Drowned by data? I pick the best and worst storage solutions

Choosing data storage used to be easy. The choice was to use a floppy disk or nothing. But now that times have change...and BOY! do they change!

Choosing data storage used to be easy. The choice was to use a floppy disk or nothing. And whole programs used to fit on a single disk. Now, you can't even fit a high-quality digital photograph on a standard floppy disk, and I am talking about a disk that holds eight times as much data as its counterpart that contained an entire word processor 20 years ago.

Today's choices for data storage are nearly endless. And customers have to make more decisions--if only to make sure that the method they pick actually fits into the device they'll be using it with.

Life should be simple, so today I have sorted a number of memory options--and remember, I am not talking about computer RAM memory or built-in hard drives--into winners, losers, and ones to watch. Here goes:

THE WINNERS
Zip disks. Iomega's Zip disks remain a big seller. I've been using their 100MB disks for years and have had great success with them. But they remain a tad expensive, and 100MB just isn't what it used to be. While it makes sense to back up a 2GB hard disk onto Zips, they are way outclassed by my 30GB drive.

CompactFlash. CompactFlash (CF) memory is what you find in MP3 players, digital cameras, and similar devices. It's nice because you can use an adapter sleeve (I think the last one I bought was under $20) and slide it into the PC card slot on a portable or buy a CF "drive" (under $50) that connects to your desktop using USB. That makes using digital media a breeze--the card works just like a disk.

Prices have come down, and I like CF tremendously. The same card that was in my camera one minute can be in the MP3 player or the PDA the next.

THE LOSERS
Iomega scored three unfortunate hits in this category, with 250MB Zip, PocketZip, and Jaz. While 100MB Zips are great (though showing their age), the next-generation 250MB version has been slow to catch on and the 2GB Jaz drive seems to be sliding under the waves.

PocketZip. The 40MB PocketZip is another Iomega format that has been languishing. However, I have been playing with HipZip--an MP3 player/disk drive that uses PocketZip--and like it a great deal, considering the alternative to a mobile music library is an expensive collection of CompactFlash cards or a player with a big drive, like one of the Nomad devices. I like PocketZip, but my liking something isn't enough to turn the market around.

SmartMedia. Speaking of CompactFlash, avoid a competing format called SmartMedia. It offers no big advantages over CF and is not as widely supported--some battles aren't worth being drawn into. And be careful: I once tried to buy a CF reader (a USB model to plug into a desktop PC) and got a SmartMedia reader by mistake.

Memory Stick. I am staying away from Sony's Memory Stick technology, which just seems too Sony-centric to invest in.

Floppy drives. The old workhorses in my computers--and everyone else's--were the floppy drives. I hardly use them anymore. And the "high capacity" drives simply failed to catch on in the marketplace.

ONES TO WATCH
Peerless. Iomega has recently begun shipping Peerless, a removable drive that fits into a docking unit attached to the host PC. At $399 for the 20GB disk and dock bundle, it seems expensive. But it does allow large amounts of data to be backed up or shared with other machines--giving a whole new depth of meaning to what the tried-and-true "SneakerNet" can accomplish.

MultiMedia Card. This one is a real competitor to CompactFlash, or it will be when it becomes common, as I expect it will. The big improvement with MultiMedia Card (MMC) is the format's postage-stamp size.

External hard disks. I am beginning to see tiny hard disks like the IBM Microdrive showing up as storage devices for cameras and even on PC cards for use in a variety of compatible devices. These seem a bit exotic and are still expensive. Proceed with caution. If you need storage for your PC or portable, consider a larger external (but portable) hard drive instead.

DataPlay. Sitting on the horizon--seemingly permanently--is a format called DataPlay, which is supposed to offer a tiny, 500MB, write-once disk for a mere $10. This is potentially a great way to distribute music and other digital media and is obviously quite attractive…should it ever ship. So far, there's been lots of noise about DataPlay but little to show for it.

MY OVERALL CHAMPION
CD-RW. The new portable storage favorite, at least in my office, is CD-RW. The disks are inexpensive and can be used for making backups, creating music CDs, sending photo collections to friends, and pretty much anything else that requires moving data around (when the data can't easily move online, that is).

A new PC should come with both a CD-RW and DVD drive, which makes dubbing easier and lets you watch movies. This doesn't add much to the cost of a desktop, but merely upgrading a CD drive to read/write can tack a hefty surcharge onto the price of a portable. I bought a Hewlett-Packard USB-based CD-RW to use when I need to burn a disc from the notebook.

People keep talking about burning your own DVDs, but there are still some standards battles in that space, so I am not yet willing to invest.

That's a quick look around my office at the various storage devices I'm using and my recommendation--or lack of it--for each. I hope this makes the world a little less complex when you go shopping.