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Seven USB Flash Drives In Tests

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Silicon Power Ultima 155

Flash drives used to suffer from one problem for a long time: you buy it, and in a couple of years its capacity becomes too low, so you have to buy a new flash drive. And what to do with the old product? Throw it out? However, technical progress used to weaken this problem -- users were tempted to buy a new faster and more capacious product soon anyway and then give the old flash drive with still sufficient capacity as a present. Now the progress has slowed down, so the idea to buy new models very often has lost some of its appeal. But from time to time people still miscalculate the necessary capacity of a flash drive and buy the wrong model. They find it out in a couple of months. Or the capacity is usually sufficient, but they occasionally need more storage space. Besides, you often have to deal with memory cards from other portable devices. That's why many people preferred compact card readers to flash drives. But there is one problem -- your flash card in a photo camera or player may be already filled with important data, and it's not always convenient to carry several cards with you. Some manufacturers of card readers started to integrated flash memory into their products. Just a little (2-4 GB), but it was sufficient in many cases. Not always, of course. Besides, dimensions of card readers for full-sized Secure Digital cards (their predecessors had been the smallest in the market ten years ago, but now these cards look a bit too big) left much to be desired, being much bigger than compact flash drives. So popularity of such models was stable but low. They were mostly bought by those users who needed a card reader in the first place and a flash drive as a bonus.

Ultima 155 approaches the problem from the other end. The Ultima series from Silicon Power already features an interesting flash drive (Model 150), which is quite popular now. It has a classic design -- enclosure with a cap, 59 x 18 x 9.2 mm, 14.2 g. Nothing special, but the enclosure is made of metal, which attracted many users. Capacity of this flash drive varies from 1 GB to 16 GB. So it's a good popular product. The company decided to improve it a little by adding support for memory cards. Such enclosure can accommodate only the most compact cards, but it's OK -- microSDHC cards are used in the majority of mobile phones and PDA phones, so many users need only this functionality. They need it to copy music to a phone or something like that. That's why engineers added this slot to the end of the enclosure opposite to the plug. The enclosure is still made of aluminum, but it's even smaller now -- 57.3 x 18 x 9.2 mm, 12.5 g. We suspect that the SD bus controller occupies one of available seats for flash chips, another one had to be removed for symmetry and to accommodate the card slot. That's why its dimensions are smaller, but capacity is lower as well: the top model in Series 155 is just 8 GB (we tested this very drive). On the other hand, even this capacity will be required only in the nearest future (some users buy these products even now, but they are less popular than 2 GB and 4 GB models), so it's not much of a problem. In return, you will always have a capacious and fast (let's hope the name is correct.) flash drive plus a reader for micro cards. However, we'll test the card reader in one of our next reviews. Today we are interested in its flash drive role.

Note that support for memory cards makes this flash drive more functional than the other contenders today. But Silicon Power did not stop at that, adding a good software bundle to the device. We liked the way you can download this bundle from the official website, which have become a standard for all products from this company -- you download a small program, run it with the flash card plugged to a computer, and this program determines your hardware and redirects you to a corresponding download page. It's easy, convenient, and you don't have to remember your hardware and struggle through the website navigation. This is a modern approach -- as little manual input as possible, maximum comfort.

This utility resembles DiskFlash suite, which comes with some Pretec drives. However, we've found some external differences. Besides, its functionality has grown for the past time, so let's take a look at this program.

The main window is a toolbar that can be displayed always on top of other programs (optional). Eight big square buttons grant access to the functions of this program, and two small buttons in the right part allow to minimize it to tray or close it. You can leave the minimized program running even after you unplug the flash drive -- in this case when you plug it back, the program will detect it and open automatically. Let's have a look at the buttons from left to right.

The first button allows to split the flash drive into open and password-protected partitions. This function is offered by many flash drives, although some users don't like its implementation -- no simultaneous access to both partitions. Everything is as usual: you distribute free space between partitions with a mouse, enter a password, confirm it, and enter a hint; you can also type volume labels to both partitions. That's it. Information stored on the flash drive before this procedure will be lost, of course.

The second button makes the flash drive bootable. If the open part is over 500 MB, some computers may fail to boot up from it. You can ignore this warning, which couldn't be done last year. In order to check it up whether it's critical, I made the flash drive bootable and used it to boot up three computers at hand. As I expected, I had no problems at all. They may appear, of course, but I don't think it's highly probable. So it's good a user has a choice now.

In other respects nothing has changed: you can choose a volume label and specify where your system files are (you should take them from a bootable floppy or an image -- only for Win 9x). That's it, the open partition is formatted as a system one.

The third button works only if a password-protected partition is created. It does one simple operation -- switches between an open and a password-protected partitions, which share the same drive letter. This window and available options change depending on what partition is active at the moment. You can block access to the password-protected partition not only with a button, but also by clicking on the icon in tray, which is always there, when you work with the application. The system does not switch to the open partition at once -- you should unplug the flash drive and then plug it back.

The next function is very interesting. It does not enable autorun, as you may think from its title -- it 'bites off' a part of storage space to emulate USB CD-ROM, which certainly uses autorun. You can create it on your own from a folder with files, or you may take a ready image. This function was less interesting last year, because capacity of old flash drives was lower. And now there is enough space for this feature. We speak of full emulation here -- you can even boot up from this 'compact disc'. So it's a cherished dream of those people who make their living by fixing other people's computers: you create an image of some Reanimator CD/DVD or a custom disc, copy it to the flash drive and go ahead. You can delete this partition only with the bundled utility and Autorun Manager -- Partition does not detect it at all, and third party utilities treat it as a separate drive.

The next button runs FlashMail -- portable e-mail client stored on the flash drive. It has been described many times, not only on our website.

Functionality of the sixth button hasn't changed since last year -- it locks a computer with the flash drive acting as a key. The manufacturer honestly warns users in a 36-page manual that the function does not work in Windows Vista.

The seventh button manages favorites, it's a very popular feature these days. In this case it's the simplest implementation: you can import all bookmarks from a computer and then use them on any computer.

The eighth button offers alternative options to protect files from unauthorized access. It works only when you didn't create a password-protected partition on the flash drive. This function creates a special folder, access to which can be limited by a password, and provides Windows-Explorer-like interface to it. A special partition is more convenient for every-day usage, of course -- it's transparent for third-party software. But Security Folder is useful for episodic usage, because you don't have to split the drive into partitions, and you can use the entire capacity of the drive as a whole.

Thus, the bundled software is very useful, as some of its features are not provided even by commercial programs. And in this case you don't have to pay anything for the software. There is only one problem -- all functions of the utility apply only to the built-in memory of the drive. The card reader is a separate device, not supported by the software. It makes sense, but it's still a pity -- it would have been great to create a Security Folder on a memory card. But the program has no access to the reader, so we'll skip the examination of the Ultima 155 card reader for now -- until a special review about compact card readers. And now we'll proceed with our review of flash drives, Silicon Power product being one of them.

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