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USB sticks

USB sticks are the de facto replacement for floppies, now that "legacy" components, including floppy drives and ports, are fast disappearing. Despite their greater size, ZIP disks have not proved a solution, being, like floppy disks themselves, large, clunky and easily damaged. USB sticks are not immune to damage either, but they are small, insensitive to dust, and without moving parts. They won't last forever, in fact, they may last a lot shorter than a quality hard disk since they use flash memory which, like rewritable CDs, can only be changed a number of times before it deteriorates beyond usefulness. The USB memory's controller reallocates sectors as individual cells go bad, and the USB's total size gradually shrinks. Still, the same applies to any floppies used as intensively.

Early USB sticks were wat is deceptively called Hi-Speed (USB 1.1, the slower version) and came in sizes of 32Kb, 64Kb and 128Kb. Modern USB sticks are USB 2.0, range between 256Kb and 2Gb, and have tricks like retractable plugs, password programs and portable OS's. Although the general format for USB memory and flashcard memory in general is FAT or FAT32, the format can be of various types: superfloppy, hot-swappable hard-drive and even "USB CD-ROM". These types only matter when plugging in on a non-Windows OS; USB drivers were included from Windows 98 onwards, although USB wasn't properly supported until Windows Millennium. (I've tried to build USB support into Windows 95 with various updates, and failed miserably. But apparently it can be done.) The current pattern is that every USB drive on the market is supported under WME, and can work under W98SE with separately downloadable drivers. Of course Windows XP and upwards have even more USB-related stuff built in, and the day will come when new USB drives will need separate drivers for all DOS-based Windows versions, even though, technically, a USB drive can be addressed under simple MS-DOS as long as the BIOS recognizes it. MacOSX and modern Linux distributions can recognize all USB sticks I've ever used, although MP3 players in USB-stick format (which have been moved to the next page) can be a different matter.

W@LK KEY Canyon PEAK Sony Microvault Sandisk Cruzer Micro USB People
Kingston DataTraveler PEAK III PEAK IV EMTEC Peak Lite Card Reader

Comment: No problems with this one

My first ever "pendrive", so called because the cap has a clip like the cap of a pen, bought cheap (for that time) at 39 guilders at a computer exchange. Flat and fish-shaped, this model is locally called "duimpje" ("little thumb"). It's flimsy; the plastic is cheap, the cap feels as if one day it will be too worn to stay on properly, and I put sellotape around the stick itself when it started to split down the sides. It's small, 128Mb which was one of the larger sizes available when I bought it, which was okay by me because that's roughly equal to a 100Mb ZIPdisk, and while it's room enough for text files, it also means I won't have lost gigs of data if the disk corrupts. It has a teeny tiny LED and a tiny sticker with the size on it, that's almost worn off. I suspect its speed is USB 1.1. Being so old, this disk works without problems or special drivers under WME, MacOSX and Linux (Red Hat, SuSE, Mandrake when it was still called that) and I think W98SE would have no problems with it, although I haven't tried.

Comment: No problems with this one

The next USB stick, though the same size and speed (and bought at the same value, now in a different currency; 19 euro) is already plumper, sturdier and more angular, with a more snugly fitting cap. Both clip-top and thumb-shape were already out of fashion by then, and USB sticks were taking on their current shape of small, slick lighters. Like the stick before it, this one plugs in easily under any OS, but unlike the previous one, it can't be plugged into the Mac's USB keyboard because it draws more power than the keyboard can share. Interesting! This one too has a tiny LED; in addition it has a switch to "lock" the drive against write actions (to prevent accidental deletion of data) and a little sticker with a number (a serial number?) down the side.

Comment: All sticks should be like this

My first USB 2.0 stick, for which I had to update a laptop's USB drivers, it has what I consider the perfect USB-stick shape, narrow and rectangular. With this model it is possible to do what I've never been able to do with USB sticks: insert two sticks under each other or side by side. Its cap fits as snugly as the previous one's, and likewise shows no sign of wear. Its size is 256 Mb, its case is a kind of brushed aluminium with "" on it (this is where one is supposed to download additional drivers) and unlike the others the case is barely scratched, the lettering is still clearly visible. The LED is right on the bottom, so it can be seen no matter which way the stick is plugged in (on the Packard Bell laptop, the only way sticks plug in is upside-down), and right under the ridge where the clip snaps on if I want to carry it on a neckstrap. Best of all, it is just an empty stick, uncluttered with software. I've no idea what the price is, since it was a freebie that came with a magazine subscription. In my judgement, this is the ideal USB stick. (Later addition: it seems that the slim sticks, as opposed to the bulky ones, are slower because the electronics for high-speed transfer won't fit inside. Only using the stick for archiving, I have no complaints about the transfer speed.)

Sony Microvault
Comment: Annoying design, useless software

This stick was bought as part of a laptop deal: I was going to buy a laptop at a discount, the seller accidentally charged the whole price, and asked me what I wanted to buy for what would have been the amount discounted. I asked for a USB stick, the biggest one available please, which was this sleek, pencil-slim 512Mb stick with retractable plug and USB2.0, of course, like all USB sticks these days. It cost around 30 euro, probably because of its "designer" look and the retractable plug trick - no more snapped-off plugs or lost caps - but as far as I'm concerned, it was too expensive. I much prefer caps, which offer better protection when one drops one's stick in, for example, a sink filled with water - strange accidents can happen. And this plug is drawn in and slides out using a toothed wheel on one side which also serves as LED; well, it's certainly visible, but it slides inward as easily as outward, which means one has to hold it firmly and jam a nail in the wheel when inserting the stick, and it is here that its slender shape - as thin as the Peak stick, but with rounded edges - becomes a liability. If even I can't handle this stick comfortably, I hate to think how anyone with bigger hands would cope. Other than that it works fine, but given the way in which USB sticks are used, being difficult to plug in is a serious fault. Lastly, as its name suggests, it comes with software to compress and possibly password-protect the stick's content - software that I scrubbed off the stick instantly, as it simply increases the risk of losing data (oops, forgot password, corrupted byte makes whole archive useless) and my data are rarely top-secret. (Later addition: the plug will "lock" like the Sandisk Cruzer Micro if I push the toothed-wheel button while sliding it out, but the mechanism is weak and won't hold up to something like being plugged in a laptop. This stick was part of what I now call the Triple Lemon Deal.)

Sandisk Cruzer Micro
Comment: Windows XP software, grr...

Like most hardware that's sold by the USA, this stick was made in China, and bought around the time that that empire is toppling, so maybe the next stick I buy will also be marked "sold by China"? As a further sign of the times, this stick has some WinXP crap on it that takes up about 100 Mb. But let's start at the beginning.

Sized 1 Gb with USB 2.0, with a retractable plug (do any sticks have caps any more?) and its own neckstrap included, this stick was still cheaper than the Sony Microvault. This plug doesn't have a wheel, it has a slide with a kind of "zipper brake" - it slides out but not back in, making the stick easy to insert. To draw the plug back in, push gently on the slide with a thumbnail. Perfect. Unfortunately the slide is, again, also the LED. The stick is said to work under Windows 2000/XP, MacOSX 10.2, and Linux (kernel version not specified) but no mention of Windows ME, so I looked up the model at and saw that it needs "high-power USB", whatever that means. To power up this enormous glowing can't-miss-it LED, maybe? That might be useful for the nearly blind or for stupid consumers who need an urgent reminder not to pull out the stick during data transfer, but to me it's like looking into the mouth of an oven. Incidentally, at that same site, I found a W98SE driver which was "not needed for Windows ME", and the stick worked perfectly under WME. Is Windows XP already so aggressively marketed that hardware manufacturers no longer dare to name its predecessor?

Next, this in itself quite satisfactory stick is marred by "U3 tech" software which works only under Windows NT/XP and pretends to be a portable OS but in reality only saves user-specific data. Under XP, an unwanted Cruzer Launchpad appeared in the system tray (fortunately autostart was off, and the Launchpad can be shut down) and I got a U3 update reminder screen. Under WME the drive annoyingly reserves two drive letters, one calling itself "USB CD-ROM", and has to be doubly dismounted.

So I surfed to, to find out if this "USB CD-ROM" is connected with the firmware or something (it is not) and found the following advice:

How do I uninstall U3 from my flash drive
Most U3 smart drives come with an uninstall utility that converts the U3 smart drive into a regular USB flash drive. This utility can be accessed from the U3 Launchpad. Open the U3 Launchpad and click on Settings, then select U3 Launchpad Settings and click on the Uninstall tab. Some devices have a link to the Uninstall utility under Help and Support.

I thought it would be enough to just scrub the U3 program files: Launchpad.exe, and the hidden directories System and Documents. On systems where Launchpad doesn't start, this "works". (Incidentally, the stick can always be used as a regular USB flash drive, by simply preventing Launchpad from starting.) But when I inserted the Launchpad-less stick in a Windows XP computer, it was suddenly "unformatted" and I'd lost all my data! OK, reality check: the data are still there, the FAT table is probably largely OK, the insertion just ruined the boot sector. Not the first time Micro$hit f*cks with the boot sector, the Windowses love to scent-mark it as their own territory. Examining the stick under Linux's cfdisk revealed its working, and why it always reserves a second drive letter under Windowses; it contains three partitions, two hidden, and the first hidden partition has some more Launchpad-related software that kicks into action on contact with Windows, especially XP. So to really get rid of the U3 software, these extra partitions must be erased. Meanwhile, my lack of expertise in the partition table reconstruction field means the data on that stick are still inaccessible. (I've bought an identical stick and copied the partition table and can now see the files again, but the vast majority are corrupt, especially zipfiles and images. That means the FAT table took a hammering too. Well, now at least I know which files need replacing.)

Here's an updated comment: WARNING, CONTAINS MICROSOFT-RELATED MALWARE. Next stick I buy, I'll disinfect of this kind of software straight away.

And another updated comment: this stick is not handled well by older (pre-Intel?) Macs and PCs running Windows ME. Ditto any Linux version capable of mounting USB media. Even after the stick is dismounted, the OS may still access it, shown by its flashing light. To repeat, even when the stick has been dismounted, it may be accessed. Pulling it out at such moments results in a corrupted file or two. It's safest to completely shut down the computer before removing the stick. Also, on Windows ME, the MP3 player Zinf keeps trying to access the CD-ROM and producing lots of error messages as WME's KERNEL32.DLL can't handle Cruzer's Launchpad.

USB People
Comment: Novelty stick

Ever the skinflint due to permanent cashflow problems, I was rummaging through a "sales" box at a computer shop called Norrods and hit on two 1-Gig USB sticks in the form of little Lego men with orange socks and T-shirts and a head-shaped cap. Cheap external storage space is always welcome, and it was only after noticing the football field layout on their green cardboard container that I realized these were part of the orange rash that spreads over the Netherlands everytime it seems their football team might win something. Bleah. Well, at least the sticks went cheap as part of the slump after our football heroes' glorious defeat, and before inserting the stick one has to yank the head off. It's the little pleasures that make life worth it.

That said, I have no idea as to the quality or make of these mass-produced novelties from, probably, China. I don't even know whether they're USB 2.0. It says "USB people" on the cardboard box (which I always transport them in for fear of arms/legs breaking off) and Windows ME identifies them as "CMBR". Their USB plug is made of white plastic rather than metal, so I suspect they were not built to last. With their protruding limbs, they're not easy to carry around or plug in side by side with another stick and so I think they wouldn't get used for anything besides archival anyway. For which purpose they are more suited than flat sticks that just lie around, because I can bend the legs and make them sit.

Kingston DataTraveler
Comment: No complaints yet

All USB sticks these days are USB 2.0, have much more capacity than the early pioneering USB sticks, might just about work under Windows ME although they might not have drivers for Windows 98, and seem to have some sort of "design". For the Kingston Traveler series, which seems solid yet well-priced (probably through absence of annoying superfluous extra software) this means the mostly white plastic sticks are colour-coded for size: grass-green for 2GB, black for 8GB and aubergine for (biggest stick I've bought to date) 16 GB. Unlike most modern and therefore retractable sticks, they have caps, plastic ones, which seem to be sturdy and well-fitting, but time will tell. It is possible to string these sticks around one's neck. They are wide, but flat, and sit comfortably in slots above each other, though not side by side. The coloured plastic centres have "Kingston" embossed in them, and a barely noticeable graphic of a flat head (the same as the one printed more visibly on the other side with the model name) which lights up dramatically by way of LED.

Since these sticks are so new, I haven't had data loss or other problems yet. The wrapping tells me the stick has a 5-year warranty, and also that it is "Vista Ready", though it doesn't work with "Windows ReadyBoost" (whatever that is). Other than that, it's said to work with Windows XP (SP1, SP2), Windows 2000 (SP4), MacOS X 10.3 and Linux kernel 2.6. Tellingly, Windows ME is absent. They do work under Windows ME.

The latest, aubergine-edged stick of 16GB has a slightly different model with no visible cap: that's right, it has a slider. This slider is far more robust than Sony's or PEAK's: slide it out, it stays out. Well done, Kingston!

Comment: Looks spiffy

Well, well! I'm always looking for cheap USB sticks by way of cheap, safe, barely corruptible backup space, and here were three USB sticks sitting forgotten in a bag of stuff bought a long time ago together with a dock for the Junkario. It seems that the PEAK at the top of the page, the comment of which reads "all sticks should be like this", was PEAK II, and this is the next step. It's not quite as slim, having a slightly bulging black plastic case with little "corners" cut into it. The cap has these same two corners sticking out, and slips onto the back of the stick as easily as the front, so it can be attached to the plugged-in stick and runs less risk of getting lost. (I found that the Kingston Data Traveller caps also fit on the backs of their sticks, though less securely.) And it has a cutout in the case to pass a cord through, and a triangular LED to show activity on the stick (and warn the user not to pull it out just yet). Much more capacious than its predecessor, it offers 4GB, which is great for backups, and has no unwanted software, although the instruction leaflet that the manufacturer always helpfully includes with the product "offers" a number of free programs (ie. names them and says where to get them) that run off USB. This leaflet also tells me the sticks will work under MacOS 8.6 and higher, Windows 98 and upwards (including ME, driver only needed for W98) and Linux as of kernel 2.4.

Comment: Not that horrible slider again

The bag of forgotten USB sticks contained two PEAK IV sticks: 2GB and 8GB. They look exactly the same: broad white slabs with rounded edges and the name of the shop ("NoRRoD Computers") printed on top. Underneath, they are black and have a slider. This slider is exactly as flimsy as the slider of the Sony Microvault, and inserting sticks is as much of a pain, so these sticks are for long-term file storage so I won't have to use them too often. The black underside is in fact the top, and when plugged in seemingly on its back, the slider uncovers a modest blue LED. Apart from this annoying design, they are the same as the previous PEAKs: no unwanted hardware, informative leaflet (even the packaging tells of the many potential uses) and works with W98 and upwards, MacOS 8.6 and higher, and Linux from kernel 2.4.

Oops, found out how to make the plug stay out: push the slider until a click is heard. This works for the 8GB stick, but not for the flimsier 2GB stick. At least I found out sooner for this stick than for the Sony MicroVault.

Comment: Nice cheap see-through archive space

This fat (meaning it may have the necessary electronics for faster transfer) red stick with its see-through case was found in a supermarket. Never one to say no to a cheap 2gigs of storage, I bought it and now use it to archive Oberon Media downloads. Which means it's already filled, as 2gigs really isn't much these days. It looks sturdy. It's see-through, so if it does stop working one day, I hope to be able to see why. It has a cap - no annoying sliders. Obviously a supermarket bargain doesn't come with sheets of specs, but it works nicely, and agreeably quickly, under Windows ME, Windows 7 and Linux with kernel 2.6. The latter doesn't mount it under its own brand name, the way it does with the Kingston sticks, but simply calls it "USB DISK 2.0".

I found two of the green model later. They were going cheap, probably because they were small by modern standards and USB 2.0 is fast going out of style. Advantages over the red stick are the size - they fit both above each other and side by side - and the bigger opening to thread a chain through. Linux also simply mounts them as "USB DISK". For the rest, they work the same.

Peak Lite Card Reader
Comment: Saves wear on the card slot

None of the sticks listed so far are faster than USB2, and this handy gadget that was deemed lost until it popped out of a box again, is no exception. Comparable to the PEAK sticks above, its package tells me it will work under Windows from 98SE (driver available from the site, although I'm not sure that site lists those drivers any more) to Vista, and Mac OS9 or higher. It also supports Windows Vista ReadyBoost, whatever that is, and can be used 10,000 times, which I assume refers to how often I can push in and pull out SD cards before the plating on the contacts wears down too far. The only card I intend to use this for is the 4gig SDHC card in the Canon PowerShot A495. This camera connects to a PC with a microUSB-to-USB cable which I've left, erm, somewhere, but plugging it into the camera requires opening a flimsy plastic cover and installing unnecessary only-works-under-Windows download software, so I just pop out the memory card. Now the Acer laptop has a card slot, but inserting the card is fiddly and will wear down the slot, which would cost much to replace. Whereas with this solution, I'd only have to buy a new card reader.

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