Mobile Computing Tools

When I travel on business, I try to bring along every file that relates to the customer I’m visiting. I’ll also take files that relate to other things that may come up while I’m on the road. And finally, I like to have a couple of solitaire and golf games to pass the time while I’m sitting in the airport departure lounge. Oh, and…well, you’ve got the idea.

I’ve tried virtual hard drives at sites such as, where you store your files on an Internet-accessible server, but that approach works only if you can get connected to the Internet. When you’re travelling, there are bound to be times when that’s not an option. Besides, it’s simply not as convenient as having the data right at hand.

The answer is to look over the increasing number and types of external storage devices and pick the one that offers the best blend of cost, compatibility and capacity to meet your specific needs.

With the rapidly increasing storage capacity offered by solid-state devices such as Compact Flash and the Memory Stick, and miniaturized hard drives such as IBM’s convenient 1GB MicroDrive, it’s now easier to just take everything with you and not have to pick and choose.

Larger-capacity devices, such as the 20GB and 30GB LaCie PocketDrives, are especially well suited for transporting video, collections of high-resolution still images and multiple mixed-media files, such as presentations.

IBM MicroDrive

IBM introduced the world’s first gigabyte-capacity disk drive in 1980. It was the size of a refrigerator, weighed 550 lbs. and cost US$40,000. In comparison, its new MicroDrive is smaller than a matchbook, weighs less than an ounce and sells for less than US$500.

At 1.5-inches square, the ultraminiature drive stores an ample 1GB – more than enough to carry all the data you might routinely need. Smaller models are also available. These matchbook-size drives are made to fit a Type III Compact Flash slot, and they also mate with a special PC Card adapter that’s included in the package. The drive transfers data at 4.2Mbps. Powered by the computer, it needs no batteries or power brick.

On a recent business trip, I took along the MicroDrive, loaded with everything I might need: spreadsheets, presentation slides and documents. With plenty of space left, I added a Washington street map and restaurant guide – something I could never do with the 1GB hard drive on my vintage Compaq Computer Corp. Armada. From a purely practical perspective, the MicroDrive immediately doubled the Armada’s storage capacity without my having to send it off for service.

If you use a personal digital assistant (PDA), a laptop or some other handheld device with either a Compact Flash or PC Card slot, you can use the MicroDrive to increase its storage. It also works in some digital cameras.

It’s also very handy for moving information. I routinely transferred information back and forth between my Hewlett-Packard Co. Vectra desktop, the Armada and a colleague’s desktop, with no special drivers needed. And the drive ran fine even after an accidental 4-foot drop onto a hard floor. Pricing for the MicroDrive is: 1GB, US$499; 512MB, US$399; 340MB, US$299.

LaCie PocketDrive

LaCie is likely to have a drive for you, no matter how much data you need to transport. The capacity for the PocketDrive family of external hard drives ranges from 10GB to 30GB.

Despite the implication of the name, the devices are a bit too bulky (3.5- by 5.75- by .5-in. thick) for easy portability. At 13 oz., the weight could prove to be a problem for travellers. What’s more, PocketDrives require their own software driver, which can complicate transferring data to someone else’s computer, even if you remember to carry the CD-ROM drive with you.

On the plus side, the PocketDrive offers a choice of interfaces: a Universal Serial Bus (USB) or the technically superior FireWire (IEEE 1394), which transfers data at speeds up to 50 to 100 times faster (between 12 and 45Mbps) than a USB. At that rate, you can capture a video stream in real time. In fact, that’s what FireWire’s developers, Apple Computer Inc. and Texas Instruments Inc., designed it to do.

Under some conditions, the FireWire model can draw power from the computer, eliminating the option of leaving the power adapter back at the office. Not all FireWire ports, however, provide adequate power. You’ll need to check the specs on your computer or its add-in cards. None of my three computers has a FireWire port, so I didn’t test that feature. Pricing for the PocketDrive is: 10GB, US$399; 20GB, US$749; 30GB, US$1,299.

LS-120 SuperDisk

A high-density floppy-disk drive replacement, Imation Corp.’s LS-120 stores 120MB of data. Unlike competitor Iomega’s 100MB and 250MB Zip drives, the LS-120 can also read and write to a standard 3.5-in. floppy disk. It’s about 20 times faster in read/write speeds than a floppy disk.

The new drive spins at 1,440rpm, twice the speed of the original design introduced in 1996. Along with other technical improvements, the LS-120 exchanged data three times faster than the original parallel-port model in my file-transfer tests.

Imation offers three models: an internal integrated drive electronics (IDE) drive, an external parallel-port model and the external USB model, which I tested. Although the USB model is easy to connect and disconnect and is the size and shape of a hardcover book, it’s too bulky to carry around easily. Like the LaCie PocketDrive, the LS-120 requires its own software drivers, which can limit its interoperability.

The LS-120 offers the best value and overall usefulness when used as a high-speed, high-capacity replacement for an internal 3.5-in. floppy-disk drive. Pricing is US$150 for external USB, or US$100 for internal IDE.

Memory Stick

Sony Electronics would like to stick it to you, at least when you’re in the market for removable memory. About the size of a stick of chewing gum, Sony’s solid-state Memory Stick is available in capacities of up to 64MB, which is good for storing about 80 minutes of compressed audio or 1,000 still images. A 256MB model is due early next year.

It’s especially handy in devices designed to accept the Memory Stick directly, such as a digital camera, an MP3 player or Sony’s VAIO notebooks. I took several pictures with a Sony digital camera, removed the Memory Stick, slipped it into a Sony PC Card adapter (US$80) and plugged it in to my HP Vectra’s PC Card reader. The files were immediately accessible, with no drivers needed.

Sony is working hard to make its proprietary Memory Stick a standard, in the face of competing solid-state memory formats. To date, the company has lined up 45 licensees, including Palm, Casio Computer, Acer America, Olympus America, Sanyo Electric, Sharp and Seiko. By offering an appealing uniformity across a variety of products, transferring and transporting modest amounts of data becomes much easier.

On the other hand, SmartMedia and CompactFlash already do that, and they’re widely supported, especially in digital imaging products. What’s more, another new format, the SanDisk Corp./Siemens AG MultiMedia Card, is even smaller and has comparable capacities. And Toshiba, working with partners IBM and Sunnyvale, Calif.-based SanDisk, is developing a competitive solid-state memory format with a projected capacity of 1GB. The Memory Stick costs $US80 for 32MB, or US$140 for 64MB.

Which One?

With the list of vendors offering proprietary external storage devices growing rapidly, industry analyst Jim Porter at Mountain View, Calif.-based Disk/Trend Inc. recommends that you pick a product based on with whom you intend to share the data.

“If you want to exchange data between computers that you own, then any affordable device with an adequate capacity will do. If you plan to exchange the files with other people, buy two and give one to them,” he advised with a hint of humour. And after all, if you do plan to take it with you, that’s one way to make sure it’s usable when you get there.

Millman is a freelance writer and consultant in Croton, N.Y. Reach him at