From Line Drives To Hard Drives, Technology Is Insidious
- And Cool
By Stephen Lawton
Synopsis: Parity Bits is a collection of various toys and tools that I've
tested over the past few months. These are the best of the batch. In this
issue we look at a variety of hardware devices designed to make your life
easier and more fun. (3,000 words)
regular readers of this irregular column, you know that I look for unusual
products or those that work above and beyond the proverbial call of duty.
This time I've found some devices that stand out.
One of the more unusual products I've seen
lately holds the promise of offering mobile users significant benefits
when they travel from office to office. Even if you don't carry your own
notebook computer, you still can carry your network login, preferences,
system identification and files, such as bookmarks or your AOL identification,
with you with the Disk-on-Key.
The device doubles as a key chain, but
actually is a robust, semiconductor storage device with a built-in USB
connector. Just plug it into a USB port on a Windows 2000 system and it
pops up as a removable drive.
If you're running Windows 98, you'll have
to download drivers for the device to be recognized, but once installed,
it appears in Windows Explorer or on your Macintosh desktop just like
a Zip drive or other removable device. (It supports Windows 98/ME/2000
and MacOS 9.0 and higher; it also works with Linux 2.4.0-based systems.)
Currently, the Disk-on-Key is available
in 8MB, 16MB and 32MB capacities, but the company says it will offer up
to 512MB units by year's end.
For the corporate user, a Disk-on-Key could
be useful as a security device. Not only can you carry your personal login,
preferences and corporate network rights with you, but you can also carry
customized network login access controls.
Just having the device could make it easier
for IT managers to implement "hotelling," a strategy that allows mobile
workers to come and go from offices in various cities just by plugging
in their PCs and logging onto the network, or by logging on using local
By using an external storage device that
can be carried separately from a notebook computer, the corporate network
is less at risk of being penetrated if a user's computer is lost or stolen,
since the login sequences are stored on the external device.
The units are priced at $50 (8MB), $70 (16MB)
and $100 (32MB).
The Disk-on-Key may be cool, but it hasn't
cornered the market on tiny, plug-in storage devices. The ThumbDrive,
from Trek 200 International Ltd., also offers a similar device with similar
capacities of 8MB to 512MB, all of which are currently available. Unlike
the Disk-on-Key, which is nearly 4-inches long (not counting the key ring),
the ThumbDrive is 2 3/8-inches long.
This smaller size has pluses and minuses. It is certainly more compact
than the Disk-on-Key, and its rectangular shape allows you to put several
ThumbDrives in a box the size of a deck of playing cards.
That same feature, however, is also a drawback, in that it's easier to
misplace the unit when not in use.
The Disk-on-Key's ring allows me to hang it on a cup hook next to my desk
so it's easy to find. I can also clip it to a key-ring holder in my briefcase.
The Disk-on-Key also sports a clip for a shirt pocket.
That said, the specs for these devices are virtually identical, since
both use semiconductor memory. Let's just say access time is no longer
an issue - these "drives" are as fast as RAM, since they are, in effect,
The ThumbDrive comes with a floppy disk with drivers for Windows, but
it also offers downloadable drivers for Windows and Macintosh systems.
That's good, since my Dell Latitude came with a CD-ROM drive installed
in a slot shared by the floppy drive and Zip drive. Without the download,
I would have had to remove the system from its docking bay, swap drives
and then load the drivers. A CD-ROM with drivers would have been preferred,
since many machines today, particularly notebooks, no longer feature floppy
No matter how you look at it, semiconductor memory can be a godsend for
anyone who wants to back up critical files, either to make them mobile
or just to have them handy. If price is not an issue, then semiconductor
memory is ideal. Tape is less expensive but, by its very nature, slow.
Removable disks are better, and prices are coming down. Although removable
storage has the benefit of handling higher capacities, if you're just
backing up a few critical files, semiconductor storage can be an outstanding
option. The only caveat: These devices use the USB 1.0 port (as do some
external drives). As these devices migrate to USB 2.0 and FireWire, you'll
see even faster transfer rates.
While devices like Disk-on-Key and ThumbDrive offer some interesting possibilities
for transporting data, the higher capacity of a traditional rotating drive
can be an issue. But then, I have yet to see a rotating drive fit onto
a key chain or the coin pocket of your jeans.
But speaking of pockets, there is a new
drive - a rotating disk drive - that does fit into a pocket, albeit not
the coin pocket. Dubbed the Pockey, this portable drive is available initially
in capacities of 10GB and 20GB. It comes with a USB cable and draws its
power directly from the PC with no external power supply needed. That
alone moves it up a notch or two on the list of convenient devices for
JSJ Ventures Inc. of Chatsworth, CA, the
U.S. distributor of the Pockey, is positioning it to be used as an adjunct
to your standard drive. Removable drives offer many benefits, but there
is a potential downside.
On the plus side, you can store your data
files on the removable drive. If you're like me and work at both your
home and office, you can carry your data files, spreadsheets, presentations
and the like easily from site to site.
Also, it's small, so it doesn't take up
a lot of desk space. If you use a drive like this for secure data, it
can be disconnected easily at the end of the day and locked up in a safe
(try doing that with an internal drive).
Of course, with a drive that small, you
run the risk of either losing it or having it stolen. The unit is about
the same size as a package of 3 x 5-inch Post-it notes. While its greatest
benefit is its size and capacity, that is also one of its disadvantages.
Certainly losing all of one's data is the
biggest risk with any disk drive. There are two ways you can lose data:
misplacing the drive itself or corrupting the data. With removable drives,
you have a greater possibility of losing your data because you have only
a cable connecting the drive to your laptop (or desktop; there's no reason
why you couldn't connect this to a desktop; the company even provides
two cables, one that's roughly 3 feet long for that purpose).
If the drive becomes disconnected from the
host system during a write procedure, it is possible to lose the data
being written. An even worse scenario, however, is if the drive is disconnected
from the system while the disk is writing to the FAT or creating directories.
In that case, your data might well be stored safely on the drive, but
the information that tells the drive where the data is stored could be
Storage subsystems that have removable disks
often use a security procedure to eliminate that problem. If you press
a button to eject a drive, the subsystem goes though a shutdown cycle
that includes writing directories and tables before the drive housing
unlocks the drive and allows it to be removed. But in this case, the drive
is not housed in an enclosure and ejected like a floppy - it is simply
connected via a cable.
To be safe, click on the icon in the Icon
Tray at the bottom of your screen in Windows and go through the shutdown
procedure. A message will appear momentarily telling you that it's safe
to turn off and remove the drive. On the Mac, dragging the drive's desktop
icon to the trash accomplishes the same task. The 10GB drive sells for
$250; the 20GB drive is $330.
Power To Spare
Ever wish you had a cell-phone battery that
would never run out of juice? That day has arrived, sort of. Sunpower
Systems Inc. of Chatsworth, CA, makes solar-powered batteries for cell
phones from Motorola Inc., Nokia Inc. and Telefon AB LM Ericsson.
I tested the battery for a Motorola StarTac
and found it to have plenty of power, not to mention a very cool look.
Initially I charged it the same way I charge my regular battery - in the
phone. With normal use, I can easily get about three days' worth of power
from a fully charged battery, but its greatest benefit is when I'm away
from an electrical outlet.
I recently charged my solar-powered battery
without leaving my office, or using an electrical outlet. I simply placed
it on my window ledge and let it charge itself. The window is tinted,
so it took longer to charge than if I had left it on the sill of my clear-glass
window at home. Still, by the end of the day (maybe even earlier, I didn't
check it for several hours), the battery had a full charge.
You could, of course, charge the battery
on the dash of your car, but remember that bright light gives the battery
its best charge, not heat. A dashboard can reach temperatures of 150 degrees
or more, especially if the car in sitting in the parking lot all day with
closed windows. (In fact, a hot, muggy day in the tropics during summer
could provide less light than a bright, crisp, cold January day in Minneapolis.)
The manufacturer warns that leaving the
battery on the dash could cause damage if it gets too hot and, as noted,
tinted car windows further reduce the usable light for recharging. In
fact, the battery could be charged under a normal, incandescent lamp,
but that would take longer than in sunlight.
The batteries also come in a variety of
translucent colors, including blue, lime green, magenta, black, white
and clear. If you're the outdoors type or simply want to be ready for
a power brownout, this could be a good option. It's on my list of obscure
items that I'm never without.
Color Me Happy
If you have to print color documents for
your small to midsize business or in the department of a large company,
or if you have children who like to print colorful Web pages, then Hewlett-Packard
Co. might have just what you're looking for. HP, the venerable computer
company that's now probably better known among consumers as a venerable
printer company, unveiled a high-performance color inkjet printer that
handles double-sided color prints as easily as its laserjets print single-sided
Dubbed the DeskJet 990cse, it ships with
a standard duplex attachment that snaps onto the back of the printer.
We tested the printer's duplex capability by printing various sizes of
color pictures and text.
The printer produces vibrant colors that
do not bleed through, even when the color images were back-to-back. Rather,
the images are crisp and clean, particularly when you use high-quality,
glossy paper. On 94-brightness, 24-pound white paper, a popular weight
for laser printers, the images still show very well. While I do not recommend
multipurpose, 84-brightness recycled paper for business graphics, my kids
were able to produce more-than-adequate prints for their school reports.
Needless to say, the printer is capable
of handling a variety of paper stocks, including photographic paper and
transparencies. It did a significantly better job at printing transparencies
than my year-old Epson did when it was new, but then, I did not test Epson's
The HP printer offers one feature that is
truly appreciated. When you need to replace an ink cartridge, you simply
open the front of the printer. The cartridges automatically position themselves
in the middle of the printer, ready to be replaced. While other printers
will position the ink cartridges in a similar spot when the printers are
out of ink, they do not necessarily do so every time you open the printer.
If you have a clogged cartridge, for example, the cartridge still might
report to the printer that it's full. On some competitors' printers, this
might cause the cartridge to not position itself to be replaced.
The DeskJet 990cse is rated at 17 pages
per minute (ppm) in black-and-white and 13 ppm in color. It has an infrared
port and uses media-sensing technology that can tell the difference between
multipurpose paper and quality plain or coated paper. It is compatible
with PCs and Macintosh systems and boasts a resolution of 600 dots per
inch (dpi) in black-and-white and 2,400 x 1,200 dpi in color on premium
paper. It is priced at $399.
Simply put, this is the finest color inkjet
printer I've used. When you swap out ink cartridges, you're also changing
the heads. That means fewer clogs. On one printer I used in the past,
I went through almost a third of the ink in a new cartridge just to clean
the heads when it was installed. That shouldn't be the case here.
While I am not a big fan of multifunction
devices - often they don't do anything with excellence, but do lots of
things moderately well - HP introduced a multifunction color printer that
uses very similar printing technology. The PSC-750 is worth mentioning
for two reasons: The technology is sound enough that it could easily replace
a color inkjet printer for a home office and at a street price of $299,
it performs a number of jobs well.
In an abbreviated test, the unit printed
very acceptable color copies - certainly comparable to some of the professional
color copies my wife gets at the local Kinko's for $1 each. And if you
make a lot of color copies, this could be a more efficient option. It
boasts the same resolutions as the 990cse, but it's a little slower printing,
at 11 ppm in black and 8.5 ppm in color. Its copy speed is rated at 11
copies per minute in black and eight in color. Still, while it's not the
kind of unit you'd find in a copy shop, it should do a fine job for a
I did not test the unit's scanning capabilities,
but it does offer a flatbed with a resolution of 600 x 1,200 dpi (optical)
and 9,600 x 9,600 dpi (enhanced). I would not hesitate to pick one up.
Take Me Out To The Ballgame
But enough about work. Despite all the cool
gadgets out there, once in a while you simply need to relax, right?
For some, a day taking in America's Pastime
is time to give up those things that remind us of our work and trade them
in for just a little bit of childhood. Recently, I took in a game at San
Francisco's new PacBell Park. The sun was shining, there was a slight
breeze in the air (this isn't Candlestick - unlike Stu Miller at the '61
All-Star game, you could still stand up in this breeze without getting
blown over) and Barry Bonds was slugging the ball well into McCovey Cove.
In fact, as of the opening pitch, Bonds
stepped up to the plate with a .30978 batting average, had an on-base
percentage of ..47983 and boasted a slugging percentage of .8913. How
do I know this so precisely? No, I'm not a statistician. I simply pointed
a borrowed Palm VII at the WideRay Jack on the second level of the stadium
and downloaded all the team and individual statistics for the Giants and
Angels (it was an interleague game).
The Jack is a self-powered device that has
a wireless Internet feed. It supports multiple users running multiple
applications. For example, it can download both the viewer application
and the data to a Palm at the same time, and it can do the same for multiple
users simultaneously. The Jacks can transmit data at rates as fast as
There are three of them at the stadium.
The Giants, working with Palm Computing Inc. and WideRay Corp., set up
this system to allow fans greater access to statistics so they might better
enjoy the game, a team spokesman said.
While this might not be the Palm's killer
app, it does bring a new dimension to baseball. The statistics are updated
throughout the game, so you need only walk within 15 feet of the unit
and point your Palm to download the latest stats from the previous inning.
Now, anyone can have many of the same stats as the reporters in the press
Initially, this system is only in place
in San Francisco, although Palm says it would consider taking its technology
to more stadiums.
Just think: Now you not only can pick a
hotel based on its broadband offerings, but your sports venue based on
its data ports. In addition to PacBell Park, you can also find similar
Jacks at the Sony Metreon movie-theater complex in San Francisco. So much
for going to the stadium to feel like a kid again. (The Giants have that
covered too: Soon you'll be able to get baseball cards beamed to your
Palm VII, too.)
JSJ Ventures Inc.