USB Flash Drives: A Little Goes A Long Way

By Kevin Reichard | Posted March 19, 2003
Admittedly, there are more glamorous small-business-computing tools that USB flash drives. You're not going to wow your friends and family when you pass one around at a gathering. And to the naked eye, they don't really do more than just sit there and store data.

But for the average small business, flexibility is an important consideration in any technology purchase; return on investment is a rather intimate detail that applies equally to the small purchase. Any technology must fill multiple purposes, which makes a device like a universal serial bus (USB) flash drive such an essential investment for any small business that's moving data between machines, people, and locales. Though USB flash drives tend to be overlooked as simplistic tools, their flexibility and relatively low prices make them perfectly suited for the small business closely watching the bottom line.

USB flash devices are really very simple. They are basically flash-card holders that plug into your PC or laptop's USB port. (A flash drive is a storage medium that doesn't require power or a moving diskette.) To your computer, they are just another drive you can copy files to and from. They can store between 32 megabytes and 1 gigabyte of data, require no external power, and are really inexpensive — you can find 64-megabyte USB devices for under $50. They do get rather more expensive when you're approaching a gigabyte: the 1GB KanguruMicro Drive 2.0 from Interactive Media Corporation has a list price of $999.95.

Where could you use a USB flash drive? Recently I've had two situations where a USB drive saved me a lot of time.

The first came when I bought a new laptop. I needed to move files from the old laptop to both the new laptop and an existing tower PC. In most cases these were data files storied by a variety of applications, but it also included a slew of music files that would eventually make it onto a new MP3 player.

If I were a networking guru I could have configured a small peer-to-peer network in my home and just used that to move the files between two laptops and a tower PC. But I'm not a networking guru, and I really didn't want to invest in a router just to move some files around.

The solution was to use a KanguruMicro Drive 2.0 USB flash drive from Interactive Media Corporation to move the data between machines. With the new laptop running Windows XP, all I needed to do was plug the flash drive into a USB slot: the drive was instantly recognized by the system as being an active disk drive. With the old Windows 98 laptop it wasn't quite as simple: I needed to install a device driver so the PC would recognize the device. (Not all vendors include the device driver on an accompanying CD-ROM; some require you to download one from the Internet. If you're planning on using a drive in a situation where you lack Internet connectivity, make sure your package includes a driver on CD-ROM.)

With all the computers recognizing the flash drive, all I needed to do was copy files from the old laptop and distribute them where needed. It took under a minute to completely copy the contents of the flash drive to a PC, and vice versa. (The KanguruMicro unit was only 64 megs in size; if I were doing this regularly I'd invest in a larger drive.)

The other use for it came at a trade show where I was a speaker using a PowerPoint presentation. If you've done any public speaking, you know those nervous seconds waiting to make sure that your laptop works with a conference's audio-visual system. My solution was to store my presentation on a flash drive purely as a backup device. In this case, it was extremely cheap insurance to be able to copy my presentation to another machine should there be issues with mine.

Some things to note:

  • USB comes in different flavors; the most current and fastest spec is USB 2.0 You can use a USB 2.0 flash drive with an older USB 1.1 port; it just won't copy data as fast as a 2.0 port will. That backward compatibility is important and helps make the technology so useful.

  • Every major operating system — Windows 98/2000/XP, Macintosh, Linux — supports plug-and-play USB devices. Some devices require the installation of a device driver (especially if you're installing a USB device on a Windows 98 machine), while you'll usually need a newer kernel (i.e., 2.4.18 or better) to enable support on Linux. One important note: follow the directions. If you don't precisely follow the directions on an older PC you can misconfigure the port.

  • Some USB flash drives actually have flash cards that come out of the drive holder, expanding the capacity of the system and enable you to share cards between other kinds of devices, such as PDAs and digital cameras. But there are different kinds of flash cards, so you'll want to make sure that your device uses the same sort of flash card as your USB drive. In addition, Interactive Media makes a USB mouse that contains a flash card reader, so you can use your mouse for temporary storage and free up a USB drive as well.

  • There aren't many bells and whistles to shop for, but there are a few. A good USB flash drive will have a write-protect switch to make sure you or someone else doesn't inadvertently overwrite the contents of a drive. Many USB drives have LEDs to show activity on the drive — which can be valuable feedback in case something goes wrong with the drive.

  • They are cheap to ship — just throw them in a small box and mail them to where they are needed. Yes, you can always mail a 64-megabyte file, but there may be times when (for security reasons) a client doesn't want data sent over the Internet and would prefer a hard copy.

A USB flash drive may not be something you use every day or even on a regular basis. But they are an extremely useful thing to have around — and for $50, they can be one of the better investments you make in your small business-computing arsenal.

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