Since December, 2007, I've been addicted to using the U3 concept from my secure, encrypted, USB flash drive. I have found it an indispensable addition to my technology arsenal.
The idea is simple (yet brilliant). A U3 capable flash drive differs from an ordinary flash drive in that it contains two volumes (drives), one of which being a read-only ISO 9660 volume, emulating a CD-ROM drive, and the other being a standard FAT volume. The ISO volume contains the 'U3 LaunchPad', which, if Autorun is enabled on the PC, will launch and allow the user to launch applications (from a hidden folder on the FAT volume), and will also allow the user to encrypt (password protect) all the data on the drive.
Several companies produce U3 compatible versions of their software, and other folks modify applications to run from U3 compatible drives. SanDisk created it but now licenses it to other vendors.
U3 is currently only compatible with Windows-based PC's (Macs and LINUX-based PC's cannot utilize them).
A real world example
I have both Firefox (web browser) and Thunderbird (email client) installed on my U3 drive. When I insert my U3 flash drive into any Windows-based PC, the U3 LaunchPad starts (if it doesn't, due to local Windows settings, I simply navigate to the 'CD' partition and launch it manually). I can then launch Firefox, Thunderbird, or any of my other U3 applications, from the LaunchPad, and use them. Any settings changes I make, such as adding new bookmarks, or adding new email accounts, downloading email messages, deleting email messages, etc., all get saved to the flash drive, and not to the local PC. Thus, when I move to another PC, all those changes come along for the ride.
Encrypted Files and Synchronization
Although many flash drives offer file encryption, both at the 'entire drive' or 'individual file' levels, it is worthwhile to note that, on a U3 drive, the security is all handled via the 'U3 LaunchPad' application. Thus, with just one password, one can quickly enable access to both the U3 applications and the file system.
Again, a real example of this could be as follows:
- Insert U3 drive and enter the password when prompted.
- Use Firefox and add a new bookmark.
- Run a third-party sync tool to sync my U3 Firefox bookmarks with my local Firefox bookmarks.
- All done.
My SanDisk Cruzer drive's 'U3 LaunchPad' came equipped with a native email SYNCING client (at least on SanDisk drives) called 'CruzerSync' (which updated itself in Sep, 2008). It allows one to synchronize email content, from a PC-based email application, with its own on-board (USB) email application, and it also allows one to define which files, on a local PC, should auto-sync (or manually sync) between PC and flash. However, although CruzerSync recently upgraded, I have not returned to it, instead preferring my methods described elsewhere in this section. I find that utilizing an on board version of Thunderbird to be more consistent with my standard user experience than switching between applications. Also, CruzerSync's 'DMailer' application is only compatible with Outlook and Outlook Express, which means it will not sync my PC-based Thunderbird email.
For more information, see the following sites:
Official U3 Site at SanDisk: http://u3.sandisk.com/home_en.asp
Wikipedia Entry: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/U3