On our desk this week - 5

Written by Wil Harris

February 9, 2006 | 10:37

Tags: #dtv #dvb-t #freeview #mp3 #thumbdrive #usb #winfast

Companies: #leadtek #sapphire

SanDisk U3 drive

Thumbdrives have now become fairly ubiquitous in our lives. As high capacity, small form factor replacements for the ancient and crusty old floppy disk, they can't be beaten. Want your MP3s on a different machine? Stick 'em on a thumbdrive. Nicking the latest episode of 24 from a mate? Never mind Windows file sharing, this high-capacity Sneakernet is almost certainly more efficient.

The U3 standard was jointly created by SanDisk and M-systems, and is designed to take the thumbdrive the next level. Instead of just storing data, U3 allows you to bring data, full applications and personalised settings with you, turning any PC in the world into your daily machine at will.

Of course, you can always put executables on normal thumbdrives and run them on a host machine. But with U3, applications can be easily modified to run just on the drive, meaning that no data will ever touch the host computer. This makes for a secure portable computing platform.

What can you do, in practice? Well, U3 distributes a portable version of FireFox, meaning you can keep your bookmarks with you everywhere. More importantly, it means you don't have to endure the inevitable IE on public machines. Also on the SanDisk drive we have is a free version of Anonymizer, meaning completely anonymous web surfing on a public computer. There's also anti-virus software and a version of OpenOffice for U3, meaning consistent work tools wherever you go.

On our desk this week - 5 SanDisk U3 thumbdrive On our desk this week - 5 SanDisk U3 thumbdrive
The drive itself looks no different from any other thumbdrive, save for the big U3 logo on it.

On our desk this week - 5 SanDisk U3 thumbdrive On our desk this week - 5 SanDisk U3 thumbdrive On our desk this week - 5 SanDisk U3 thumbdrive On our desk this week - 5 SanDisk U3 thumbdrive
Sandisk U3 comes with loads of great programs, but free capacity suffers as a result
The U3 platform requires no software to be installed on the host machine - everything is handled on the drive via a dedicated OS partition. Upon installing in Windows, the U3 launchpad starts, allowing you tray-click access to the applications and the data on the drive. You can launch applications, head to the U3 download centre to get new ones, remove existing programmes or check on the space available. You can also get encryption software to keep your portable data safe.

There's also plenty of options for communication. There are U3 portable versions of Skype and Trillian available, meaning you can keep your contacts with you wherever you go. This goes a step further with CruzerSync, which keeps your Outlook email up to date between two machines.

U3 is not only great for using on public or mates' computers, it's also a handy workaround for those of you with severely locked down work or school machines. Does the man watch your installation and surfing habits? This could be a great non-invasive way to reclaim your system. Because there's no data being written to the host PC, there's no danger of bringing viruses onto the host machine - great for sysadmins too.

If you've got a laptop, this might be of limited use to you, since you are probably used to taking your data with you where you go anyways, but U3 is designed so you can leave your laptop behind but still have all your data. The one downside to all this is that total free space suffers substantially: our 512MB sample was 489MB formatted yet with all the bundled applications, there was just 363MB left for your own data.

With prices in freefall, pretty soon 1GB and 2GB thumbdrives will be cheap enough to be commonplace and so the penalty for U3 will be felt less. For now, if you don't mind feeling the squeeze, the functionality of U3 could really be beneficial to you.

Name: SanDisk U3 Thumbdrive
Buy it from: Directron in the US, UK availability TBC
Cost: US$55
Verdict: A great idea with great execution. Essential if you use shared machines and hate IE.
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