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Last Updated: Friday, 21 July 2006, 15:14 GMT 16:14 UK
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Rob Freeman
By Rob Freeman
Click tip-ster

Rob Freeman, Click's very own Mr Fixit, troubleshoots your PC problems and helps you get the most out of your computer.

For me, one of the most revolutionary changes to computers in the last few years has been the USB flash drive.

Until fairly recently the most portable way of moving data was the trusty floppy disc. Obviously mobile, but at 1.4 meg it provides, by today's standards, hardly any space.

Even the simplest USB drive has many 10 times as much space, and having no moving parts means the risk of failure is greatly reduced.

Click viewer Rachel Buckley, in Moose Jaw, Canada, reports that:

My USB drive is far more rugged than I'd expected. I'd left it in my jeans when they went through the washing machine. Amazingly, all the data is still there, and I'm still using the drive today.

Every year classic computer hard drives have shrunk in size, grown in capacity and become ever more reliable. And they have certainly got cheaper.

However, says John Roughton, in Nagaland, India, it has been basically the same component for years:

The hard drive seems to be the weakest link in a PC. Yes, it now contains huge quantities of data, but it's slow! When I boot up it seems like I'm usually waiting for the hard drive. Can a more reliable component be developed to replace it? I've never had a processor break down, but I've had several hard drives crash. Are there any plans afoot in the world of computing to replace the hard drive?

You are absolutely right; it is a mechanical device, and it has a 100% chance of failure.

Sooner or later, it is going to die, but considering that this unit is spinning at over 7,000 revolutions per minute and that it lasts an average of six years, this is very good going.

If you think they are slow now, try using a drive from 20 odd years ago - they were positively stationary.

Personally, I think it is only a matter of time before this piece of mechanical engineering is replaced by something of solid state.

USB drives do have their limitations though; Peder Christensen in Sweden has found out the main one:

On a recent programme you exploded the myth that repeatedly formatting a hard disk weakens the drive. It appears to be true for those flash disks, though. I have one such USB unit, where the manual expressly warns against repeatedly formatting the drive or accessing it with diagnostic software.

I am afraid you are right - the number of times you can store a file, and read it back on a flash disk is limited.

Drive diagnostic software repeatedly writes and erases files on a drive in order to check its performance, so this would shorten the life of a flash drive.

Luckily however, the limit is measured in hundreds of thousands of cycles. These should last years.

And some are multi-functional too. There are secure ones that ask for passwords, biometric ones that scan your fingerprints, MP3 players and watches, not to mention ones made out of sushi!

Definitely the weirdest one comes in the shape of a doll; to get to the USB plug, you have to pull her head off!

And finally, very practical for the folks in Moose Jaw, or Sweden for that matter - USB handwarmers.

There are many more examples of strange USB gadgets out there.

Flash discs are so much more useful than the old floppies, that they have quickly become indispensable to many.

And what has been amazing is the speed at which floppies have begun to vanish - just eight years and nowadays you would be hard pressed to find a new computer that can read floppy discs.

The ubiquity of USB devices has worried the corporate sector with suggestions that they should be banned in many workplaces, as gigabytes of valuable data can be walking out the door in the palm of somebody's hand.

One thing is for certain - solid state storage like this, is the future, but remember that your data only has a future if you back it up.

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