Over the years I have had a variety of plug-in USB devices that I have used for mobile data storage. The first I ever had was a give-away Transcend JetFlash that had what would now be considered a simply miserly 16MB of capacity. I got it at a computer seminar I attended. Onto it had been loaded copies of the presentations that had been delivered. I liked the way it came already installed with password security, unusual enough in those days. It also had an external switch to make it read-only and so avoid accidental data overwrite. I still use it to backup all my passwords.
The next one I used was actually an MP3 player. It was a SumVision 1GB device that could be partitioned. I had one partition for my music and the other for the data. I used it for quite a while but not any longer. My mobile phone (Nokia 6288) is now my MP3 player and, once again now, 1GB is no longer anywhere near big enough.
Earlier this year I got a Sandisk Cruzer Micro 8GB memory stick for my wife. I found it on the Internet for about £15. She now has several offices from which she works and she needed to carry her vital data around with her. The original intention was also to have her email on it but she has always been an Outlook Express user and refuses to learn anything else. There is no portable version of Outlook Express so that had to go by the wayside. Fortunately her email is now webmail accessible so the problem has largely gone away.
The motivation for me getting a new data stick was so as to take our holiday photos and videos up to the In-Laws. I'd been looking on the Internet and found several possibilities.
I was wandering around PC World, as you do, getting a few ideas but not intending to buy anything there. Well, you don't do you? It's a good place to see what stuff looks like and how it works but it's always far cheaper on the Internet.
That's what I thought; then I saw a Sandisk Cruzer Titanium 8GB for just over £15, about the same price as the Cruzer Micro but with the silver coloured titanium metal casing. Very classy it looks! Bargain! I bought one.
I especially like the Cruzer design in the way that it has a slider in the top of the body that slides the USB plug back into the body of the device when it's not in use. The problem with those that use caps is that the cap is always getting lost.
The Cruzer is also a U3 device, which enables you to install truly portable software that you can then use on any computer into which it is plugged, without leaving behind any software after it's removed. That way you can never be short of your favourite gizmos.
When you plug it in for the first time the installation procedure asks you if you simply want to use it for data storage or also for applications (or decide later). I knew I wanted apps as well so I replied "both".
When initialised you get a new, red "Cruzer" icon on you desktop in the bottom right-hand corner. This goes away when the device is removed. Clicking on this icon gives you access to the "U3 Launchpad". You can also access this from the U3 icon in the System Tray. If you have a look at "My Computer", you will also find two new "Devices with removable storage" allocated to spare drive letters. One is the "U3 System", the "operating system" for the device itself and the other, the data storage area as a "Removable Disk".
The U3 Launchpad also tells you what drive letter has been allocated to the data storage area and provides you with options such as "Explore drive...", "Settings>>", "Add programs>>" and "Enable security".
This last is a facility to password protect the complete device. It does warn you though, that password protection is only supported on Windows. Sadly U3 support is an area where Linux is currently lagging behind. If you set a password under Windows and then plug the device into a Linux based machine, such as some of the new, cheap netbooks, you will not be able to enable it as the password request will not appear. However, if you know that this situation will not arise then I would definitely recommend that you go ahead and define a password to protect your data, should you ever lose the device.
I definitely wanted to install portable versions of my favourite utilities and fortunately many of them have already been modified to run in the U3 environment. If you visit www.u3.com you will find a whole bunch of applications, including the usual suspects such as Firefox, Thunderbird, Skype and so on, already packaged for installation. Clicking on "Add programs>> U3 Download Central" from the launchpad will also take you there, via the device's built-in micro browser. Not all of the software is Freeware though. Some, such as "Avast! Antivirus U3 Edition", security for the device no matter where it is used, is only a trialware. Eventually you have to pay, unlike for their excellent PC antivirus software, which I use.
The other thing to note is that not all of the U3 versions are up to the same release level as the PC-installed version. For instance, Thunderbird is currently at Rel 126.96.36.199 whereas the U3-ised version is Rel 188.8.131.52. It seems that it takes some time for the volunteers to bring them into synch, which might create compatibility issues, especially if the differences are between major release levels (Rel 1 v Rel 2).
I have installed Thunderbird (though I have not yet transferred all my email to the data stick so as to start using it there) and OpenOffice. The one other application I definitely wanted to install was my favourite encryption software, TrueCrypt. However, I couldn't find a U3 install package for it although the subject was discussed on the TrueCrypt Forum.
I wanted to have encrypted data vaults on the data stick as well as the password protection for the device itself. Some data isn't critical, pictures for instance, but other data, such as passwords, is. That, I definitely wanted to protect, even when the device was in use (see my review of TrueCrypt for further information).
I discovered a freeware utility that claimed to be able to take your favourite applications and package them for installation under U3. It's called PackageFactory. It appears to have been put together by some guys in Canada (www.eure.ca). I downloaded it and tried creating a U3 install package of TrueCrypt. TrueCrypt is very simple. It can be run from just the truecrypt.exe program alone. PackageFactory does say that it should work for simple applications such as this.
The package seemed to have been created but the U3 installation process would have none of it. I emailed the guys at Eure, sending them the package and a screenshot of the error message. They responded very quickly (full marks for support!), "massaged" the package and sent it back and then it installed correctly. They've also posted this working package on www.u3applications.net if you want to download it for yourself. Seems that PackageFactory may need a few changes made to it!
On the data side of things, the Cruzer is working perfectly so far. Data transfer speeds are good and running things like videos and music from it is as good as from the PC hard drive. There is an indicator light beneath the slider for the USB plug. It pulses rhythmically so long as the device is plugged in and flickers more rapidly when data is being transferred. So far I haven't even tested the capacity of the device and I guess it will take some time to do so.
You never know, I may even install some more applications.
UPDATE - March 2009
It is becoming clear to me that the U3 system is gradually losing support. Although I still have some U3 compatible applications on this data stick, for the latest versions of some applications I use I have now had to install the PortableApps system as well. They can co-exist but my advice is that if you are starting from scratch, format the data stick for data only and use PortableApps instead of U3.