Mega Storage, Micro Gadgets

These tiny drives make moving gigabytes of data easier than ever

Seven years ago, when I was struggling with my first job out of grad school, I asked my mother to buy me a Zip drive for Hanukkah. The publisher of the Web site I was editing decided to shut it down. If I wanted to show my work to future employers, it all had to get transferred from my office computer to my PC, fast. The Zip drive did the job, but I never had much use for it after that. Without a drive on every computer, Zip disks were kind of like electric cars: useful only when you can find a place to plug them in.

Now, I've discovered a better way: little memory gizmos that plug into computers via the now-ubiquitous USB port or the becoming-ubiquitous FireWire jack. A slew of these portable and pocket devices have emerged over the past year, ranging from solid-state gadgets that hang off your key chain and store up to 512 megabytes to palm-size disk drives that hold 60 gigabytes or more. They all offer an easy way to back up, shuttle, or archive files--just like floppy disks, but with much more space.

Portable drives have their share of glitches and other issues. On two models I tested, the software for connecting the drive to the computer was faulty. The SimpleTech SimpleDrive, for example, was anything but simple, crashing my computer twice. Also, many drives lack security features to protect your files from prying eyes. And the price ranges can be bewildering. Pocket gadgets run from $15 for 8 MB to $149 for 128 MB. Or you can get a 20-GB portable hard drive for $200--or a 60-GB model for $500.

The need to transport data is so great that people are even hijacking other types of hardware for the job. Jim Murphy, a schoolteacher from Chicopee, Mass., first thought of his Apple iPod as a music player (AAPL ). Now he thinks of it differently, using it mainly to transfer files between classroom and home.

Less creative souls can simply buy one of those lipstick-size doodads designed to carry files in a pocket. Michael Horowitz, a computer consultant in Manhattan, uses a key-fob-size JMTek USBDrive that holds 64 MB--equal to about 44 floppies. When traveling on business, he leaves his laptop at home and throws the drive into his pocket. Ralph Flick, an attorney in Long Beach, Calif., is a more serious data hog, carrying his 20-GB STORIX Compact Drive back and forth to work every day. The one drawback: The wallet-size tool has no security. As a result, he says: "It's like the nuclear codes. It never leaves my side."

Some products lick this problem. M-Systems' DiskOnKey, for example, lets you create password-protected private zones. And the $149 Trek Thumbdrive TOUCH key chain device I tested effectively uses fingerprints in lieu of passwords.

My bottom-line advice: Key fobs are fine for music and some simple applications. But for serious work or play, spend the extra dough on a bigger drive. You hear that, Ma?

By Spencer E. Ante

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