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Smart USB stick can be a laptop substitute

business Updated: Jun 28, 2009 23:23 IST
N Madhavan
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Things have come a long way from the days of the floppy diskette. We all know storage is getting cheaper and bigger, but do you know they have got smarter as well? By now, the USB (universal serial bus) stick is the commonly accepted external memory, but there is much more to what it can do apart from storing a few files.

A couple of weeks ago, I got a 16 GB USB stick from SanDisk and decided to experiment with it. It must be said that such a huge capacity was something high even for a laptop hard disk a decade or so ago, but now, you can buy one from SanDisk or competing brands like Transcend for around Rs 2,000.

With viruses, phising and other security threats to computers becoming more commonplace, USB stick companies are pushing hard the idea of a back-up storage for home users. That makes perfect sense. But there is more to this game, as I found out.

If you are the type that does like to lug a laptop computer (or cannot afford one), the USB stick can come in handy if you have access to cyber cafes or a computer you can share where you go. We now have something called desktop virtualisation software adopted for USB environments. By loading the right stuff, your USB stick becomes a virtual computer — for free. Specialised software companies have platforms and applications customised for the USB environment.

The SanDisk stick I got had software from U3 ( but a lot of the applications here are priced. I much prefer the open-source MojoPac ( USB software championed by RingCube Technologies. Once you load the basic software platform, you also have all sorts of applications which you can load on your USB stick. MojoPac works well with the Windows XP operating system. The advantage is that with this kind of a software, you can start working straight from the USB drive (by clicking suitably on the USB icon on My Computer). Once you are done, you can simply eject the USB stick and walk off. The advantage is that you are using someone’s computing resource but not much else. You leave no traces behind, and can enjoy convenience and privacy. You even get the look of a real PC desktop once you log in to the drive.

I downloaded a MojoPac suite that included a browser, the OpenOffice software (that includes word processing, presentation and spreadsheets — just like Microsoft Office) and even a cool MP3 player — all for free. But the speed is much slower when you work from the USB drive and that is a big downside. Yet, I find it fascinating that a small, cheap USB stick, when loaded with free software from the Web, acquires the awesomeness of a real computer. With software getting smarter and storage getting bigger and cheaper, the humble USB can be turned into a wonderful thing.