Back it up

Floppy disks used to be great for backup and moving data or software from one computer to another. Now that even small laptops come with 20GB hard drives, 1.4MB floppies aren't of much use. Some newer laptops don't even come with a floppy drive as standard anymore. But we still have to move, store and archive data. And what about backup? What's the modern equivalent of the floppy?

At the moment, there's no single type of storage that suffices for everything a floppy once did. But there are more options than ever for removable storage. Computerworld has reviewed a variety of devices. Since those reviews, even more options have emerged.

A number of new storage devices consist of what's essentially a solid-state flash memory chip mounted in a plastic housing with a Universal Serial Bus (USB) connector built in. Depending on your operating system, some require a driver to be installed, while others are automatically detected by the operating system when they are plugged in and appear to the user as just another disk drive. I've recently tried several of these: the US$100 32MB DiskOnKey from M-Systems in Newark, Calif.; the $70 16MB Q. USB drive from Agaté Technologies Inc. in Cerritos, Calif.; the 16MB ThumbDrive from Trekstor USA Inc. in San Ramon, Calif.; and EasyDisk, a $139 64MB device imported by Global Channel Solutions Inc. in Norcross, Ga.

They all worked well -- just plug any of the devices into a USB port and, bingo, there's storage. And all are fast enough that transfer speed isn't an issue.

The primary differences are in the styling of the plastic; DiskOnKey is the winner for looks, while Thumbdrive takes the prize for smallest. EasyDrive has an LED to show data access and comes with a leather carrying case and lanyard. DiskOnKey comes with a clip for carrying in your pocket like a pen and a ring for keychain mounting. Trek has announced a new model, the ThumbDrive Touch, which contains a built-in fingerprint reader to secure access to that data, but it was unavailable for review at press time.

Optical Storage

Notebook computers are now starting to become available with CD-RW often combination DVD/CD-RW drives, either built in or as an add-on. With such machines, backup on the road becomes very easy. Just leave a CD-RW disk in the drive, and you're all set, with 650MB of backup capacity.

But you say your notebook doesn't have an optical drive? I've recently tried four new, third-party external units that all worked well. The speed champs of the group are two drives from Micro Solutions Inc. in DeKalb, Ill. The $249 Backpack Triple Play and the $269 Bantam CD Rewriter both record CD-R and CD-RW at 8x speed, which is low for a desktop but the fastest available for a portable. Unfortunately, that speed comes at the expense of considerable excess bulk, even in the smaller Bantam model. Another new unit, from San-Jose-based Acer America Corp., is the $199 CRW-6424MU, which is slightly slower but also a bit smaller. The best device for travelers, however, is the $329 CDW24PE Portable CD-RW drive from TEAC America Inc. in Montebello, Calif. The TEAC is a 4x drive that includes a set of rechargeable batteries, yet it is half the size and weight of the Acer.

All of these except the Bantam connect to your computer via included USB cords, while the Backpack models also can use the parallel port or a PC Card slot. You might also think about taking along a couple of those new 3-in. 185MB CD-R disks. Their small size makes them great for travel.

Here's another backup solution. If you're trying to run really light and want as small a backup device as you can find, try a compact flash solid-state memory card with a PC Card adapter. This is especially attractive if you've already got compact flash media for a digital camera or personal digital assistant. Compact flash cards are now available with up to 512MB in capacity, and if that's not enough, IBM's 1GB microdrive (the platter is one inch in diameter) fits the same PC Card adapter. And IBM will likely introduce a model with higher capacity soon. Another way to use compact flash cards is with the ZiO, a $30 USB adapter from Fremont, Calif.-based SCM Microsystems Inc.'s Microtech brand. It's even smaller than the PC Card adapter.

If you don't already have compact flash media, another alternative is Roy, Utah-based Iomega Corp.'s Pocket Zip, formerly known as Clik. It's less expensive, though also less capacious, than compact flash, but it may be all you need. These tiny 40MB magnetic disks fit into a PC Card adapter. Four disks plus the adapter sell for just $50.

Finally, if you really need to back up a lot of data on the road, your answer may be a portable hard drive. I've used a 650MB PC Card hard drive from Calluna Technology in Fife, Scotland, but I've recently been using similar 1.8-in. drives from Irvine, Calif.-based Toshiba America Electronic Components. The best one, priced at $399, holds 5GB worth of data and doesn't need special drivers; a 2GB model costs $299. This may be all the backup you ever need.

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