'Smart' USB Drives

The Memorex Mini TravelDrive and Iomega Mini let you run applications directly off a USB drive without muss or fuss. Which one is right for you?

September 30, 2005

7 Min Read
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Iomega's Active Disk technology has been around since October, 2001, when, according to an Iomega rep, it became available as a free download to help customers who wanted to upgrade to Microsoft Windows XP. It also became a tool that enabled Iomega Zip drive users to run applications directly from their drives. In November, 2002, the software was made available to users of Iomega Mini and Micro Mini USB drives.

However, Iomega's technology is used by Iomega alone, while U3 is actively encouraging manufacturers to get on its bandwagon. In addition, U3 claims that, when you remove your drive, you'll leave no data, registry entries or other detritus behind to disturb the owner of the system. Iomega makes no such claims.

So how do these two technologies compare? I looked at two 256MB USB 2.0 drives: a pre-ship version of the U3-equipped Memorex Mini TravelDrive and an Iomega Mini. While these smart USB drives won't replace your trusty laptop, having one means that, as long as you have access to a system, you'll always have access to applications and your data. To those of us who are computer-dependent, that is a very reassuring thought.

The Memorex Mini TravelDrive is an interesting-looking device with a slight bulge in the middle that makes it look like a flattened spaceship. It comes loaded with a copy of Migo, a synchronization app, Mozilla's Thunderbird e-mail program, and a basic McAfee anti-virus applet.

The U3 LaunchPad offers access to the drive's applications. (Click on image to expand.) When I plugged the TravelDrive into my system's USB port, it triggered a small animated welcome screen that quickly ran through some of U3's features. At the same time, it automatically generated the U3 LaunchPad, the base from which you access the applications and data stored on the drive.

Memorex Mini TravelDrive U3Click to Enlarge

The LaunchPad is a menu that rolls up from the lower right corner of your screen when you click on the U3 icon in your task bar. Resident applications are listed on the left side, and features such as Manage U3 Programs, Help and Support, and Add Programs, are on the right. There is also a separate Download button (the only difference between that and Add Programs is that the latter also lets you install from previously saved apps on your hard drive) and a large red Eject button on the lower right corner of the menu (in the perfect spot to be obscured by the task bar) to let you safely eject the USB drive. (According to U3, you won't hurt anything by simply pulling your drive out, but the software does provide a cleaner shut-down.)

When you click on the Add Program or Download icons, you are taken to the E3 Web site through the LaunchPad interface. The layout is simple and understandable, although when I visited the site, there weren't a lot of applications available (not surprisingly, since it's still very soon after U3's launch). Firefox was on the list as "coming soon," as were several security, password, and music applications.

Memorex Mini TravelDrive U3

Click to Enlarge

I ran all three of the pre-installed applications, and installed a small medical freeware applet, and everything worked immediately and well. I tried the TravelDrive on three separate notebooks with no issues although, strangely enough, Windows Explorer sees the USB device as two separate drives: the U3 System (an empty "drive") and the TravelDrive, which holds all the data.When I disconnected, as far as I could tell, U3 fulfilled its promise of pulling everything out of the system. A scan of my registry found nothing obviously associated with any of the applications on the Memorex drive, and a careful watch of my process list indicated that everything running when the drive was attached disappeared when it was removed.

In short, I was impressed. The U3 interface is slick and easy to navigate, it is not difficult to find and install (or uninstall) applications, and, while there were only a limited number of supported applications as of this writing, that is likely to change with time.

Memorex Mini TravelDrive U3, Memorex Products, Inc. www.memorex.com Price: $29.99 (256MB), $54.99 (512MB), $99.99 (1GB), $179.99 (2GB)

Summary: The new U3 technology that comes with this USB drives lets you easily run apps directly off the drive.

Because Iomega's Active Disk technology has been around for quite some time, I assumed that it would work as smoothly as the Memorex (if not more so). However, it feels as if Iomega hasn't put a lot of effort into keeping up with the times.

Iomega's Web site offers a number of Active Disk apps. (Click on image to expand.) When I first inserted the Iomega Mini into my laptop's USB port, Windows Explorer popped up, showing that the drive contained two files, one of which was titled "Clickhere.exe." Well, okay — I did. The executable launched my browser and sent me to Iomega's Active Disk Web site, where I was asked to register and offered a button to click for free Active Disk titles.

Iomega's Web site offers a number of Active Disk apps

Click to Enlarge

The Active Disk Web site has a fair number of titles and summaries of available applications. Unfortunately, after a few minutes of browsing, I found very little that was current. There were a few solid offerings, such as the OpenOffice office suite and Firefox; but most of the apps listed in this rather eclectic selection were a year or two old.

In addition, there were some utilities that were noticeable by their absence. For example, there were no synching or podcasting applications, both of which are necessities for most of today's USB-drive users.

Iomega MiniClick to Enlarge

I decided to install a copy of MusicMatch Jukebox. It was not an easy process — after I had downloaded the application on my system hard drive, a pop-up window informed me that the "Active Disk enablers" had to be downloaded and installed, and my system rebooted. After that process was over with, I went back to Windows Explorer, found the downloaded executable, clicked on it again, and was finally rewarded with the installation of MusicMatch onto my Mini.From then on, whenever I connected the Mini to my system, I was asked whether I wanted to run MusicMatch; once I clicked OK, the software ran without a hitch. (If I wanted, I could have had the application run immediately when I plugged in the drive.) Considered the age of some of the other applications on the Active Disk site, I wasn't totally surprised to find that the copy that I had installed turned out to be version 7.5 — the current version is 10. While it stands to reason that most of the software made available by Iomega (and U3) will be trial versions, it would be a lot more persuasive if those versions were current.

Iomega Mini ; Iomega, Inc. www.iomega.com Price: $24.95 (128MB), $39.95 (256MB), $59.95 (512MB), $109.95 (1GB), $199.95 (2GB)
Summary: Iomega's Active Disk technology works well, but the selection of applications available is a bit outdated.

To make a point-by-point comparison between U3 and Active Disk technology may not be completely fair. Active Disk has been around far longer, and was created to serve a particular audience — those with Zip drives who wanted to run applications directly from that drive. It was not created for USB drives or to run applications on multiple systems. One benefit to Iomega's approach, however, is that, by not shipping the Mini with all the software installed, you have a choice as to whether you want to use the Active Drive technology or simply use the Mini as a simple storage medium.

Still, if Iomega is going to continue to tout Active Drive as a feature on their USB drives, it would be well advised to pump up its library of available applications. If you're not hooked into Iomega's hardware products, U3 is more polished and looks like it will soon support more applications.

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