My first computer in college was a Macintosh LC III. The hard drive that came with it was 80MB only and I remember having a stack of floppies around for backup. Nowadays I carry most of my essentials on a SanDisk Cruzer Micro; this tiny flash drive is pretty incredible when compared to that 80MB hard drive. It features 1GB of space, which currently leaves me plenty of room for data files and programs. At the same time it is absolutely tiny and easy to carry. Although I have had other USB flash drives, I personally prefer the Sandisk Cruzer Micro for three reasons: the first being it’s physical size, the second has to do with the rubber casing which makes it easy to handle, and the last reason is the U3 software that makes it easier to manage portable applications.
The U3 Drive
U3 is really a platform which some flash drive manufacturers use to make their drives more appealing. These flash drives, usually referred to as smart drives come preformatted in two partitions. One partition automatically loads the U3 Launcher application and the main partition is for your program and document storage. The Launcher sets up a U3 icon on the Task Bar for you to click on. Think of it as a second Start Menu.
Clicking on the U3 icon will bring up the Launchpad as shown above (shown with third party applications already installed). Some smart drives come with third party applications already setup. SanDisk does not come with any third party applications. They include only their CruzerSync software, for which they sell a Pro version upgrade on their website for. Most U3 applications are just repackaged applications that are retrofitted to work on the U3 platform. This also means that most U3 apps are actually commercial applications that you have to purchase from the Software Central site. Although most opensource applications like Firefox are being ported, see Firefox Goes Portable.
The U3 Launchpad
The best features of the Launchpad is that it makes portable software easy to install, launch, and maintain. SanDisk’s implementation of the U3 system is also excellent. Unlike other vendors (like BestBuy’s GeekSquad brand), SanDisk actually updates the U3 software via a software update feature. Their last update, updated the Launchpad’s theme to a brushed metal background similar to Apple’s Safari.
There are however some downsides. The most annoying one is that the Launchpad sometimes refuses to install or interferes with your other mapped drives. So far I have not seen this documented anywhere, but the fix is actually pretty simple. The problem appears to be caused by a conflict between the last mapped drive in Windows, this is sometimes a CDROM drive, or a substituted drive mapping. The solution is to open up Computer Management, which is under the Start Menu – Settings – Control Panel – Administrative Tools. Under the Storage section you will find Disk Management. Right-click the removable disk partition for the flash drive and choose Change Drive Letter and Paths…, and then click on the Change button. Change the drive letter to a higher letter. For example if your CDROM drive is drive D or E, choose F or I for your flash drive partition. Once you make this change, just restart Windows and the Launchpad should install correctly and no longer mess up your CDROM drive mappings.
If you are trying to use the Micro Cruzer or any other U3 smart drive with VirtualPC, it simply won’t work. I think it is because of the USB port that VirtualPC emulates. Then there is the fact that the U3 system only works on Windows, so Linux and Mac OS X users simply will not be able to use the Launchpad at all. I experienced some problems on Windows 2003 Server as well.
In all I am quite happy with the SanDisk Cruzer Micro. It is a durable flash drive with some nice features, and even if you don’t use the U3 system, there are plenty of portable versions of Firefox to use with it. My personal favorite is PortableApps Firefox. The only thing I wish SanDisk would do to improve on it would be to include more applications with it.