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Big Memories Come in Small Packages

April 26, 2001|DAVE WILSON |

The exploding popularity of digital photography and music has led to ballooning files. Sure, it's fun to snap a few hundred digital photos on your summer vacation or rip hours of bootlegged music, but stashing these data Goliaths can be a real chore.

Although it's possible to transfer files over the Internet, that's not always practical with huge chunks of data and slow connections. The puny--but eminently portable--floppy disk has been rendered almost obsolete in a world where a single high-resolution image can top 1.4 megabytes. Recordable CDs sound like a great answer to this problem, but they can take a long time to burn.

What's an impatient geek to do?

A slew of new products designed to help transfer files has cropped up in recent months. These are portable intermediate devices that hold a large amount of data until it can be safely archived on a hard drive or CD-ROM.

Powered by either a small hard drive or flash memory, the devices vary widely in price, size and storage capacity. Generally, those that depend on hard drives are bulkier, cheaper and hold more than those using flash memory, which are faster and much sleeker.

Key-Chain Hard Drives

For pure cool, you can't beat the key-chain-size storage devices recently introduced by such companies as Ei Corp. and JMTek. They plug into a computer's Universal Serial Bus port, and, after the software gets installed, your computer treats them as just another hard drive.

But these aren't really hard drives in the traditional sense. They use flash ROM, a type of read-only memory that can be erased and reprogrammed quickly.

Ei's Q device is available in 16-, 32-, and 64-MB sizes, with the 64-MB model going for think that's pricey, JMTek's Flash USB Drive tops out at 256 MB and $600. JMTek says it will have even bigger drives available very soon, with a 1-gigabyte model expected by year's end.

The Q definitely looks better, but feels a bit more flimsy. Of course, that's a relative term with a device that doesn't have any moving parts.

These things pull power from the computer they're plugged into, so no worries there. Light-emitting diodes indicate whether the drive is plugged in properly, receiving or writing data. Both devices have tiny switches that let you prevent data erasure.

In general, these are loads of fun--wearing them as jewelry gets lots of oohs and ahs from the computer cognoscente--but they're really overpriced unless you need to move big chunks of data around as part of your job.

These devices work great on laptops, but getting access to a USB port on a typical desktop requires groping around the back of the machine. JMTek's package is especially nice in that regard since it includes an extension cable.

Digital Wallet

For pure flexibility, the Digital Wallet from Minds@Work is a great concept that needs a bit of tinkering to be a fabulous product.

It's essentially a 6-GB hard drive that can store any kind of data and transfer it between your MP3 player, digital camera or computer. The system isn't fussy. It handles PCs, Macs or even Linux with ease through its USB adapter. Best of all, it works independently of a computer. You can transfer files from your camera onto the device in the field.

The system runs off a standard power outlet, but it's basically designed to be mobile, pulling juice in off a rechargeable battery pack. The first unit we got had a cranky battery. The second unit did better, but we still wish this thing had an option for plugging in some standard batteries in an emergency.

In general, the wallet worked as advertised. It accepted the smart media used in a Nikon digital camera readily and quickly copied the images onto its hard drive, allowing us to reformat the card and keep shooting. But the Digital Wallet lists for about $500. You can buy a lot of pretty big smart cards for that kind of money.


The HipZip from Iomega is basically an MP3 player, but it accepts about any kind of file for storage or transfer, and, in a particularly nifty setup, it uses relatively cheap--$10 in bulk--disks as its storage medium. You download songs or data onto the device through the USB port.

The disks, called PocketZip, hold 40 MB of data, which is a bit small. On the other hand, $100 will get you nearly half a gig of storage, which isn't bad. A newer version of the product should be available later this year that uses disks that hold more information.

The HipZip is neither the smallest nor the lightest MP3 player out there, but its cheap, removable media make it worth considering.

At about $230, however, it's not the best value on the shelf. It plugs into the wall and uses a rechargeable battery for walking around. And if you're sensitive to noise, be advised that the HipZip, being mechanical rather than purely electronic, does emit a soft whine when working.

Pockey Drive

Our top pick is the Pockey Drive, an external USB hard drive.

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