Thumbing around: U3 flash drive

Use a U3 flash drive to make any computer feel just like home.

All it takes is one terrorist incident involving a laptop on a plane and we'll all be consigning our precious computers to the tender mercies of airport baggage handlers. It makes you shudder. There is an alternative, however. Leave your notebook at home and take a U3 flash drive instead. In fact, a U3 drive is a great alternative to lugging your laptop, anytime.

A flash drive, or thumb drive, is a solid-state (no moving parts) memory module that plugs into a USB port on any computer and behaves like another hard drive. Capacities range from less than 100 megabytes to four gigabytes.

U3 is a software platform that lets you carry your essential data on a flash drive ? stored in compressed format so it takes less space ? and makes any computer you put the drive in work like your own. The U3 software presents a launch pad, similar to the Start panel in Windows, on the host computer's screen. The launch pad gives access to U3 programs and data. You can open your files, edit and save them back to the flash drive, send and receive mail, and view your Microsoft Outlook items. You can even change the host computer's Windows desktop to look like your own.

When you take the flash drive out of the host, it leaves nothing behind, even if you used local applications such as the PC's browser. Most U3 drives come with security software that protects data from viruses and other malware on the host computer. So you can safely use all PCs, including ones at hotels, business centres and Internet cafés. And when you get back to your office or home computer, you can plug in the U3 drive and synchronization software will automatically copy over all the changes you made while you were away.

Several manufacturers sell U3 drives. Prices range from under $50 to over $200. We reviewed two. The Cruzer Titanium 2 GB from SanDisk Corp. (above) sells for about $100. The 2 GB Store 'n' Go U3 Smart Drive from Verbatim Corp., Inc. is also about $100. Both hold two gigabytes of data, which is plenty for most purposes. The U3 compression squeezed all the essential data from my one-gigabyte Outlook file, plus another 142 megabytes of documents into less than 500 megabytes on the SanDisk Cruzer.

The SanDisk product is slightly smaller ? 7 by 19 by 58 mm versus about 8 by 21 by 79 mm ? though that's hardly significant, since both are tiny enough to use as key chain fobs. The Cruzer has a retractable USB plug, which could conceivably jam. The Verbatim unit comes with a cap to cover the USB plug, which could easily be lost. The Cruzer is made of titanium, and the company claims it's crush-resistant to over 2,000 pounds. The Verbatim Store 'n' Go is made of high-impact plastic.

The Cruzer uses SanDisk's CruzerSync synchronization tool. Verbatim bundles a 45-day trial version of synchronization software from Migo Software Inc. The Migo software has one advantage: it lets you synchronize files and Outlook data only from a certain number of days previous, so you don't have to carry old data you'll never need. But the CruzerSync software is faster and slicker. And a permanent licence to the Migo software costs about $25. Both products include virus protection and secure log-on software. SanDisk throws in Skype (PC-to-PC voice-over-Internet) software, and Verbatim includes a nifty photo organizer.

Which one? If money is no object, go for the SanDisk Cruzer. It was faster and worked problem-free. The Verbatim Store 'n' Go was sluggish and caused a few little problems on my test system, though it might work fine on other computers. And with the SanDisk product, you don't have to pay extra for synchronization software.