Sometimes even the lightest portable computer is more than I want to carry around, but public computers are insecure and lack the personal settings and data stored on my own machines.
Now there is a real alternative -- the smart USB (universal serial bus) drive built around technology developed by U3 (www.u3.com), a two-year-old start-up, backed by two USB flash drive market leaders, SanDisk (www.sandisk.com) and M-Systems (www.m-systems.com).
USB thumb or key drives have proved to be a great alternative to other portable media such as the floppy diskette or optical discs, especially for transferring files between machines.
They are smaller than most other portable media types, can hold hundreds of megabytes of data and most current operating systems recognise them without heeding special software drivers. The rapidly falling price of flash memory also means the price of these devices has plunged. Some of the latest IGB drives cost $100 or less and smaller drives start from under $20.
USB thumb drives can also store and run some software applications, but it is not always easy. What U3's combination software and hardware package does is make running software applications directly from a personalisect PC in your pocket accessible from any PC running Windows XP or Windows 2000 (a Linux version is in the works.)
It enables users to take with them files, folders, preferences, plug-ins, and everything else they need to make any PC behave like their own machine.
U3 unveiled its new "platform" last month and several USB drive-makers, including Memorex, Verbatim, Kingston and Scandisk began shipping U3-enabled devices recently. I have been testing one of these smart drives, A IGb device dubbed "Store 'n' Go" from Verbatim (www.verbatim.com) that costs $99.
More than 30 companies -- including Corel, Cyberlink, McAfee, Skype, Trend Micro, Ulead, and Zone Labs -- have announced backing for U3, which is rapidly emerging at the smart USB drive standard.
When you plug a U3-compatible smart drive into a US13 port, U3's "Launchpad" -- a bright, clean and simple user interface -- automatically opens so users can run applications from the drive.
The U3 system software itself takes up about 6MB of storage and loads up in about 30 seconds after a drive is plugged in. Once the software is loaded, I found, software applications load just as quickly as they would if stored on an ordinary hard drive.
Equally impressively, when you remove the USB drive, the software shuts down applications running on the USB drive and cleans out any lingering data fragments so that no personal data is left behind on the host machine.
The U3 Launchpad also features menu items for drive management and administration as well as a link to a website where U3-compliant software is available. U3 drives can be protected by passwords or biometrics and can be set up to contain encrypted log-on procedures, reducing the risk that key-logging software lurking on the host machine may compromise security.
Off-the-shelf software applications must be specifically modified to run from the U3-enabled USB drives and currently the range of available software is limited. Nevertheless, early adopters will find anti-virus, password manager, e-mail, media player, Instant Messaging and a version of Skype's popular VolP software are available with lots of additional packages pending. Some packages are free, others are on sale.
My Verbatim drive came with an anti-virus security software package from McAfee installed, and several other security software companies have announced plans for U3 drive software.
I downloaded a handful of applications from the U3 website, including one of my favourites, Powerhouse Technologies Group's Migo, which enables users to synchronise office files, folders and Microsoft Outlook e-mail data between a computer and a U3 smart drive.
Using Migo I found it was possible to leave my notebook PC at home.
Another of my favourite productivity/security tools, Siber Systems' Pass2Go, is also available for U3 smart drives, Pass2Go is a slimmed down version of Siber System's popular Roboform automated form filling and password management software, which I have installed on all my PCs. It lets users store website passwords, contacts and banking and credit card information on a US13 smart drive.
For communications, Skype Technologies' version of its VoIP software lets users store their Skype account information on U3-compliant drives and make free or low-cost VoIP calls from anywhere that you can plug in a USB drive.
For Instant Messaging enthusiasts, a version of the ICQ instant messaging text, voice and video software should be available shortly. Meanwhile, Trillion has launched a version of its universal IM package that support's AOL's AIM, ICQ, MSN Messenger, Yahoo Messenger and IRC.
While Microsoft has yet to decide whether to support the U3 standard, the open source Mozilla Foundation is working on a U3-compliant version of its Firefox web browser, which I prefer to Internet Explorer, and a version of its Thunderbird e-mail software, a good alternative to Outlook Express.
Overall, I found the Verbatim U3 smart drive easy to use and an excellent way to carry my most important settings and data around with me.
I will still take a full featured notebook or tablet PC with a broadband wireless data card with me when I travel because of the flexibility it guarantees.
But I will also take a U3-enabled smart drive for the convenience and added security, particularly when using public PCs.
FT Syndication Service