Issue 225, September 3, 2001  

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)

For 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 systems.
     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, RAM.

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 drives.

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.

Pockey Drive
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 mobile users.
     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 corrupted.
     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 black-and-white documents.
     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 latest offerings.
     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 small office.
     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 115Kbps.
     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 box.
     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.


Palm Computing

WideRay Corp.

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