I keep a red and silver fob on my key ring. It’s a bit longer and skinnier
than the remote-entry clicker for my car, holds 32
megabytes of data, and can exchange information with just about any computer.
More than once, I’ve been saved from a tight spot because I had a copy of a
critical file, such as a PowerPoint presentation, on the fob in my pocket. These
USB keys, so called because they plug into a computer’s universal serial bus
port, have been around for a while. But prices have fallen by half in the past
year, and the devices are learning tricks that could take them well beyond their
current role as replacement for the floppy disk.
Basic memory keys, available in a variety of shapes and styles, are
essentially commodity products. You can buy a 32-MB key for less than $20, or
spend more than $500 for a 2-GB version. As a cheaper alternative, there’s the
bulkier Digitalway MPIO HS100, which uses a teensy hard-disk drive instead of
flash-memory chips, and offers 1.5 GB for $200. When you slide the key into any
Macintosh or a PC running Windows XP, 2000, or Me, it will show up after a
minute or so on the desktop or in My Computer. (Windows 98 requires the
installation of software first; Windows NT doesn’t
The only important difference among the basic storage keys is whether they
use the original USB technology or the newer and slightly more expensive USB 2.0
version, which permits much faster data transfer. The 2.0 designs will work in
older ports at the original speed. However, they draw more power and may not
work in some extension ports, such as those often found on keyboards.
The latest batch of memory keys does a lot more than store data passively.
The best of them automatically run certain applications as soon as you plug them
into a Windows PC. A good example is the Migo from Forward Solutions
(www.4migo.com), starting at about $115 for a 128-MB version. Say that you want
the PC you use at home to look and function as much as possible like your
computer in the office. You plug a Migo into your office PC, and a program in
the device automatically starts to copy Outlook folders that you have selected,
such as mail, contacts, and calendar. It can also store settings such as your
desktop wallpaper and Internet Explorer favorites.
Now plug the Migo into your home PC and log on. As long as you have Outlook
and the other desired programs running on both the PCs, the little device will
quickly create a semblance of your office machine, including the mail that was
in your office in-box. I found that it worked well with standard Internet mail
accounts. But corporate mail using Microsoft Exchange required some fiddling
with settings to get Outlook to work. And think twice before using it on the PC
of a friend or colleague: Their original settings won’t necessarily be
restored when you pull the Migo out.
Other keys make enhanced security a sales point. Most manufacturers offer
versions that password-protect your data. But I especially liked the EasyTrust
from M-Systems, whose products are usually sold under such brands as Iomega and
Hewlett-Packard. It offers encrypted data and a lot of convenience: When you
plug it into a computer you have designated as ‘trusted,’ you don’t have
to enter a password.
In future, these data-storage devices may acquire additional uses. One that I
would like to see is a password-protected and encrypted key that would store
user name and password information for all the networks, mail accounts, and
websites that I log in to. When plugged into a computer, it would intercept the
login requests and supply the correct information. Another would be a key that
could actually boot a computer to make a borrowed PC really look and act like
your own machine. This is technically possible on Macs and the newest PCs,
though the size of today’s operating systems and licensing restrictions make
it impractical. But even without such advanced features, these memory keys are
so handy that just about everyone should have one.
By Stephen H Wildstrom in BusinessWeek. Copyright
2004 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc