'Cruzin' with Your Data

By Gerry Blackwell | Posted November 22, 2006

Schlepping a laptop when you travel by air is never a lot of fun — the sore shoulders, the dead batteries, the awkwardness going through airport security. And now the privilege of carrying a computer on board could be revoked at any moment because of terrorist threats, as we saw earlier this year. Solution: if you don't actually need a computer in the air, leave the laptop at home and take a U3 flash drive instead.

Flash drives, also called thumb drives, are those tiny flash memory cards that you stick in a USB (Universal Serial Bus) slot on your computer. They range in size from 100 MB to 4 GB and behave just like another hard drive when inserted. U3 software from U3 LLC transforms a flash drive into a very portable virtual PC, carrying all your essential data from home and keeping it up to date using synchronization software.

One of the best we've seen is the new Cruzer Titanium from SanDisk Corp. We recently tested the 2GB version ($110). There's also a 1GB version ($70).

U3 Explained
When you stick a U3 flash drive in any PC — at a client's office or a friend's place, or even in an Internet café — it turns that computer into your computer, giving you secure access to files, e-mail, contacts, calendar, task and other information that you copied from your main computer using synchronization software and stored in compressed format on the thumb drive. You can even have the host system display your familiar Windows wallpaper.

When you insert a U3 drive, the U3 software automatically initializes and places an icon on the host system's Windows system tray. Clicking that icon pops up the U3 launchpad which gives you access to programs, data and utilities. You can use the programs to send and receive mail and edit documents on the host system.

A couple of basics to understand about U3. It is, in effect, the Windows of thumb drives, a platform upon which other software developers can build applications. Not all the applications you normally use work on a U3 drive, only those that have been adapted for it. So you won't find a Microsoft Word or Outlook for U3, for example. However, you will find U3 programs that can read, display and synchronize Word and Outlook files. And U3, or U3 synchronization programs, can and will launch applications on the host computer to let you view some file types.

Data Security
You don't need to worry about your data being attacked or tampered with by viruses or malware on the host machine. Most U3 drives come with anti-virus and malware software. The Cruzer Titanium includes a special U3 edition of the Avast program from ALWIL Software. Avast may not be the first name in virus protection — that would be Norton or McAfee — but ALWIL is a reputable company.

You also don't need to worry about someone accessing your data or remnants of it left on the host machine. When you take the U3 drive out, nothing gets left behind, not even Web browsing history if you used the host's browser. And you can password protect your drive so that if you lose it, the person who finds it can't access your data. Essential data on the Cruzer is also stored in encrypted format. (Note that you can use a U3 drive as a standard flash drive and drag and drop files to it in Windows Explorer. Those files will be uncompressed and unencrypted.)


 SanDisk's Cruzer Titanium 2GB U3 Drive
Load the Cruzer with e-mail, contacts, calendar, task and other information that you synchronized from your main computer. Secure encryption keeps the data safe.

When you return home, stick the U3 drive into your main PC and run the synchronization software to update Outlook data and documents with any changes you made while away.

Since the U3 software is like Windows for thumb drives, there isn't a lot to differentiate U3 flash drive products except price, the range and quality of included software and physical design. The Cruzer Titanium scores reasonably on all counts.

Tough as Nails
U3 drives are by definition tiny — small enough to use as a key fob — but the Cruzer is among the smallest. It also has a retracting USB jack, which protects it from damage — although this mechanism is also something that could conceivably jam. The best thing about the physical design is the titanium shell, which SanDisk says is crush-resistant to over 2,000 pounds, although we didn't test this claim. Most other U3 drives are made with high-impact plastic.

The Cruzer Titanium ships with four programs: the CruzerSync synchronization tool, SignupShield password manager (a moderately useful tool that lets you log on once and then automatically passes appropriate user id and passwords to secured Web sites and other computing resources), a U3 version of Skype (the PC-to-PC voice over Internet phone service) and the Avast virus software. Other U3 drives may ship with more programs, but take note that some pre-loaded software, including the essential synchronization tool, may be trial versions only.

Efficient Synchronizing
The key piece of software here is the CruzerSync synchronization tool, which is no a trial version. It will take Outlook and Office data from multiple PCs — although most people will only need to synch from one — and copy it to the U3 drive in compressed format.

The size of these drives may not sound like enough in an age of 250GB hard drives, but even the 1GB version is probably ample for most people — unless you want to carry a lot of high-resolution photos or high-bit-rate audio files. The U3 data compression squeezed essential data from my 1 GB Outlook file, plus another 142 MB of documents into less than 500 MB on the Cruzer Titanium.

Synchronization is not always rapid, especially the first time, particularly if your computer only has USB 1.1 ports rather than the much faster USB 2.0 ports on most recent computers (up to 480 megabits per second versus 12 Mbps). The first synchronization we performed, which included over 3,000 Outlook contacts and a rarely archived Outlook inbox, took several minutes over a USB 2.0 connection. Subsequent synchs were much faster, naturally.

Some U3 synchronization software we've tried, such as the program from Migo Software Inc., which is included with some other U3 products, lets you limit mail and calendar entries synched by saying you want only items from the last so many days or weeks. This is decidedly a good thing. Much of what CruzerSync copies over — at least from my computer — is so old that the chances of my ever having need of it when traveling are practically nil.

The only way to access synchronized data when you plug the Cruzer Titanium into a host computer is with the synchronization program itself. If you use the separate Explore U3 Drive tool, also accessible from the U3 launchpad, and browse in the Documents folder, all you'll find is the zipped archives created by the synch program — unless you also copied uncompressed, unencrypted files to the drive.

The CruzerSync interface includes displays for calendar, contacts and mail that are drastically simplified from the Outlook originals. There is also a Windows Explorer-like My Documents section that shows the individual files you synchronized from your computer. When you click on a file in CruzerSync My Documents, U3 launches the host system's instance of Word or Excel to view the document.

Quibbles
We have a few issues with the interface design in CruzerSync's Outlook sections. There is no facility for searching contacts, for example. And contacts are automatically sorted on first name rather than last. Who sorts contacts that way? The e-mail interface is the most complete, allowing you to receive messages (albeit slowly), reply or reply all, compose (and send) new messages and delete messages. The mail download system appeared to filter out mail tagged by my ISP as junk.

It's difficult to evaluate a virus tool, short of introducing a recent new virus and seeing how it copes. We decided not to go to those lengths with the Avast software. We did try the virus definition update utility, which was very slick and reasonably quick. Skype works much as it does on any computer.

Bottom Line
If you're looking for a reliable, durable U3 drive with all the essential features at a competitive price, the Cruzer Titanium is a very good bet.

Based in London, Canada, Gerry Blackwell has been writing about information technology and telecommunications for a variety of print and online publications since the 1980s. Just for fun, he also authors features and columns on digital photography for Here's How, a spiffy Canadian consumer technology magazine.

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