Last months editorial on using a USB flash drive as an alternative to a laptop created a flood of user queries. This month I’ll try to answer your three most common questions:
What kind of USB flash drive do I need?
Fast drives can cost a few dollars extra than slow drives but it’s money well spent as a fast drive can load programs more than ten times more quickly than a slow drive. As a rule of thumb a fast drive is one with a read rate of more than 15 Mbs. Here are the manufacturer’s stated read rates for some of the faster drives around:
Only buy a genuine USB 2.0 drive. Don’t buy a drive that is the older USB 1.1 standard or one marked as "USB 2.0 Compatible." These drives drive are simply not zippy enough for running applications.Drive capacity is less important than speed. In fact to run a full suite of applications you really don’t need much bigger than 512MB. But large flash drives are now so cheap it would seem a folly to buy anything less than 2 GB.
Should I buy a U3 drive?
It’s not that important. You can setup a great portable system using either a U3 drive or a standard drive. In fact many portable apps are available in both U3 and non-U3 versions.
U3 smart drives are those that comply with the U3 mobile computing standard set down by U3 LLC (www.u3.com), a consortium of vendors lead by Sandisk. The main idea behind U3 was to develop a platform where programs could run independently on USB drives without leaving any trace on the host PC. The U3 standard also provides for a user menu (the Launchpad) that pops up when the USB drive is inserted into a host and it also mandates password protection.
The Launchpad is no big deal; you can do that from non U3 drives using different techniques. And even the password protection is not foolproof; it simply stops the Launchpad being run and doesn’t adequately prevent access to the unencrypted data partition.
Remember too that U3 drives will only work with Win2K SP4, XP and Vista. Older Windows operating systems Mac OS, Linux, and Unix are not supported. That’s quite a limitation, particularly when using public terminals.
Don’t get me wrong; U3 applications on U3 drives can work wonderfully well. It’s just that you don’t really need U3. It’s just an option. Me, I bought a non-U3 drive as it was cheaper and promised fewer complications.
If you can get a good deal on a U3 smart drive then take it. Besides if you strike problems it’s easy to convert it to a standard drive. Just uninstall U3 from the Settings option within the Launchpad. You can also re-install U3 later if needed, by following the instructions on the U3 website.
It’s easy to lose a USB drive. What then?
You need to be prepared for the fact that one day you are going to forget to unplug your flash drive from a public PC, leave it on a table, lose it from your pocket or whatever. Losing your drive may mean you no longer can access your email, favorite websites, passwords etc. This may mean zip to some folks but for many others including me, it could be a disaster.
I handle it by having a separate backup flash drive that I carry around in a different location to the first. I keep the two drives synchronized using a free portable syncing program called Allway Sync ‘n’ Go Given the low cost of flash drives a spare drive is the best solution. If you can’t afford a second drive you can use Sync ‘n’ Go to backup your flash drive to your PC.
Replacing your USB drive is one problem but what happens to your confidential data on the drive that has been lost is another.
If you are really worried about the implications of someone else getting access to your files then buy a flash drive that controls access with an inbuilt fingerprint scanner. Furthermore, test that it works.
Note that many standard encryption programs including the popular open source TrueCrypt, require administrative rights on the host PC. That’s probably not an issue with your own computers but could be an insurmountable problem if you are using a public terminal almost all of which run limited user accounts that don’t have admin privileges.
If your USB drive didn’t come with an encryption utility I suggest you adopt a simple but usable solution rather than complicate life with fancy encryption utilities. Personally I use IZArc2Go. It’s not an encryption program but an archiver similar to WinZip. However like the more recent versions of WinZip, it allows you to password protect archives using 256 bit AES encryption that is virtually unbreakable. IZArc2Go is also totally portable, doesn’t require admin privileges to run and is free. Besides it’s always handy to have an archiving program on your USB stick just in case someone sends you a RAR file or other archive format not supported by Windows.
For complete security you need to use a secure file eraser along with IZArc2Go to erase the originals of your private files once they have been encrypted. If you don’t use a secure erase utility it’s quite possible for someone to un-delete your deleted files. I recommend UltraShredder for secure erasing; it’s free, portable and easy to use.
Here’s how you can encrypt your flash drive files:
First run IZArc2Go from your flash drive then drop and drag all your sensitive data files into the IZArc2Go window. Accept the default ZIP archive type and under "encryption" select AES – 256 bit from the drop-down list. You will then be asked to enter and re-enter your password. Then press "Add" to start the archiving. Once all your files have been archived, securely delete the originals. You can do this by starting up UltraShredder from your USB drive then dragging and dropping the original files into UltraShredder’s window.
Once you have created an encrypted archive, IZArc2Go allows you access and manage your data from within the archive so mostly you won’t need to unpack the archive to get to your data. However if do need to access the data from another program then just enter your password and unpack the files you need by dropping and dragging them from the archive to a convenient folder on your USB drive. Remember though to securely delete the unpacked files using UltraShredder when you have completed your session.
OK that’s it for now. If you want to learn more about portable applications check out Briard’s article in item 2.4 below.
See you next month
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