THE BLOG
03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Writers Workbench: USB Flash Drives

Backing up your data is just far too critical a thing not to do. Not doing so falls in the category of "Are you nuts???!" For writers, whose lifeblood is their documents, they have a special category, "Are you FREAKING nuts???!!!!!"

Previously, we discussed backing up to external hard drives. Now, we look at smaller technology, but one just as critical - USB flash drives.

Once upon a time, these tiny drives were rare, but today there's almost no excuse not to have one, especially since cost has plummeted and capacity has skyrocketed. Although many people see them as items of convenience - having particular files with you, wherever you go - their true value is different, and much greater. By backing up your most important documents onto your USB flash drive, and keeping it on your key chain, or in your purse, you always have these important documents with you in case something happens at home, with your "real" backup. Let's say your home is broken into and robbed, or there's a fire. By having your most important documents with you on a flash drive, you know at least that you're covered.

A word about flash drive security. There was a time when I looked at this as critical with flash drives. Since they're so small, they can be easily lost, and what if your precious data is taken? Some drives come with security software - some with encryption so deep they're approved for government use. But I've given up caring all that much about it. Why?

First, I found it was a bother logging in through the security every time, and therefore I was using the device less. Which defeated the purpose of having it and backing up regularly. Second, for my purposes, there was nothing earth-shattering critical to protect. Yes, I had financial data, but it was just figures - not account numbers or bank info. And useless unless you used the proper program to access it. And yes, I had screenplays and other documents, but - well, we all have screenplays flying around all over Hollywood, including as PDF files that can be easily copied. While it was possible for me to conceive of a thief coming upon my flash drive, discovering my scripts, putting his name on it, and getting a pitch meeting at CAA, I thought it unlikely. Most likely, if someone finds a lost flash drive, they'll either look to see if there's any return information on it - or they'll wipe all the data clean and use it for themselves. And finally, I realized that since I keep the flash drive on my keychain, if I lose it - with my car keys and home keys on it - I have a whole lot more bigger things to worry about losing.

So, in the end, I don't care as much about security software as I once did. Your mileage may vary, and if so, there are such models around, and I'm pretty sure you can even download security programs from some companies, perhaps even for free. But for the purposes here, I just feel it's better to have a flash drive with easy access that allows you to use it simply. None of the drives tested had security software included.

And a final word about testing. To check the speed of the drives, I had two controls. I copied over a "full backup" that was comprised of the My Documents folder, various data files and other documents. In a second test, I also copied over the My Documents folder alone.


"The Writers Workbench" appears monthly on the website for the Writers Guild of America. To see this entire column, with complete product graphics and additional "TWW Notes," please click here


SUPER TALENT PICO-E SLIDE

The most notable feature about the Super Talent is how tiny it is. Incredibly tiny. Flash drives are also know as "thumb drives," because they're about the size of a thumb, or perhaps index finger. The Pico-E, however, could be called a knuckle drive - it's only about half the size of your thumb. And weighs less than six grams. Yet it has a huge capacity. The unit tested was 8 gigabytes.

The Pico-E is a "slide" model, with a cover you move back and forth for protection. There's no snap-on cover to lose. (The company also has versions that swivel on a pivot behind protective "prongs.") Though the cover is loose, it holds its place well, and hasn't slid down when being moved around. Whether this would change with use over time, it's impossible to say. But for now, it's not an issue. The unit is metal covered with nickel plating. Super Talent states that the drive is water resistant, though I didn't test this. (Hey, I have my limits.)

The biggest quibble with the Pico-E is that it's fairly slow. Not problematically so, just slow. In my test, the full back-up took 12:20, and the My Documents folder took 10:25. To be clear, the difference between this and a fast model isn't something that is an issue, but with computers, when you're used to things zipping, the lag is nonetheless noticeable.

I have a bit of a difficult time getting the drive into the USB slot on my computer. I'm not sure why, since everything is standard. It might be because the drive is so small, that it's hard to get a firm grasp, particularly with a sliding cover. Needless-to-say, it's not remotely hard to do, and fits in just fine, just that there was more effort required than other drives.

The only other quibble is that, being so small, the hole for connecting to your keychain is too small, and so you have to attach it with the included thread. This is somewhat common for various flash drives today, and the thread is tough. But it's just not my favorite. I prefer a direct connection between drive and keychain. Of course, if you just throw the drive in a purse, it's a moot issue - though with a drive this tiny, it's good to have it connected to something.

The tested drive can be found for $24 at the time of writing. If speed is important to you, this is probably not the drive to get. But if your more concerned with size, something that won't take up much space or weight in your pocket, it's hard to find anything else on the market that matches this.


KINGSTON DATATRAVELER HyperX

This is a tough one to talk about. It has a big "however" in it - yet a "however" that is bewildering and likely shouldn't be an issue. But is.

Kingston is an excellent company, one of the premier makers of computer memory, with a high reputation for customer service. The DataTraveler Hyper X is a very solidly made, but light flash drive. Made of plastic, it has a boxy look to it, not unlike a packet of gum. It uses an excellent slide cover that you control with a push-button, which has a solid snap to it and works extremely well. The model tested was 8 GB (the line goes up to 32 GB). Kingston has high-end models for those who demand deep security.

The drive at first use is quite fast. Rated up to 25mps/16mps (megabytes per second) for Read/Write speed, it handled the full back-up in just 9:35, and the My Documents test in only 6:10. At the time of writing, this particular mode could be purchased for $50.

However -

I had the most bizarre problem with the HyperX. The company sent me a second unit, on the assumption that I simply had a bad one. But the exact same problem occurred. And it's a similar problem with another Kingston model I tested a couple years ago, although with a twist.

You'll note that I gave the result of the speed test "at first use." When the drive was empty, that was the approximate speed I got on every test. But when I do subsequent tests, copying the same files over, as one would do in a back-up -- that's when things got loopy. The drive slowed down to molasses. These back-ups took between 39 minutes and 43 minutes! It befuddled even the Kingston people.

Sort of. One slight possibility may be an issue that, oddly enough, I discovered with that previous Kingston a few years back, which the company hadn't ever spotted, but later tested and confirmed. That drive was configured for large files (like graphics and MP3), rather than small ones. With large files, the drive zoomed through, and gave the unit its deserved reputation blistering speed. But small files - such as all those text documents in the My Documents folder - weren't addressed well, and so they slogged.

The company thought that, possibly, that could be what's at play here with the HyperX. Except that doesn't explain why the first back-up was fast, but copying over existing files brought everything to a halt. That makes absolutely no sense. Yet the same results occurred time after time.

This is why I say I don't know what to make of the drive. Kingston is a great company. Online user comments praise the HyperX drive. But there's this bizarre, inexplicable issue. If you mostly use the drive for large files, you have never experienced this. If you copy small files, but have a different set-up, you may not ever experience this. I just don't know.

I wanted to love this drive, because it offers so much good. But I can't recommend it except with a caveat. If you decide to get a Kingston DataTraveler HyperX, be sure to get an agreement that you can return it if there is a problem. Hopefully there won't be. There shouldn't be. But there could be.


OCZ RALLY2 TURBO

Up until the time when I tested the Rally2 Turbo, I had never heard of OCZ, and I was a bit wary. My mistake. This is a wonderful flash drive, and easily the fastest of the lot here, in fact the fastest I've yet tested.

How lightning fast is the Rally2 Turbo? It did the full back-up in a blistering 3:35. Oddly, the My Documents back-up wasn't significantly slower - though it was slower, at 3:05. That's a little deceptive, since the overall time was so fast. The percentage drop was about 10%, which is acceptable, just less than the other (slower) models. The company says it uses "dual channel technology." All companies say they use some special technology, but whatever OCZ uses, it works. The unit tested was 4 GB. It has Read/Write speeds up to a reported 35mbs/30mbs.

(In full disclosure, one test was much slower, inexplicably taking 7:35 - although that's still a solid time. And it was just that one instance; so perhaps the computer was having some issue. A dozen or other tests all turned in a time similar to that initial 3:35.)

Also nice is that the drive is extremely light and thin, about the 1/3 the size of a new pencil. Though plastic, it's solidly made and has a very sturdy feel. The drive uses a traditional snap-on cap

As good as the OCZ is, there are a few small downsides that deserve mention. Most notable is that the cap doesn't snap on as crisply as I'd like. It seems to hold very well, so I have no reason to assume it will be an issue, but I prefer a cap that you really have to pull at to remove. This just sort of slides off. (OCZ sells a packet of five caps for only $4, though shipping will be extra.)

It also has a very bright light that's on all the time when the device is plugged in. Most only show their line when being accessed. Though this always-on brightness could be a distraction, it's not much of a problem, just worth noting.

Also, the connector hole is much too tiny for a keychain, and they don't even provide a "thread" to link between the drive and a keychain, only offering lanyard. That's a foolish, unnecessary negative, though easy to address. I have enough little "rings" around from other items that can slip into the hole, and then this ring in turn connects to the keychain. Since most people have such rings lying around, it's not a problem, but it could be, and there's no reason for it. Of course, if you just stuff the flash drive in a purse or pocket, none of this matters.

The Rally2 Turbo is a bit more than other drives. (Be sure to look for the "Turbo" model, since OCZ also makes a slower, though less-expensive "Rally2" model.) It's available at the time of writing for $48. And keep in mind that this was for 4 GB. Speed is not always a critical issue for people, who might be looking more for capacity and price. But if your highest priority is a drive that's blasts fast, the OCZ Rally2 Turbo is very impressive. It's more expensive, but you get that speed.


LEXAR TWISTTURN

Lexar has recently come out with a couple of new Flash drives, the TwistTurn and Retrax. The two are close cousins, although with noteworthy differences. Lexar has long made very good products, and the two have some of the company's strengths - along with a few disappointments.

The TwistTurn is a device like a jackknife, where the USB plug twists out of holder. As a result, no cap is necessary - which means no cap can be lost. There's a small "handle" at one end that makes for convenient hooking onto a keychain. The drive is one of Lexar's low-cost models, but speed is not sacrificed. In fact, I was surprised at how fast it and the Retrax were. The My Document folder just took 4:30 to complete, while the full backup zipped through in 7:35. The model I was sent to review was only 2 GB, so I can't say for certain that the larger capacity drives in the line will work the same, but it's a fair assumption that they will. The 2 GB model is available at the time of writing for only $13. (By way of comparison with other drives reviewed here, the 8 GB was selling for $38.)

The downside is that for a company with such a strong reputation, the TwistTurn is made from a very light plastic and feels disappointingly cheap in the hand. Because the drive twists into an external body, that at least gives some additional support. It appears well-made, it just doesn't feel up to the sturdy level of other Lexar products.


LEXAR RETRAX

The Lexar Retrax is very similar to the TwistTurn. The biggest difference is that it has a tab to the side which lets you slide the USB plug in and out of the device. Again, no cap is needed.

Its specs were almost identical to the TwistTurn. The My Document folder took only 4:30 to finish, and the full backup completed in 7:25. The tested model was also just 2 GB. At the time of writing 2 GB model is also available for $13, and the 8 GB was $38.

By all rights, that should be the end of the story, that the choice is whether you prefer twisting your USB Flash drive, or retracting it. But it's not the end. The Retrax felt almost flimsy. To be clear, it's not - giving a close inspection show it (like the TwistTurn) well-made. But it feels unimpressive. Some of this is because of the tab, which rattles and makes a tinny noise. There's a second issue, as well, however, and in some ways could be a bigger one for some people. Like many such drives, there is a pin hole connector at one end - but such drives always include either a metal clasp or, at the very least, a twine for attaching through the pin hole to a keychain. However, nothing comes with the Retrax. You just get the pin hole. If you simply want to plop it in a pocket or purse, this isn't an issue, but to put on a keychain, you're close to out of luck.


To see this column with complete product graphics and an additional "TWW Notes" discussion of the impressive "Portable Apps" platform (which virtually allows you to carry a computer on your keychain), visit the WGA website.