- Easy to populate with software
- some good free applications available, including OpenOffice.org
- SDK is free to developers
- Drive capacities could be a problem
- some popular business applications not supported
- strong security protection (stronger than a simple password) is not included
USB flash drives are increasingly popular, thanks to the ease with which they can be used to transport data between locations, their relatively low cost, and the fact that they can be used on any computer with a USB port. However, USB flash drives can cause security headaches for companies, precisely because of these factors. Documents can be inadvertently left on insecure computers, and lost or stolen drives can be readily scanned for data that companies might prefer to keep to themselves.
The U3 platform changes this situation. It provides all the portability that's intrinsic to the USB flash drive format, adding the ability to run applications from the drives themselves, leaving no trace once the drive is removed from the USB port, and delivering security in the form of encryption and password-protected access to the drives themselves. You can also synchronise files with a host computer.
U3 is the brainchild of two flash memory specialists: SanDisk and M-Systems. The technology includes a hardware specification that has been adopted by a number of USB flash drive manufacturers; drive capacities currently generally peak at 2GB, although SanDisk lists a 4GB drive.
Our review sample, a 2GB Kingston U3 DataTraveller is as small and neat as you’d expect a USB flash drive to be. Styled in silver and orange, it comes with a small lanyard for attaching to a key fob or some other useful place. There's a protective cap for the USB end of the drive.
When you plug the drive into a computer for the first time, it is recognised as a new device, and after a short wait you are told the drive is ready to use. A small icon in the system tray lets you access the drive’s features. Tap this icon and the Launchpad opens up. This is a standard element of all U3 drives. The right-hand column lists device information and settings options, allows you to check the free and used space on a drive, browse its contents and perform other management tasks. The left-hand column lists all the applications preinstalled on the drive and any you have added, making it easy to launch what you require. Every drive has basic password protection built in, with more comprehensive security applications available from third parties.
Our Kingston U3 DataTraveller came with the free Zinio e-reading software (etexts need to be in a proprietary format), a feature-limited version of digital photo viewer ACDSee and a trial version of the Pass2Go password manager.
Software has to be enhanced in order to run on the U3 platform. The The developer tools are free, and although there are applications for many tasks, some which are notable and very welcome, there are also gaps. You won’t find compatible Microsoft software, for example, but you will find versions of Firefox, Thunderbird, Skype, Trillian and OpenOffice.org all for free, as well as a range of other paid-for applications including utilities for synchronising files, PIM data and email and for doing email while on the road.
Using the Launchpad you can set applications to run automatically when the drive is inserted to a USB port. If you make this setting for Skype, for example, it goes direct to the login page. More than one application can be set to run automatically.
It is straightforward to download and install applications on your flash drive. You can choose to install those already downloaded to your computer or, with an active Internet connection, you can either go to your drive vendor’s Web site or U3 Software Central, which lists all available applications.
When you’ve finished working, an icon labeled Eject on the Launchpad closes everything down, at which point you can remove the drive, pocket it, and walk away from the computer you were using. During testing, everything worked smoothly, and as far as we could tell we left no traces on the several computers on which we used the drive.
There are two key issues with U3 flash drives at present. One is the range of applications available: some key freeware business tools such as Skype, Firefox and Trillian are welcome, but office productivity is currently only available via the OpenOffice.org suite. The other issue is drive capacity: as soon as you start running software from a portable drive and using one seriously when away from the office, storage capacity can become limited. Populating our 2GB drive with Firefox, Skype and OpenOffice left us with 1.5GB of space for data. That might seem sufficient, but once you start to use synchronisation for vital documents and syncrhonise PIM data, storage space could start to become an issue.