Even though there have been many ways to store and transfer data over the years, from paper tape to rewriteable DVDs, two common problems have long plagued us.
First was the need for specialized hardware or software (not everyone has a Zip drive
or DirectCD) and two-way compatibility (while a PC-formatted floppy disk can be read on a Mac, the same can't be said of Mac-formatted disks on PCs).
This is why I like USB keychain drives—people keep calling them drives even though they use flash memory—that store anywhere from 16 MB to 1 GB, are small enough that you can hold several in your hand, and are incredibly easy to use: Pop one onto the USB port of a Windows machine (98, Me, 2000, or XP), Mac (OS 8.6 or higher), or a Linux machine (kernel 2.4 or higher) and it's automatically recognized as an external drive. It's completely driver-free (unless you're running Windows 98), and files can be moved back and forth between operating systems transparently.
Several manufacturers have come up with their own spin on keychain drives. Here are a few worth looking at.
Cruzer (available in 16 to 256 MB capacities) is the only one of these that can't actually be used as a keychain, which kind of makes sense. At twice the volume of most other such drives, it's just a little too clunky to carry in your pocket. The extra size is because it's the only one that's expandable: It actually stores its information on removable SD or MultiMediaCard (MMC) flash memory cards, which makes it one of the few upgradeable keychain drives out there. A three-position switch pops out the USB connection, ejects the flash memory card, or keeps them both recessed in the drive body. Windows users can take advantage of the CruzerLock security software, which encrypts selected files. They can only be decrypted by entering your password in the software, so you'll want to leave a little space on the Cruzer for the 497K executable.
's USBDrive Professional
(64 MB to 1 GB, with a 2 GB model promised for next year) is a souped-up (and consequently more expensive) version of its USBDrive; or, rather, its software (included on the drive itself, taking up a little over 3 MB) is souped-up. USB-Lock turns the USBDrive Professional into a key; once you run it, your computer can only be used so long as the drive is plugged into a USB port. USB-SecureZip automatically compresses and encrypts files dropped into the Secret and Zip folders, respectively. (One flaw: the suggested password reminders are all things careful users know not to use as passwords: birthdays, parents' names, etc.) USB-Backup provides a simple, one-button backup to or from the USBDrive. USB-Mail is a bare-bones POP/SMTP e-mail client that stores your mail on the drive itself. Despite the "professional" moniker, none of the included software is particularly polished—but they all work as advertised. To be fair, this seems to be the rule for all of these drives.
's ThumbDrive Touch uses biometrics for security: You have to use a fingerprint to access protected files. Setup takes just a few minutes. The master user uses the included program to partition the ThumbDrive into protected and unprotected areas; thereafter, only the master user and three other registered users can access the protected partition. (The ThumbDrive only uses one drive letter. If you're logged in, the protected partition is active; otherwise, the unprotected partition is active.)
If you're nervous about the sensor misreading your fingerprint 10 minutes before a deadline, you can use a password as your failsafe. However, you can only restructure the partition, change the master user, or change the master user's password if you have that all-important fingerprint.
The ThumbDrive Touch is also the only one of the drives here that has a write-protect switch. Capacities range from 16 MB to 128 MB.
Be warned that there is one downside to USB keychain drives: in all the models listed here, the included software only works on Windows machines—a glaring omission since security is essential on anything that can be misplaced as easily as, well, car keys.