Do you need 2 gigabytes Get it in a flash

Updated: Mar 27 2006, 05:30am hrs
USB thumb drives a.k.a. flash drives, jump drives, pendrives aren't all that new, but some cool and compelling uses for them are.

If you're not packing a gigabyte or two in your pocket, you should be. With a thumb drive, you can always have your favorites songs, crucial documents or family photos on hand. You can keep personalised software programs with you. You can even boot an alternative operating system from them. And very soon, you'll be able to use a thumb drive to noticeably boost the performance of a Windows-based PC. Thumb drives have been around since the late 1990s, when IBM developed them initially as a ThinkPad accessory. But it's only in the past few years that they have become ubiquitous among the geekerati, as prices have dropped and their utility has soared.

For those who remain unfamiliar, a thumb drive is a memory chip linked to a USB connector. The memory is a type known as flash, which can retain data even when unplugged from a power source. Thumb drives are remarkably small, often as tiny as the average pinky finger, and relatively inexpensive.

How inexpensive sells a 128-megabyte model for under $9; a 512-MB version for under $22; 1 gigabyte for less than $34; and 2 GB for under $58. They're available in capacities up to 8 GB, but those aren't cheap Newegg's price on that one is almost $312.

They're so cheap they're being given away in some cases. I've received several press kits with photos, releases and even short video clips pre-loaded on small-capacity drives. But their uses and features have become increasingly sophisticated. For example, because losing a thumb drive loaded with personal information or business documents could be disastrous, Verbatim's Store 'n' Go Pro line comes with the ability to encrypt and hide data. Kingston's Data Traveler Elite Security Edition can even destroy its data when tampering is detected.

You can even run entire operating systems from a thumb drive, provided the host PC supports booting from a USB device. Several variations of Linux will run from a thumb drive, but installing them in most cases requires some knowledge of Linux. The friendliest may be Puppy Linux.

It's even possible to run Windows XP on a thumb drive, which can be handy for troubleshooting if your XP-based computer won't boot. And when Windows Vista is released later this year, you'll be able to use a thumb drive to speed up that operating system with a new feature called Superfetch.

When you plug a thumb drive into a PC running Vista, you'll be asked if you want to use it to increase performance. If you say yes, Vista will watch how you use the PC and start pre-loading parts of programs it thinks you may need. For example, if you use Internet Explorer frequently, it may load your Favorites into the thumb drive's memory. If you use Word, its spellchecker may be loaded. Because reading from memory is always faster than reading from a hard drive, programs that are preloaded in this way perform faster.