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From floppy to flash: flash memory sticks have burst onto the data storage scene in fairly recent times - but what do we know about them? Mathew Luu demystifies flash memory.

Remember when every computer came with a floppy disk drive and floppy disks were 4.5-inch and actually floppy? Floppy disks were once the preferred portable storage medium used by the computing community. As the name suggests, the disks were simply a thin, flexible ('floppy') round ('disk') magnetic storage medium encased in a square or rectangular plastic shell.

Floppy disks bit the dust in the late 1990s (although floppy disk drives remained) and it wasn't that long before handbags and briefcases rattled with the all new USB "stick". The proper name for these sticks is USB flash drives.

Flash memory is defined as "static" memory which means it can be electrically erased and reformatted over and over again. Flash memory is primarily used in devices such as USB drives and digital memory cards and its benefits include:

* Greater capacity. Although they started with as little as 30 megabytes worth of storage (just big enough to store 30 digital photos), USB flash drives are more commonly available these days in one gigabyte (GB = 1000 x 1 megabyte), 2GB, 4GB, 8GB and 16GB capacities with 32GB and 64GB capacities set to be released by a number of manufacturers in 2009.

* Reliability and durability. USB flash drives do not contain moving parts, making them more reliable and robust than previous storage technologies. In floppy disks the disk actually spun in its case within the reader - much like a CD - making damaged disks (and lost files) common. In comparison flash memory is very durable as it can withstand intense pressure, extreme temperatures, and immersion in water. One USB flash drive was found at the bottom of a waterfall after two years and its owner was still able to retrieve the files from it!

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* Greater file transfer speeds. A 1.4MB file used to take around two minutes to save to a floppy disk. In today's fast paced world nobody wants to wait around for files to save - which is exactly why the greater file transfer speeds available on USB flash drives are so popular. Flash drives now have speeds in the neighbourhood of 30MB per second for read, and write speeds of 20MB per second.

* Increased security, therefore peace of mind.

It is common practice these days for USB flash drives to come pre-loaded with security software. Gone are the days when you had a slight heart attack after realising that the floppy disk containing sensitive information that you took home has gone missing. Many USB flash drives come with security software applications to safeguard the data onboard through both password protection and data encryption. These drives can cost slightly more but bring peace of mind as they minimise the risk of the data stored being accessed by the wrong people.

* Performance boost for your operating system. Surprisingly some USB flash drives have the ability to actually speed up Windows Vista! Windows ReadyBoost can improve your overall system performance by using portable flash memory devices as additional system memory. No floppy disk ever sped up the performance of a computer but now it's as simple as plugging in a ReadyBoost-compatible USB memory stick and selecting 'Speed up my system'.

Choosing a USB memory stick

When selecting a flash drive it is important to remember that not all drives are equal. Here are some points to consider before purchasing your next USB flash drive:

1. Choose the drive that's right for you - ensuring that it suits your requirements and fits within your budget.

2. Consider whether the design of the flash drive will hinder you from accessing the neighbouring USB ports.

3. If you wish to attach the USB flash drive to a key ring make sure it's durable enough not to be easily lost.

4. Check the data transfer speeds.

5. If storing sensitive data on the drive, consider one that comes loaded with added security features.

6. If you currently use Windows Vista, purchasing a USB flash drive which comes with Windows ReadyBoost will help speed up your computer's performance.

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Maihew Luu is marketing manager ANZ. South Asia, for Lexar Media. For more information go to www.lexar.com/an.
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Title Annotation:TECH BIZ
Author:Luu, Mathew
Publication:NZ Business
Date:Feb 1, 2009
Words:697
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