By Dominic Casciani
BBC News Online
The floppy disk is dead. Long live the pocket drive, a tiny piece of kit that is a revolution.
So small you forget it's there
There's a lot of guff about the unstoppable march of technology - not least from the people who want us to buy it.
But sometimes a gadget comes along that genuinely changes the way you think about what you can do. The sudden appearance of tiny keyring drives may turn out to be one such development.
The floppy drive effectively whirred out its last bytes this year when PC manufacturer Dell followed an earlier decision from Apple to stop putting them in new machines.
Floppies became redundant because they were surpassed by e-mail and removable storage such as CDs and external hard drives. But e-mail is unsuitable unless you are one of the lucky few with broadband, and removable drives are expensive and can be a pain to set up.
So what happens when you need an easy way of transferring files between work, home, and friends and family? The answer, it appears, is stick a drive on a key ring.
Portability is key
I wanted a small and portable way of quickly transferring pictures, documents and MP3s between an old PC, an iMac and a work laptop.
My PC was so clunky it didn't have a CD writer. E-mailing files from one to the other would have been agony on my 56k home line.
Then a friend told me about keyring drives. For less than £20, I got 16mb of storage - about 11 floppy disks' worth - inside a plastic shell little bigger than a pen top.
Emerged in 1970s
Slowly became obsolete because of small capacity
First ditched by Apple, 1998
Ditched by Dell, 2003
Mostly replaced by cumbersome CD burning
"Just stick it in the computer, sir, and then transfer the files," said the shop assistant.
"What - no delving into systems or help-lines when it crashes?"
"Yep, that's it. It will just work as stated."
And he was right. I inserted it into the iMac and it popped up as an extra drive on the desktop. I dragged and dropped a file on to it. No crash yet.
I pulled out the pocket drive and stuck it in my work laptop. It appeared again. And within seconds the document was on the second computer. Wow. While my partner was under-whelmed, this event was a revolution to an apprentice geek like me.
This was a storage device that you happily plug in and pull out of any system and it will transfer files without fuss.
Compatibility and price
What makes this so different is the manufacturers have cracked the two things most home computer users most complain about: compatibility and price.
These pocket drives (with various brand names) use a USB port and flash memory. USB allows two separate pieces of hardware, such as a laptop and a printer, to talk to each other through a universally-recognised connection.
Flash memory is the technology which allows hardware such as digital cameras to store pictures when the power is turned off. It has no moving parts and is effectively indestructible.
Just plug it into a USB port...
The largest capacity (and most expensive) keyring drive on the market stores a whopping one gigabyte of data - the equivalent of more than 700 standard floppy disks. Providing it is used correctly, the chances of losing data on keyring drive are slim to none.
But, crucially, prices have been coming down as more and more drives come onto the market. For less than £100, a home user can finally get more than enough capacity plus the ability to protect the content from being overwritten. So is this just a glorified floppy disk? No, it's much more.
Firstly, these pocket drives are generally large enough to store MP3s so you don't need to individually back-up each CD on each computer where you listen to it.
Similarly, the friend who recommended the drive has used it to make a small multi-media business presentation, rather than burn a CD for a 15-minute meeting.
... and there it is on the desktop
Secondly, programs can be run from the drive just as they would be from any hard disk.
I tried this at the weekend with a program which does a security check on your PC to properly delete files you don't want others to see, such as cookies and virtual paper trails left by online banking.
This potentially is a headache for systems people as it brings a whole new meaning to the idea of hacking or breaching secure systems and getting away with it.
Finally, the relatively small cost of flash memory has the potential to completely change the dynamics of other businesses.
Why invest millions in sending movies down broadband cables when, theoretically, you could whack a tiny and cheap keyring drive into a DVD player? For home users, why go to the hassle of burning files on to CDs (unless you are giving away copies) when you can just slap them on a keyring?
Both of these are some way off yet. For me right now I just like the way I can keep the keyring drive in my bag and not even know it's there. Finally, technology that makes life easier.
Send us your comments:
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I have a 64mb memory stick and in only a couple of months it has saved my life twice by allowing me to swap files between computers. It's also a lot quicker than using the old bulky Zip drives. A marketing friend also picked up the idea of using them for business presentations. Presumably they should catch on as promotional business gifts if they can be branded and re-used.
Simon Bennett, UK
The keyring is a great idea for carrying files like presentations, music, project folders and I'd like to see how they work in practice with a large cohort of students that I teach. I thought Apple were right to ditch floppy drives five years ago and it's odd how quickly things have moved on.
Jonathan, United Kingdom
I'm still happy to use floppy disks. CD burning also does for me - it's hardly cumbersome. Finally, for a CD or floppy disk, I don't have to go under my desk and root around the back of my PC. And believe it or not people do have devices that don't have USB.
My pocket drive has revolutionised the way I take files between home and work. One of the best things about it is that it works on PC or Mac. The only thing that slows me down is plugging it into my PC as I have to grovel around in the dark under my desk to locate the USB port. Suddenly the USB ports on the Mac keyboard make sense.
Ben Hanke, England
It sounds like hackers would be able to use them to by pass company firewalls by inserting a virus on a employee's PC at home and get them to bring the virus in past the expensive firewall and virus scanning server straight into the network.
I've been using a USB memory drive for about 3 months now and it's truly indispensable. Quick, easy, and reliable, I know of at least one company that is trialing these devices as temporary storage for presentations and documents.
Derick Burton, UK
Nice toy, but can I boot my system from it? Most likely, the answer is no, and until something shows up that will let me do so, the floppy drive remains a standard component of any system.
Rob van Riel, The Netherlands
I used one of those flash memory pens - first on my mother's computer - the hard drive stopped working. I then used on my own PC. The flash memory crashed - it has not worked since. Some revolution!
Eddie Hobden, Thailand
I have had one for some time now, to keep all the passwords I have to remember when moving between PC's. Only problem, the mechanism to hold the drive on the keyring was loose and I lost it. Good job I had bought another one for backup