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(photo credit: Courtesy)
It seems as if modern computer product marketing takes two distinct tacks these days. Students of the "new and improved" school of marketing label upgrades and new hardware models as the latest and greatest, placing the tag upon products that have been reworked, or "upgraded," in the lab. Which leads one to wonder: Why were they trying to pawn off a piece of "old and unimproved" junk on consumers until now?
But then there is the corollary principle where customers, happy with version 1.x of a product, protest that there was nothing wrong with the original formula, and that the "new and improved" item is actually "bloatware," where manufacturers heap on features and options that are supposed to enhance performance. Instead, though, the "improvements" make the product unwieldy and harder to use, thus erasing - or reversing - any potential benefit to the user (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Software-bloat).
In the computer industry, the new/improved vs. bloat concept is generally applied to software applications, but there are a few cases where it applies to hardware, as well - such as with USB flash drives that feature the U3 software platform. Like Mac vs. Windows, or other infamous platform and software debates, plain vanilla USB flash drives vs. U3-equipped flash drives are shaping up as two sides of a coin with U3 foes and fans accusing each other of encouraging useless bloat on the one hand, or a Luddite-style ostrich-head-burying refusal to acknowledge technological progress on the other.
Not that anyone has anything bad to say about flash storage drives themselves. With larger files created by sophisticated software rendering 1.44 MB floppy disks more or less outmoded, if not extinct, cheap, multi-gig, hot-swappable USB flash drives, not dependent on any other hardware readers (unlike Syquest or Zip disks), easily rewritable (unlike CDs/DVDs), and multi-platform compatible (unlike floppy disks themselves) have become the standard for non-network file transfers.
Flash memory has only been commercially viable for the past decade or so and, more importantly, affordable for average consumers for the past couple of years so the technology's almost total takeover of the portable file transfer market is evidence of its usefulness and usability. Right now, there are no competing technologies in this space, so between USB flash drives, as well as flash memory cards for cameras, cellphones and other handheld devices, companies like SanDisk (the biggest name in flash memory) are doing very well, thank you (http://tinyurl.com/h6sqx).
But then there's the "beyond" zone - the place where USB flash drives either turn into a leading-edge technology or a bloatware pain in the you know where depending upon whom you ask. Sandisk and M-Systems, along with other players in the flash memory market (http://devblog.u3.com) came up with the U3 platform in order to give users "ultimate portability." U3 is, essentially, a software add-on to flash memory drives that enables them to automatically load software, settings and files between computers, as well as sync information, like contacts and e-mail, on home and office PCs - without affecting the main hard drive.
U3 "smart drives," as these editions of the flash memory-based device are called by the U3 Consortium (http://www.u3.com), come built-in with the U3 Launchpad, a Windows-style Start menu for software and files on the flash drive. The drives come with two partitions built in - one for applications and one for saved data. You access applications via the Launcher, from which they get loaded into the RAM of the PC you are using, and all information, settings, cookies or whatever are saved strictly on the flash drive.
The U3 flash drive I'm using right now, the SanDisk Cruzer 1 GB MicroDrive, comes with a number of built-in applications and provides a link to download more programs (there are dozens available, some free, at http://software.u3.com). So far, I've installed U3 versions of OpenOffice, Firefox, Skype and Avast Antivirus onto my drive, which more or less covers the portability I would need from a device like this (there are U3 versions of Thunderbird and Outlook e-mail and contacts components, and the Launcher offers automatic backup and syncing for Outlook).
Why U3 is a good idea: If you find yourself in an office or a series of offices on a daily basis, or if your work takes you to different locations around town, or if you work on the same projects at home and at the office and don't own/want to buy/want to shlep a laptop around, U3 platform USB flash drives are a great innovation. For a cost of $50 to $100, instead of the $3,500 and up you'd pay for a laptop, you could get a U3-equipped flash drive and plug it into any Windows 2000 or better USB equipped PC (U3 doesn't support Mac or Linux at this time, although the devices themselves can be used to transfer files like a "regular" flash drive) and work on a Word, PowerPoint or Excel document (all three are easily handled by OpenOffice), surf the Net or check your e-mail (the U3 automatically utilizes the Internet settings used by the PC you're connected to). Using one of these drives makes you an excellent, non-intrusive guest in any work situation; you don't need any user rights on the home PC, including access to a network or any application on a hard drive, in order to use your Launcher and its programs. Basic guest rights on a PC, in allowing you to access your attached flash drive, are all you need.
U3 flash drives are also appropriate in situations where office managers or IT staff forbid the use of certain programs, such as downloading e-mail, file sharing, etc. U3 drives leave no "footprint" on the master PC or its registry, with all information recorded on the flash drive itself - so you can surf the Net to your heart's content without leaving a cache trail on a hard drive (http://tinyurl.com/g6878).
U3s also come with a built-in password protection program in case the thing gets misplaced or otherwise compromised. And, U3 drives can be used as "regular" portable drives, copying files from hard drive to flash drive and back again.
So what could be bad with this setup? Well, some users have accused the U3 Launcher of being sluggish, incompatible with certain software, ruinous of hard drive resources and applications and a host of other computing offenses. In addition, the Launcher takes up valuable disk space,and there is no way to uninstall the system and turn the device back into a plain old USB flash drive (this point was true until recently when the U3 people released an uninstaller - http://u3.com/uninstall - which they really, really want you to think twice about before using). In addition, there are some questions regarding security and system integrity (http://www.everythingusb.com/u3.html).
In addition, critics say the whole point of U3 is to turn a good technology (USB flash drives) that was developed with industry standards enabling all manufacturers to compete fairly and economically into an exclusive "club" aimed at muscling out smaller manufacturers.
Eventually, Sandisk says it hopes to put U3 on almost all of its flash drive line (http://tinyurl.com/ff8fo).
Besides, U3 is totally unnecessary anyway - because there are a number of ways to take plain-vanilla flash drives and turn them into portable drives that work the same as U3, without the software/partition overhead. More on that next time.
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