Saturday, December 13, 2008

U3 - Portable USB Apps Platform; Secure your USB Drive

It's official, the floppy drive is dead. Indeed, Dell and a plethora of other PC manufacturers have simply stopped including the decades-old drive, thanks in no small part to the smaller, lighter, and faster USB flash drive that can carry over 1,000 times the standard 3.5" floppy. We've watched the evolution of the portable data disk, but now it's time to take that evolution a step further.

Enter the U3 smart drive. Co-developed by SanDisk and M-Systems, the open-standard U3 platform allows users to take their applications, not just data, with them to any USB-equipped Windows PC and to launch them with as little as two clicks. True, while applications have been tweaked by users to run directly off a flash drive, applications written for U3 smart drives don't require a geek to set up, and are 100% legal to operate.

Two Letters for the Price of One
The first time we plugged our retail Geek Squad U3 Smart Drive into the computer, Windows automatically recognized the drive and set the Add New Hardware wizard to work, identifying not one but two drives taking up two drive letters.
A small, 4MB read-only system partition of the U3 drive pretends to be a CD-ROM drive, while the data partition shows up as a regular flash drive. Because Windows is led to believe that the system partition is a CD, U3 takes advantage of the AutoPlay feature in windows to automatically run the U3 LaunchPad and unlock the data partition of the drive. It should be noted that U3 will run on any Windows 2000/XP system, regardless if the user has administrative rights or not.

After the LaunchPad's animated splash screen disappeared, we were greeted by an Oddcast talking presentation of the U3 platform's features and a quick intro of how to use the LaunchPad and download additional applications. Kudos goes to whoever thought of using the Oddcast system for a quick intro of how to use the drive, as it provides a user-friendly way for new users and computer-illiterate types to quickly jump into using the drive.

Apps Ahoy!
The LaunchPad is the heart of the U3 smart drive, and bears a striking resemblance to the Windows XP start menu. Accessed from a U3 icon in the system tray, it provides quick access to applications and documents installed on the U3 smart drive, as well as mean to manage them.

The left side of the LaunchPad lists the installed applications and next to their icons, with a convenient Download Programs link underneath that links to the U3 software catalog. The right side of the LaunchPad contains links to open the data partition in an explorer window, manage installed apps and the drive itself, and get help.

Programs can be either downloaded via the built-in web browser (barebones Internet Explorer), or installed from a file on the local computer. In the case of the Geek Squad drive, we are given a third option to download software from the Geek Squad's software catalog (actually hosted by M-Systems, one of the U3 co-founders), which is just the three applications and intro that came preloaded. Not that it matters to most users, but there are two file-types associated with the U3 platform. *.u3i is an XML-based text file that defines the application's version, download path and working parameters, whereas *.u3p is a zip file containing everything needed to run an application.

Most users will find themselves downloading new programs from While somewhat quirky in design, the site organizes the various applications into 9 different overlapping categories that can then be sorted by name, price, or download availability. Quick links to download freeware or trialware allow users to quickly try software before making a purchase decision. A Top-5 Downloads and Coming Soon section also help to see what new applications everyone's raving about.

While some of our favorite applications like Dmailer, Thunderbird, Trillian, Winamp and McAfee AV are already out for download, it's quite interesting to see what's headed to the platform. Skype's PC to Phone VoIP service, Firefox's superior web browser, PocketSearch's file content search, and PocketCache's snapshot-based backup system are sure to make a splash when they become available, and there's even a DVD authoring program headed for the drive. What strikes us as odd however is that we couldn't find any word processing applications mentioned yet, so for now we'll just have to fill the gap with Portable OpenOffice.

Once a U3 application is installed on the drive, you can specify the order in which it appears in the LaunchPad, and tell it to start every time the drive is plugged into a computer. Detailed statistics on the version, footprint of the program, last run time, and vendor are also available.

For Your Eyes Only
It's possible to lock down the U3 smart drive's data partition with a password so that files will remain secure from prying eyes, complete with password hint. When security is enabled, the CD-ROM partition will load first, and will only enable the data partition after authentication. A password hint can be specified for those with bad memories, and in a worst case scenario the entire data partition can be erased if the password is truly forgotten.

Enabling security comes at the expense of backwards compatibility however. Because U3 is only compatible with Windows 2000 and XP, any Mac, Linux, or Windows 98/ME users will not be able to authenticate themselves to see the partition. When plugged into a Mac running OS X 10.3, we didn't see the data partition at all until security was disabled. Users working in a cross-platform environment may wish to look into an alternative security application to secure their documents. Also, it is unclear if files stored on the drive are encrypted or not, but most likely they are not because it takes mere seconds to enable security for a near-full 512MB drive.

One curious discovery we made was mention of a self-destruct feature in the U3 help files, stating that after a certain amount of invalid password attempts, the drive would lock itself permanently requiring a total reformat. We tested this on the Geek Squad drive, but after 100 invalid password attempts our data was still accessible. Only time can tell how secure the U3 platform really is.

The Bottom Line
U3 is an important step in the evolution of how we get our work done. User-friendly and well documented, U3 smart drives are something that we could actually give to our grandparents without worrying about how many times they'll be calling us for tech support.

In the future when office applications are released, parents can send their U3-equipped kids off to college knowing that they can get their work done on any of the school computers without having to buy an expensive laptop. Perhaps most importantly, people with multiple computers will actually be legal and don't have to deal with paying over $300 on products like Office thanks to End User License Agreements (EULAs) being written per flash drive instead of per computer.

About the only thing we can see wrong with the U3 platform is the lack of cross-platform compatibility, but that might change later on now that Macs are going x86.

By Scott Clark, Consumer Technology Editor
Edited by Alternator

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