterproof.

Henrik G. de Gyor

Memory Experts ClipDrive Bio

Iomega Mini 512MB USB 2.0

FM-10 Pro USB-2 Stick

Economical new devices pack big data in tiny packages

Portable storage devices are edging out floppy disk drives as the technology of choice for moving large files from one end-user machine to another.

Where disk media have set capacities, users with USB ports can share gigabytes worth of data using thumb-size devices. What's more, the latest USB key drives can install themselves automatically on systems running Microsoft Windows XP or Apple OS X. Plus, they're easier to use than CD burners and offer infinite reuse potential.

At last, storage technology is keeping better pace with the rapid advances in processors and other components, and has improved most noticeably on three fronts.

First, transfer rates and seek times on hard drives now almost rival internal system memory. Flash media, which eliminates moving parts, also boosts external data transfer rates through faster USB 2.0 and FireWire ports.

Second, size has shrunk. You can now fit gigabytes of information into the palm of your hand. Tiny key drives and microdrives with capacities of 256M and 512M are commonplace. A few key drives even reach 1G and 2G capacity.

Third, price is less of an issue. A few years ago, the yardstick for measuring storage was about $1 per megabyte. Internal drives have long since shattered that threshold, and even portable prices have come down to 20 to 50 cents per megabyte.

For this review, the GCN Lab tested eight portable storage devices representing the cutting edge of the market. I was looking for tiny size, high capacity and low cost. I based the grades on transfer rate, form factor, price and any extras that came with each drive.

All the devices are USB 2.0-compliant, but I tested them with a USB 1.1 interface for backward compatibility.

If you have a USB 2.0 connection, expect times across the board to be about one-third as long as in our trials.

The 512M Freecom USB Card gives the key drive a more usable format and a lower price without any performance compromises. Instead of the usual balloonlike stor-age bauble, the USB Card looks like a credit card. It slides easily into a credit card slot in a wallet, taking up about the same space as two cards.

It's no thicker than the USB connector itself, which is located at the center. Pushing on it detaches the connector with a short extension cord.

At a price of $104, government buyers get an incredibly low price of 20 cents per megabyte of storage'something we did not expect from a new form factor. The only real negative was the lack of write-protect tabs on the card, though few people bother with them anyway.

The USB Card earned an A grade, a Reviewer's Choice designation and our Bang for the Buck designation'a clean sweep.

The Kanguru Micro Drive 2.0 is one of three units in the review with 1G of capacity. Holding that much data in your hand is impressive.

The device was speedy, transferring the 191M test file over a USB 1.1 connection in three minutes, 27 seconds.

The Micro Drive 2.0 comes with an installation program for KanguruGuard, which encrypts files placed in a special folder.

Inclusion of software with these drives is a new trend in the portable storage industry. With 1,000M worth of capacity available, why not fill it with some useful stuff? If you don't want such programs, you can simply delete the installation folders and free up space. This is a good feature if done as well as Kanguru did it'not as a means to bombard users with advertising.

The Kanguru drive lists for $319, or a respectable 31 cents per megabyte.

The 1G Verbatim Store 'n' Go drive seems very small for such a capacity, not much larger than most of the 256M key drives. Verbatim made it a little fatter so as not to increase the length. The result is a nice shape that easily slips into a pocket or onto a key chain.

The test unit came blank, without any software. That would not have been unusual except that almost every other product had something on the drive, usually helpful programs for encryption.

At a list price of $349, a buyer would pay 34 cents per megabyte of storage. The Store 'n' Go earned a B+.
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The 1G Memory Experts ClipDrive Bio was the most expensive drive, but for good reason: It was the most secure storage medium in the review.

The drive incorporates a biometric fingerprint reader for secure use, but it works like the others. It sets up an encrypted folder that can be opened only by the registered fingerprint. Other people can use the drive's public folders, which are not tied to the user's fingerprint.

The reader makes the drive a bit larger, but still it is only 3 3/4 inches long and 3/4 inch thick. Government buyers pay $476, which works out to 47 cents per megabyte. That's fairly high, but if you need a secure portable storage medium, this is it. The ClipDrive earned a B+.

The rugged-looking Iomega Mini 512MB USB 2.0 has a unique way of getting to extra programs. One file on the drive is essentially an interactive Web link.

When I clicked, it took me to a page where I could download various programs for free, such as a photo manager for storing multiple images on the unit.
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The advantage to delivering content in this manner is that users can download what they want and ignore the rest. One big disadvantage is that each user must take lots of extra steps.

At a retail price of $179, or 34 cents per megabyte, the Iomega device earned a B.

Quick: What do you do if you need portable storage but don't have much money in your budget? Buy the Advance Media RiData USB 2.0 Flash Drive for a government price of $69 for 256M of storage'26 cents per megabyte.

The Flash Drive comes with the DiskSafe password program, which encrypts files stored on the drive.

The only thing I found troubling was its fairly large form factor, even larger than the Verbatim 1G drive. The bright orange and purple design is a reverse switchblade type'pushing a button slides the USB plug out of the case. There's no cap to get lost, yet the plug is protected inside the case.

The unit did feel a little cheap to me and tended to rattle, but I turned up no performance problems. The RiData earned a B grade and would be a good choice for entry-level storage needs.

Most users are familiar with the Kingston name for memory products, so it's little surprise that Kingston has entered the portable storage arena with the 256M DataTraveler II key drive. It costs only $64, for the lowest per-megabyte price in the review: 25 cents.

The DataTraveler is clearly plain vanilla, however, with no software at all.

I measured the transfer rate on the slow side of average, taking three minutes, 43 seconds to move the test file. The DataTraveler earned a B- and would make a good choice for basic storage for a large number of workers.
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Freecom Technologies, which also makes the top-performing drive in this review, must be into innovation. Its second entry, the FM-10 Pro USB-2 Stick drive, is pictured on the box under water.

According to the marketing materials the drive is only water-resistant, but a company representative said it had been tested in 30 feet of water.

GCN refused to send me to Hawaii to test the drive, so I did the next best thing. I dropped it into a fishbowl of water and left for the day. When I came in next morning, the drive was working fine.

The cap closes for waterproofing. A rubberized case also protects the device from drops on hard surfaces. The $152 price works out to about 29 cents per megabyte of storage.

Unfortunately, the USB-2 Stick worked more slowly than the other drives. Average transfer rate for our 191M test file for all the drives was about three minutes, 30 seconds. The waterproof drive took four minutes, 18 seconds'significantly longer.

I gave the FM-10 a C+, but for use in rain or underwater it would score at the top.

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