Carry a flash drive instead of a laptop

Scott dunn By Scott Dunn

You can avoid lugging a laptop everywhere by installing your favorite apps on a USB flash drive and running them on any computer you want.

I’ll guide you in selecting a flash drive that’s best suited for portable software and tell you which apps you should install.

First, get the right drive for your needs

You don’t need to put an entire operating system on a flash drive to make it a useful travel companion. Instead, just set up a flash drive with the applications and data files you need and plug it into any PC you’re able to use. (If you do want to run a reduced version of Windows XP on your flash drive, Windows Secrets editor-at-large Fred Langa explains how.)

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Today, I’ll describe the best flash drives for portable software. Next week, I’ll show you the best apps to install on your new toy. (Not all apps will run from a flash drive.)

When buying a new flash drive for portable computing, you’ll want to consider speed, capacity, and whether to buy a so-called U3 drive, as I explain below.

Faster read rates are better. If you plan to do serious computing with a USB flash drive, you’ll want the fastest drive possible. First, make sure it’s USB 2.0 or “high speed USB,” not USB 1.x. Second, remember that the higher the read rate in megabits per second (Mbps), the more responsive your apps will feel. Ian Richards, editor of the Support Alert Newsletter, recommends a read rate of 15 Mbps or higher and lists some of the fastest flash drives available.

4GB drives provide the best value. Given the small size of many portable apps, it may not be necessary for you to buy the largest drive you can find. I was able to fit the Open Office suite, the Firefox browser, the Thunderbird e-mail client, and ten other utilities in less than 400MB. If you carry around very little data, a 1GB drive might be adequate for your needs. However, if you plan to also store 1,000 songs or 5 hours of video on your flash drive, that number of files can consume 4GB by themselves. You may find the slightly higher cost of a 4GB or 8GB drive worthwhile.

The table below compares basic features of some of the fastest flash drives currently available. The read rates shown in the table are from tests conducted by X-bit Laboratories on 1GB and 4GB and larger flash drives. You probably wouldn’t notice performance differences of less than 3 or 4 megabits per second. The table is sorted by price.

Table 1. High-speed flash drives tested by X-bit Laboratories.


Product
Read rate
in Mbps

Capacity
in gigabytes

Est. street price
in U.S. dollars

Apacer Handy Steno HA202 200x
25
1GB
$26
Super Talent ALUMI-4GB-DH-S
31
4GB
$32
Corsair Flash Voyager CMFUSB2.0-4GB
33
4GB
$43
Buffalo RUF2-S4GW
33
4GB
$44
OCZ Rally2 OCZUSBR2DC-4GB
25
4GB
$59
Patriot Xporter XT PEF4G200USB
31
4GB
$64
A-DATA PD7
30
4GB
$68
ATP ToughDrive AF4GUFT1BK
31
4GB
$78
Corsair Flash Voyager CMFUSB2.0-8GB
30
8GB
$80


Although X-bit Labs didn’t test 2GB drives, you can find speed benchmarks of a few 2GB models at HardwareCanucks. In that site’s tests, the Corsair Flash Voyager GT was the only standout, with an average read rate of almost 33Mbps. It has a street price of $68 USD.

You may already own a flash drive with adequate storage capacity, but you don’t know whether its read rate is fast enough to run portable software. In that case, Windows 2000 and XP users can test a flash drive’s speed using a very simple utility, HD Tach, which is free for noncommercial use. For a free drive-testing utility that supports Vista, try CrystalDiskMark.

Don’t base your drive choice on U3

Some flash drives are labeled “U3″ or “U3 smart drive.” U3 is a technology promoted by U3 LLC, a joint venture between SanDisk (which makes many U3-compliant drives) and its subsidiary M-Systems, according to the U3-Info site. The idea is to let you store applications and data on a single flash drive and run them from any computer. U3 drives also provide an option for password protection.

To use U3 applications, you must buy a U3 flash drive (you can’t convert any old flash drive to U3) and install U3-compliant software. U3.com provides a list of both hardware and software that’s U3-compliant.

But U3 is hardly the only way to run software from a flash drive. Despite what SanDisk says, I successfully installed and ran ordinary software that’s not U3-compliant on a U3 flash drive. The main limitation is that non-U3 apps don’t automatically show up on U3’s pop-up LaunchPad menu.

For most people, the U3 option should be a much lower priority than getting a drive that is fast enough, big enough, and affordable. If two flash drives have the same features, however, buying a U3 drive does give you a bit more flexibility, since you can always remove the U3 software. SanDisk lets you download a U3-removal utility for its drives. U3.com provides a similar utility for non-SanDisk drives. SanDisk also provides a free tool for reinstalling the U3 LaunchPad, if you want it back later.

In part two of this series next week, I’ll describe free and easy ways to get software for your flash drive and use it securely.

Have a tip about Windows? Readers receive a gift certificate for a book, CD, or DVD of their choice for sending tips we print. Send us your tips via the Windows Secrets contact page.

Scott Dunn is associate editor of the Windows Secrets Newsletter. He is also a contributing editor of PC World Magazine, where he has written a monthly column since 1992, and co-author of 101 Windows Tips & Tricks (Peachpit) with Jesse Berst and Charles Bermant.
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