Sun, Nov 30, 2003 - Page 18 News List

Tech Review

By David Momphard  /  STAFF REPORTER

USB memory sticks

Those pen cap-sized memory storage devices known as USB hard drives have become so prevalent many companies are giving them away. Months ago, this newspaper received a press kit in the mail for the Dakar Rally which contained the usual swag of materials; event info, t-shirt, etc. But instead of providing prints of photos for the event, the organizers got creative and put all their photos on a USB stick emblazoned with their logo and strung from a lanyard.

Here in Taiwan, there are so many manufacturers of these inexpensive gadgets it seems every other household has an assembly line in their living room -- which may not be far from the truth. Manufacturing costs are low. It often costs little more to make a USB stick than to assemble a ball-point and some pens actually include a USB storage device under a cap on the non-writing end. Other USB sticks double as digital voice recorders, FM radios, MP3 players, Web cams, Wi-Fi antennae, or any combination of the above. Rarely do their prices rise above US$100.

The ancestor of these devices is of course the floppy disk. I recall having to buy my first 3.5 disk for my high school computer class. Everything I did in that semester-long class fitted onto the 1.44MB disk. Not long after that, disks were sold in packs of 10 and 20 before eventually taking on a new role as drinks coasters.

Portable storage then took the form of Zip and Jazz drives, but these were primarily the property of geeks and designers with huge graphics files. The writable CD became, and remains, the preferred storage for anyone wanting to back up their data ahead of the blue screen of death, but the USB stick has rapidly become the favorite form of removable media.

And why not? The devices have increased in capacity almost as quickly as they've come down in price. Two years ago, a 32MB stick cost about NT$1,200. Now that same amount can buy you 256MB of memory. But why buy a simple, boring memory stick when, for not much more money, you can buy one that will, say, let you listen to the radio or play MP3 files during your workout, or allow you to record verbal reminders throughout the day while it hangs from your key ring? What about one that will record your favorite radio program for you to listen to later in the day?

There are three basic categories of USB stick; those that serve only as memory storage devices, three-in-one devices and, five-in-one devices. The first of these, being the simplest, is the least expensive and the least fun. However, as USB memory storage involves no moving parts, they're also the most solid-state of the devices. This means attaching it to your key chain and throwing it onto the table when you get home is not a problem.

The same cannot be said of USB sticks that double as MP3 players, radios of voice recorders. While there are still not many moving parts in these gadgets, the parts that do move are the buttons and switches that allow you to operate its various functions -- break them and you have a simple USB storage device.

Therefore, one of the most important things to look for in a device -- besides what functions you want it to include -- is how solidly constructed it is. Of the sticks tested for this review, Acer's model (NT$3,000) and the MSI Megastick (NT$2,950) seemed the least likely to shatter if dropped onto the pavement. Both are five-in-one models, meaning they store 128MB of data, play MP3s, have an FM radio receiver and can record radio or take dictation.

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