Using a U3 flash drive

I’ve had a U3 flash drive for a while now, and overall it seems pretty slick. You can read about what U3 is here.

While it is slick, I’m still not using it exclusively for applications yet, mostly because there isn’t much software available for it. I’m talking freeware here, and John T. Haller’s Portable Application Suite is far more complete than what’s out there for U3, at least so far. On the upside, it’s very easy to install new applications to a U3 drive from the launcher program that starts (usually) automatically when you insert the drive in a computer.

The U3 software data, such as the settings for Firefox, are not easy to find. You’ll find a “system” folder on the data portion of the drive. Under that you’ll find a fold for each application with a very long name that seems randomly generated. Unfortunately, copying settings from another instance of Firefox didn’t work, and there’s no way to import settings, so it may be a manual process depending on the application.

In the Portable Apps Suite, I could just copy the relevant files over and save myself the hassle. I must state that I have tested this only with Firefox, not with anything else.

I downloaded RoboForm, which is a kind of password safe/auto-filler for web logins. It wants to work only with the browser loaded into the U3 portion of the drive, and I’m too lazy to manually re-enter my bookmarks, so I haven’t used it much.

The anti-virus is really quite nice. I’m talking here about the ability to contain it – most AV programs want to scan everything constantly, and as a result become so problematic they get turned off. This one can be run only when you want, which makes it much more manageable.

The system also has a security feature, which requires a password to access the files. The files are not encrypted, so it’s not the most secure thing in the world, but it is very fast and secure enough to thwart the casual person who finds a misplaced drive.

I found that on one of the computers I used the drive, Windows wanted to reboot after discovering the system portion of the U3. Sometimes Firefox just gives an error on startup. The system doesn’t always autorun, but the “launcher” can be started manually – required if you have security turned on.

So all is not perfect in U3-land, but it is a good idea and those who find installing the Portable Application Suite or similar software too intimidating, will like the ease of installation.

Portable Data – PAS, U3, etc.

I’ve written a bit in the past about the fundimental problems of data portability. We all have data, email, files, etc. that we want to have with us when we travel. However, how do you take them with and leave the computer at home?

There are online solutions, USB flash drive solutions and of course PDA solutions. It looks like the USB flash drive solutions have just gotten much more sophisticated.

First, John Haller has created PortableApps.com, which has full office suite of free software that runs nicely from a flash drive. I’ve been using this for a week, and it’s very nice to have all your settings and whatnot stay in the same place. However, it’s a strictly open-source affair, and if you don’t care for Firefox, Thunderbird, OpenOffice, etc. you’ll have to look elsewhere.

Second, the folks at Sandisk and M-Systems have invented U3, a trick where the U3-compatible flash drive tricks the host computer into thinking it’s a CD rom drive, thereby allowing applications to run completely off the flash drive. The advantage with U3 is that it’s likely to attract more software vendors.

Then there’s Migo, which puts your MS Explorer and Outlook setting on a drive, so that when you use someone else’s computer your settings are used.

Each offers potential advantages and disadvantages, but it’s clear that vendors are catching on to the data portability problem. How long will it be before computers are just appliances, and the data and software are the personal part, carried in portable memory?

The Single Storage Place Problem

All of us have data. We have contacts, email, various kinds of files we want instant and consistent access to. We want it to be current, and protected, and available pretty much no matter where we are. This pretty much means keeping everything in a single place. It’s either that, or very reliable synchronization between all storage places to ensure everything is up to date.

 

This sounds like something that should be easy to do, but it really isn’t.

 

Let’s assume we need to be able to access email, contacts, a calendar and files from pretty much anywhere we might go. This might be a case of simply having work and home computers that are both used regularly, or maybe a lot of travel is involved. Further, let’s assume that bringing a laptop isn’t what we’re after. Sure, it’s a great choice and that’s why so many people do it, but we’re looking to ditch the heavy bag.

Let’s look at the choices:

 

USB Flash Drives.

You simply keep your data on one of these babies, and carry it with you. Most computers have USB interfaces these days, so it’s not usually a problem to get access, and they are very small for the most part. They’re even pretty fast if you have a USB 2.0 port to plug it into.

The main problems are:

  • Size, currently limited to a few GB, and cost – those few GB are about $100 each. True you only have to buy them once, but still.
  • Security is also a concern, if you lose the drive and it’s not encrypted that can be a big problem. Reliable secure encryption is not very convenient.
  • Backups are not easily automated (to another drive) and are easy to forget.
  • It’s tricky to get email onto these things in a smooth way, especially with Outlook, and there’s no way I’m aware of to make it seamless. I’m still investigating, and if someone has a trick I’d love to hear about it.

 

A device like Palm’s new LifeDrive.

This is a pretty sweet alternative – it’s got built in syncing to all the apps we need, and it will not only carry our data but allow us to access it when no other computer is available. True, an Internet cafe isn’t likely to have the syncing software installed, but that could be carried separately. Alternatively, carrying a memory stick or SD based combination reader/flash drive would allow easy data transfer between the Palm and a computer, although we’re definitely entering kludge territory with that option.

The down-sides:

  • Price – $500. Yikes!
  • Battery – means cables and other accessories, which means more luggage.

 

Backpack

Backpack is a new service that allows you to store files & images on the web, as well as to-do lists, notes and reminders. You can also create web pages, and make them available to people. The real strength here is the collaborative possibilities that are opened with you make pages available to folks. That is pretty cool.

Down-sides:

  • Price. It’s a really neat service, but it will probably fail unless they revise their pricing – $20 a month for 250mb of storage when Flickr charges the same for a YEAR of service with unlimited storage is a bit of a joke. Google offers 2GB of email space for free, and others are jumping on the bandwagon. Why is Backpack so expensive? I suspect because they are looking at web-hosting as their competition. They’re wrong, their competition is a free Blogger account coupled with a free Flickr account and free icalx account. That combination provides 90% of the functionality of Backpack, for free, with fewer space constraints. True it’s not as smooth to use, but it’s free. 
  • Contacts clunky. I haven’t yet found out how to put contacts in Backpack in a “contacty” way. I mean, other than uploading a list.
  • You will need a separate email account. Not a big deal, and likely to be done anyway.
  • The calendar is pretty primitive – reminders only, basically.

Gmail

Google mail provides 2GB of storage, and it’s a simple matter to attach a file to an email you send to yourself. An added benefit none of the other provides is that there is built-in backup via retention of older versions with Gmail, as well as very nice labeling and searching functions. You can group files in a single email, which provides an interesting method of organization. It also handles contacts. Plus, it’s already in email so it’s easy to send to others. Last but not least, while you’re sending it to yourself why not add a line or two about what you’ve done to the file?

Down-sides:

  • Contacts can be uploaded, but not downloaded easily.
  • No calendar at all – not even delayed send on email. Could be gotten around with an account on icalx.com.
  • It’s invitation only. Not a real big deal, as you probably know someone who can send an invite. If anyone wants one of the 30 or so I have available, let me know.

 

Microsoft Exchange hosting.

If you don’t like Gmail, exchange hosting like these guys could be just the ticket. You get a calendar, contacts, tasks, and notes all in addition to email. There are lots of folks offering this, so prices and capacities vary a lot. You typically get web access as well as normal via Outlook access, so it’s really pretty darn portable. You can handle files by emailing them to yourself. Last but not least, you can make some things public.

Down-sides:

  • Price – it’s pretty much at least $7 a month.

I think I’ve covered the main alternatives, and none of them are perfect. I’m sure the next year or so will see more online services, and convergence between USB drives, services and other devices. If you have a an interesting solution I’ve not mentioned here, I’d really like to hear about it.

Protecting USB Flash Drives

While I was getting interested in Palm security, I started to think about other portable options. A USB Flash drive is a great way to keep data portable, but what if you lose the thing? A USB Flash drive would also need to be secured.

Flash drives are great. At the last trade show I worked at, my flash drive got used by others almost more than by me. We had a lot of people with laptops with varying degrees of access to the internet and their files back home. Naturally these files needed to be moved from this machine to that, along with digital photos, faxes, and other stuff. Fortunately my drive was really just a way for me to get files out of my camera into my computer and I didn’t have any really critical, sensitive, or personal stuff on it. But what if I had? What if I lost it? These things are incredibly handy, but they’re also very risky.

The ultimate solution is the BioStick – a biometric USB Flash Drive. It requires your thumprint to unlock and give you access. It can learn more than one print which is insurance against thumb loss, I guess. I want one. I have no real use for it, but I want it anyway. This thing is uber-cool and For $200 (for a reasonably sized one) it should be.

Assuming you already have a $30 drive that you aren’t going to replace, what are the options? Well some drives come with software already. My Cruzer drive from Sandisk came with CruzerLock, an encryption package, that seems like it would work fairly well. Except for two things: 1) The source is not open to peer review, which is heavily frowned upon by the serious-crypto crowd. With no chance to look at the source, how can you judge the quality of the system, and make sure there’s no back doors installed? What if it’s bad encryption?2) It doesn’t let you treat the thing like a drive. It opens a special window where you can open/access one file at a time. Not real flexible. In general I don’t trust what the drive companies are supplying for free. I know that in their shoes I would be far more worried about reliability (and a low return/problem rate) than quality of encryption. Besides, a separate solution helps provide more options if things go wrong.

The idea solution for this would have the following characteristics:

  • It would be platform independant – you can get to the data on a Mac, PC or Linux box.
  • It would not require special software or access on the host computer.
  • It allows the drive to be used as a drive, with drag and drop ease.
  • It doesn’t take a lot of space – no more than a megabyte.
  • It has strong encryption.

So, does a system meeting these criteria exist? I don’t know, but I have found a few that are close:

TrueCrypt is an open-source encryption system that can be installed on a flash drive. It can create a file that can be mounted to look like a disk drive. The cool part is that you can have both the unencrypted and encrypted drives open at the same time. The not so cool parts are that it requires admin access, a windows computer, and the encrypted drive file is fixed size – you decide how big it will be when you make it, and it can’t be changed. Still, the system is free.

CertainKey Ecto is a browser-based solution that uses Java to encrypt files. I had trouble getting it to work, and my XP SP2 system didn’t like some of the content on the main page. My laptop tels me that my login is invalid. I’ll have to contact the developer and see what they say. Still, it is platform independant, and if I can test it and determine that it will encrypt a whole directory at once it might be the bomb. For $20.

BestCrypt Looks very similar to TrueCrypt in features, as does DriveCrypt, but both cost in the neighborhood of $60. I think at this point I like free better, but it will depend on how reliable TrueCrypt turns out to be. I have downloaded both, but neither have a really obvious analogue to Traveller Disk Setup, althought I haven’t yet read the docs ;-)

So far TrueCrypt provides the best functionality for me – I don’t work on Macs or Linux systems, so interoperability isn’t that critical. The admin access requirement may become a problem when my company moves to XP, but that’s a ways off. I do plan to check out Ecto a bit more, but that I cannot get it to work on one of my machines is troubling. With any of these systems, it’s really critical that they work with computers you haven’t had access to before – that’s half the reason for carrying a flash drive.