The joy of flash drives

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By Catherine Holland By Catherine Holland

Q. Could you tell me a little bit about flash drives? I had the idea that they’re a good backup alternative, then I heard that they’re pretty finicky and potentially unstable. Any comments would be appreciated. Thank you for all the great information you share each week in your newsletter, Mr. M.

A. USB “flash” drives are compact, easy-to-use devices that function as mini hard drives, but they use what’s called flash or solid-state memory, not unlike that used by a digital camera. A USB flash drive can slip into your pocket, you can wear it around your neck, or keep it on a key chain, so they are extremely portable or easy to lose, depending on your perspective.

Despite being known by many different names such as jump drives, pocket drives, pen drives, thumb drives, or Sunday drives, they all pretty much function the same way, though differences exist in price, capacity, design, functions and features. For example, some have a built-in MP3 (music) player, some have an integrated Web browser or email program. All are pluggable, portable, and powerful.

A typical USB flash drive is about the size of a thick stick of gum. Capacities are continually increasing, but current drives can hold upwards of 64GB (gigabytes) of data, which is the approximate capacity of 100 CDs.

According to some manufacturer specifications, USB flash drives can preserve data for 20 to 50 years. While that sounds impressive, think of it in terms of LP records, 8-track tapes, cassettes, and floppy disks. It's a virtual certainty that computers will no longer have USB ports in the years ahead.

I have several flash drives and I haven't had any problem with stability issues -- well, I should say that my flash drives haven't had any stability issues. I use them for backing up certain data and they work fine. For example, I have one flash drive that I use exclusively for backing up Quicken; another one that I use for backing up My Documents, etc.

When purchasing a flash drive, stick with name brands, including Verbatim, Kingston, Lexar, and HP, and steer clear of any suspiciously inexpensive drives. If your data is important to you, it's worth investing a few extra dollars to be sure you're purchasing something reliable. An excellent source for additional information about USB flash drives is the cleverly named Web site.

Q. In Outlook Express, the panel to the left, which lets me click Sent Mail, etc., has disappeared. Can you tell me how to get it back? Thanks, Mr. M.

A. Click View > Layout and place a check mark in front of Folder List followed by OK. That will return the list of folders (hence the cleverly named "Folder List") to the left side of your screen.

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