"U3" Offers Extra Value
Most of the drives are simple storage products that can be hooked into your Windows XP environment by plugging them into a USB port, and they always include primitive software interfaces. Better still, several devices come with above-average bundled software; a few impressed us with U3 software pre-installed. U3 allows users to load programs such as Skype and Firefox right onto their flash devices, so they can be used with any host computer into which you plug the U3 memory device. The obvious benefit is that you don't need to install the programs: they run right off the drive. Another benefit of U3 is that it allows Flash memory vendors to customize their particular products; for example, SanDisk pre-loads Skype and its own backup software solution onto some products in the Cruzer line.
Another common feature seen on almost every Flash drive is the ability to protect your data with a password. Transcend's JetFlash 2A will even lock your PC as the memory stick is removed from the USB connector. While most PC lock programs are quite easy to get around, this software held strong to a barrage of attempts to bypass it. This is the level of security that people in offices or in other public settings crave.
Flash Memory Stick Considerations
Vendors will usually advertise products based on capacity, only adding in the performance rating if it is outstanding. So if the sales guy at your local computer store offers you a high-capacity product at an apparently attractive price, make sure you ask how it actually performs. Speed ratings are provided as a multiple of single speed CD performance, which is 150 kB/s, so an 80X flash device will deliver up to 12 MB/s, while a 150X device will do 22.5 MB/s. Please note, however, that these are maximum data transfer rates - in real life, the numbers are a bit lower.
The USB 2.0 interface provides a maximum transfer speed of 480 Mbit/s, which equals 60 MB/s. However, real life performance only reaches about 30 MB/s. This is also very important to know for Flash memory cards: High-speed products such as SanDisk's Extreme IV series may deliver up to 40 MB/s, but they also require high-speed card readers to take advantage of it. Going for high speed is important if you know you might move a lot of data to and from your memory device. In this case, stick to SLC devices, which are the best performers.
In the roundup, we saw very few features that were really unique or amazing. While the SanDisk has a nice USB tip enclosing system, it was something all devices should have by now. PQI's card design is nice for some, but others may see it as down-right pointless, or even as a nuisance. Overall, there is little more that companies can do now to make Flash devices unique. We believe what will separate Flash devices in the future will be not the hardware, but the software included.