A Keychain Never Forgets

Why tote a laptop? Pocket-size pods of memory plug into PCs anywhere

If you're like many frustrated business travelers, you've probably been trying to shed some of the paraphernalia you carry through airport security. For me, the once-indispensible piece of gear that I now routinely leave at home is my laptop computer.

Carrying a laptop has always been problematic in airports: While you're struggling with your wristwatch and cell phone or, these days, your belt and shoes, your computer is scooting down the conveyor toward parts--and people--unknown. I tried giving mine up a couple of years ago without much success. While I found I could handle most of my e-mail over a cell phone, BlackBerry pager, or wireless handheld, I never figured out how to carry all the files and data I need for day-to-day business.

Now there's a way. It's called keychain memory. A dozen or so manufacturers have come out with these pocket-size pods of flash memory, the same kind of semiconductor memory used in digital cameras and MP3 players. They snap into the USB port of any PC or Macintosh computer, where they act like just another hard drive. (They're also called flash drives.) When it's time to move on, you drag and drop your work--PowerPoint presentations, Word documents, music files, and digital movies or photos--into the portable memory, unplug it, and off you go.

It's just like the good old days when you'd slip a floppy disk in your pocket to carry your work from office to home and back. Trouble is, my laptop no longer has a floppy drive. And even if it did, many of today's data files are too big to fit on a 1.4 megabyte floppy. A couple of minutes of music? Two high-resolution photographs? Maybe.

I've been carrying a couple of these gizmos around for a month now, and I'm hooked. They're a bit on the pricey side, but the cost drops with every new entry to the market. You should be able to pick up one that can store 32 megabytes for around $50. That's enough for several PowerPoint files, a CD's worth of MP3 tunes, or the equivalent of a roll of high-quality snapshots. Need more? A 128 meg model costs $100 to $130, depending on the brand, 1 gigabyte will set you back a cool $700.

Although they all work pretty much the same way, my favorite is the DiskOnKey from M-Systems, the market leader. M-Systems also makes similar products for Dell (DELL ), Hewlett-Packard (HPQ ), IBM (IBM ), and Sony (SNE ). This one, which looks like a stubby highlighter pen, probably because of the translucent color band around its middle, comes with the key ring that gave the category its name as well as a clip so that you can carry it in your, um, pocket protector.

To use it, pop off the top, exposing the USB connector. Plug that into the now-ubiquitous USB port on a PC or Mac and the computer will recognize it automatically. (You'll need to install a USB driver on Windows 98 machines.) A tiny light on the device comes on to show that it's connected and flashes when you're transferring data. Other makes, such as USBDrive from JMTek and ThumbDrive from Trek 2000 International, work similarly.

I've also been playing with the newest one on the market, SanDisk's Cruzer. Here's a twist: You can upgrade it. The housing, about the size and shape of a Zippo lighter, holds a conventional postage-stamp-size SD memory card, so you can move up in capacity as the price of flash memory comes down. One problem is that it's slightly bigger than the others, and its squarish shape can get in the way if you try to connect it to a crowded USB hub. It comes with a short cable to solve that problem.

If you're a real memory hog, you can try Toshiba's 5 gigabyte hard drive for about $350. The credit-card-size drive is designed to slip into a PC Card slot. While those are common on portable computers, you'll need a PC Card reader should you want to swap material with a desktop computer. However, just like the USB devices, Toshiba's PC Card drive is self-installing so that you can use it on anyone's machine.

There are cheaper ways to keep your must-have data handy without lugging a laptop. You can write it on a Zip disk and hope to find a matching drive at the other end of your trip. You can burn it on a CD, but try fitting that in your pocket. For my money, I'm sold on the keychain gadgets. If only they were a little bigger so they wouldn't get lost in my bag.


    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.