Thumb drives: smaller and smarter storage

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Thumbs are getting smarts–thumb drives, that is. The little drives that plug into a computer's USB port are everywhere, offering portable storage that's small enough to fit on a key ring. They're also plunging in price, with 1-gigabyte models going for less than $30.

That gigabyte is enough to give most users enough room to carry documents, contacts, and some favorite pictures. And the makers of flash chips don't get much profit from such cheap drives. So they're adding smarts, in the form of software, to sell us bigger and more expensive models.

The idea is that, in addition to data, we can carry our favorite programs with us, letting us plug into any computer to accomplish our tasks. Also, unplug the drive and all the data goes with us–including, for example, the history of where we surfed on the Web. That makes it safer to use computers in a public place like a library.

Two different systems might come preloaded–U3 and Ceedo. U3 claims it is more secure, as it runs only programs that are specially modified. Ceedo, on the other hand, can also run some standard Windows applications, making it more versatile.

U3 must be preloaded and comes with the price of a drive, and some of its applications are free while others cost $20 and up. Ceedo also can be downloaded to any flash drive at a price of $30, and another $30 if you want to run standard Windows programs. Ceedo does offer a 30-day free trial, which is a way to first test if it will run your favorite application.

Other options are emerging, including mojopac, which can download smarts to any drive at a cost of $50, after a 30-day free trial, and has a long list of Windows programs that it will run.

While the preloaded drives offer the most convenience, many consumers are buying them without realizing their capability. That suggests that though the new drives need work to smooth rough edges, they're already smarter than we are.