Flash is bigger, faster, and cheaper than ever before. Ride the wave at its cusp— you’ve got 34 of them to choose from
Nothing is permanent but change.
While nobody will dispute the accuracy of the above statement it’s equally true that storage hasn’t followed this trend in recent years. Sure we’ve had bigger, faster hard drives, and even greater capacities on optical media, as parallel recording gave way to perpendicular recording and CDs gave way to DVDs and dual-layer DVDs.
Flash memory has always been considered a dark horse. It promised to be a great ride for pioneers of the technology, but the risks were equally big. Every technology needs a catalyst to speed up its development into a mature product. Flash has two things working in its favour now—the need for a dependable portable medium to carry data, and the fact that magnetic recording (HDDs) have come close to their limits both as far as speed and capacity go.
Today, examples of Flash storage can be seen from the solid-state hard drives that have begun to appear in laptops to the humble subjects in this test. Greater size and speed in addition to the ever diminishing price makes flash drives perhaps one of the best buys this year. We were shocked when the prices of 4 GB flash memory plummeted to around Rs 1,500—just a year ago the prices were more than double that. Higher capacities (16 GB and above) are still pricey enough to intimidate all but the most persistent buyer, but that’s sure to change, just wait and watch. Perhaps more surprising was the increments in speed of read / write operations—sadly, we don’t get to take coffee breaks between tests any more.
We scoured the market and chose 34 drives from amongst the masses—each contender was chosen on the basis of it offering something unique—whether in terms of value, or performance, or appeal.
Skinny Bytes—1 GB
Out of the five drives we tested in this section, we really liked the rugged build of the Corsair Voyager 1 GB. Built with a high-quality rubber / silicone compound, the Voyager easily resists damage when dropped. Despite the soft body, it doesn’t feel flimsy to hold or use. Transcend’s JetFlash 168 was another beauty. One side of the surface has a silver metallic sticker with beautiful embossing. The quality of the plastic used is good. Other than the Moser Baer 1 GB—which had a swivel type design and a quality metal outer sheath—the other two drives were pretty ordinary.
Corsair had some sort of a security application installed on each of their Voyager series drives—but this didn’t prove to be really secure—a format removed the application entirely! Not good for someone who wants to protect data.
The Moser Baer 1 GB proved to be speedy overall. Although the Transcend JetFlash 168 shocked us in the 100 MB assorted file test with 4.11 MBps—an unheard of speed for a random write operation—so much so that we ran the benchmark again to be sure. In fact these two fought it out fiercely, but Moser Baer’s offering won the race in the end.
The Transcend JetFlash V30 turned out to be the proverbial tortoise, as did the Corsair Voyager 1GB, while the Toshiba 1 GB neatly separated these two from the hares.
|How We Tested|
We used Windows XP Professional with SP2. All testing was done on a secondary partition to avoid hard drive bottlenecks. We turned off functions like System Restore, and also kept a permanent swap file on a separate 1.5 GB primary partition.
A 1 GB drive is only recommended when you absolutely cannot afford to spend any more. We say this because two and four GB drives are faster—larger density flash modules tend to have better data transfer rates—and offer more value for money. If you are specifically shopping for a 1 GB drive our Digit Best Buy Gold winner—the Moser Baer 1 GB—is your best bet.
Slightly Overweight—2 GB
One glance at Umax’s Apus Zoom had us humming Roxette’s She’s got the look—a jet black drive with two silver-chrome strips on each side, it’s pretty, but didn’t feel sturdy enough. The SanDisk Cruzer Titanium was another attraction—solid metal body (as the name suggests) and a dark gun-grey colour. The regular Cruzer drive is identical looking except that the material used is high quality plastic rather than metal. Corsair’s rugged Voyager series made another appearance with in 2 GB avatar. Buffalo’s Turbo USB 2.0 is a cool looking transparent drive—though there’s nothing in terms of moving parts to make any sense of the transparency. It’s a pity that Buffalo didn’t add an activity LED.
We also had a bulky Kingston DataTraveler Reader which cunningly incorporates a memory card reader into the regular pen drive. This is a good option if you need both a USB drive and a memory card reader. It’s not built very well though. Transcend’s JetFlash V10, on the other hand, is built solidly, but is uninspiring to look at.
|The Blue Whale—Corsair Voyager 16 GB|
|The only really large drive we were able to get our hands on was a Corsair Voyager featuring a massive 16 GB. Although their catalogue shows that the 32 GB variant is a market reality, availability is a different story. This drive features the same ruggedness that the Voyager series are famous for, and shares even the same colour. In fact, if not for the tiny 16 GB imprint on the translucent rubber that covers the activity LED, you wouldn’t be able to tell it apart from their other versions—it looks just like the 2 GB version shown above.|
It was a pity to see such a large drive thrashed in our random write tests, though. Although this particular test brings most drives to their knees, we were hoping for a different result here. Alas, with assorted write speeds of 1 and 2.35 MBps the Voyager 16 GB isn’t as fast as its target audience would want it to be. If you want a 16 GB drive, you’re probably a movie buff or an enthusiast, looking to transport dual-layer ISOs or rather large games on this drive, which might end up being a painful wait.
Overall, this drive is a benchmark for the size we’d like to see become de facto next year. But there’s not much going for the Voyager besides its size and of course its price—Rs 6,990. Imagine lugging your MP3s to office and back. Got a bigger music collection than that? Wait for the 32 GB version, and pray that it’s much faster.
Buffalo’s 2GB offering uses a technology called Turbo USB, which requires a small download from their Web site. This software once installed on the PC claims to help speed up transfers and seems to be some sort of buffering software. Another software called Buffalo Secure Lock Ware which is a security package can be downloaded and installed. We couldn’t see the reason why such software couldn’t be bundled on a disk, or in the drive itself. They are still “bundled software” if you think about it, and all Buffalo’s drives feature them.
Corsair’s Voyager 2 GB did a complete turnaround of our initial impressions with the 1 GB model—it was fast, so much so that it nearly overtook the speed demon that was the Transcend JetFlash V10. Both the SanDisk drives just tagged behind the leaders and strangely did very well with large write operations involving multiple small files—better than the two overall leaders. Funnily the scenario changes when we look at the small 100 MB file transfer tests, where the Cruzers lag behind, although by a small margin.
The Moser Baer 2 GB was a ubiquitous performer—fast, but amid faster drives, unlike its smaller sibling. The attractive Kingston DataTraveler 2 GB was abysmally slow.
Whether you’re looking at speed or something tough enough to withstand a few drops from your pocket look no further than our Digit Best Buy Gold winner—Corsair’s Voyager 2 GB. It even comes with an attractive transparent USB extension cable so you won’t have to get dusty fiddling around the rear of your cabinet if you don’t have front USB ports. Best of all, it costs a measly Rs 900!
The SanDisk U3-based brothers, the Cruzer Titanium and the Cruzer, also make very good buys for someone wanting a fast drive. These make sense, because if you’re planning on transferring close to 2 GB of data regularly, it’s pointless to choose something slow. Transcend’s JetFlash V10 2 GB (Rs 800) was also fast, similar to the V10 1 GB in the previous group.
Transcend clearly uses much faster Flash chips in their V10 series as compared to their V30 series—which seem the slowest of the Transcend drives. In fact the Transcend JetFlash V30 is such a slowcoach that only one drive in this category was slower—this dubious honour belonging to the Umax Apus Zoom 2 GB—unless you plan quick naps between large write operations you’ll stay well away. Toshiba’s U3 offering was also well below the standard of what is considered fast—and if you want a U3 based drive we can’t recommend this after the brilliant SanDisk Cruzers.
Certified Fat—4 GB
The 4 GB segment is where all the fun starts, mainly because just six months ago these drives were double the price they are today. There is also a lot more data you can carry around—photos, movies, and music. The math is simple too—double the price of a 2 GB gives you double the storage space.
One drive stands out in this category—the Sandisk Extreme Ducati Edition. The D word causes the motorcycling enthusiasts amongst us to get weak-kneed and dry mouthed with anticipation. This drive features a solid metal upper body (painted Ducati-red) with a quality plastic bottom. The USB interface safely tucks away and the LED indicator is made to look like the tail-light of a super bike. The drive also features SanDisk’s famous Extreme Flash memory, which obviously made us want to test it first.
Also in this category were Kingston’s Data Traveler Mini and Data Traveler Mini Fun are really tiny drives. The Traveler Mini has a very neat retracting system which completely tucks away the USB interface beneath its tiny exterior. The Mini Fun is designed to look funky—and is a bright red. Note that besides their diminutive size these are full fledged USB drives—Kingston hasn’t cut corners on functionality.
Toshiba’s TransMemory 4 GB has one of the curviest forms—straight body curved inwards at either end. A very attractive dark grey plastic body does justice to a beautiful footprint.
Tech-Com’s 4 GB offering came with DiskPro on the firmware. This software appears as a discrete floppy drive. Double clicking this drive will bring up a screen that will query for a password to protect access to the drive. You can also set a hint question. What’s best about this is that the drive cannot be formatted without providing the password (a contrast to the poor security suite on the Corsair Voyager drives). Tech-Com also provided good accessories—a long USB extension cable and a neat lanyard.
Ducatis are known for their performance, aren’t they? True to its heritage, the SanDisk Extreme Ducati Edition blows everything in this comparison to smithereens—it was puzzingly slow in the 100 MB assorted write, though still faster than the other drives and that was it—no more complaints! With a random write speed of 13.34 MBps for 4 GB of assorted files and an equally amazing 18.06 MBps for sequential write, this drive is two and sometimes three times faster than most other drives.
The only other two contenders barely close enough to choke on the exhaust fumes of the SanDisk Extreme Ducati Edition, were the JetFlash V10 4 GB from Transcend and the Corsair Voyager 4 GB. The stragglers consisted of the Imation Nano 4 GB, the Tech-Com 4 GB, Toshiba TransMemory 4 GB, and the Kingston Data Traveler 100.
If our hearts ruled our heads we’d award the SanDisk Extreme Ducati Edition with gold and forget about this category. However its not the wisest choice and not everyone will want to spend three times more for double the speed. That established, Digit’s Best Buy Gold goes to Trancend’s JetFlash V10 4 GB. An excellent product—its fast, reasonably rugged and a steal at just Rs 1,600. The only other worthy alternative is the Corsair Voyager 4 GB (Rs 1,550). It’s the third-fastest drive in the comparison and has a decent bundle (similar to the other Voyager drives).
|We’ve seen flash emerging from a niche product to something that is properly mainstream. But as of now this applies to thumb drives only. On the bigger scene flash memory has pervaded more than just your pocket. It has seen usage as a storage medium, particularly in notebooks, where power consumption is a necessary evil. The fact that flash has no moving parts and consumes a fraction of the power of its magnetic siblings, is an attractive enough reason for vendors to use it, despite the fact that anything more than 16 GB of flash is very expensive.|
As the drive for convergence leads to better PDAs, multimedia phones, PMPs and their ilk, with more features and customisability, the demand for storage as a medium will increase by leaps and bounds. Flash has been waiting in the wings for a while now—a nascent period that saw a growth of no more than 10 per cent.
We’re still going to prefer 500 GB hard drives for awhile, and it’ll take some time for extremely high density flash modules to enter the consumer space. However, when it comes to portable storage, the invasion of flash has already begun…
Once again, Toshiba’s much acclaimed TransMemory drives failed to impress. We were surprised at the lacklustre performance of the Buffalo 4 GB drive and even with Turbo USB enabled we didn’t notice a big improvement. In fact this was the case in the 2GB category as well, sure a difference of 2-3 percent with Turbo USB enabled may seem significant, but its not a big deal and not really noticeable in reality—more over its a far cry from the claimed 16 percent performance hike.
Obese Indulgences—8 GB
With the ability to store 8 gigabytes of data, you can actually extract entire DVDs to such drives. Kingston’s DataTraveler Secure was a hulk of a drive—heavy, and claimed to be waterproof (up to four feet under-water); something we didn’t test. Buffalo’s Turbo USB was identical to the other Buffalo drives, and that’s a good thing. The 8 GB Cruzer from SanDisk was built identically to the other Cruzer drives—exemplary. The other attractive looking drive was the Transcend JetFlash V30 which used a shiny black, translucent body to convey all the appeal it needed to. It’s rather compact too, and was the smallest of the 8 GB drives.
The Data Traveler Secure has full 256-bit AES (Rijndael) encryption. This makes the Secure the perfect choice for someone who’s really serious about data protection. Not only can you limit access to the data on the drive but any data placed in the secure folder automatically gets encrypted.
SanDisk’s Cruzer also allows password encryption, which is standard with the U3 interface—and we’d like U3 if it wasn’t for the annoying pop-ups, in fact all U3 based drives are reasonably secure—something of a plus—but the interface leaves a lot to be desired.
With absolutely nothing to choose from between the speeds of the Buffalo and Kingston drives we knew we had our two performance winners nailed down. The Kingston drive does better at assorted writes—worth remembering if you intend to copy lots to files to the drive. If your need patterns dictate a lot of reading from the USB drive then the Buffalo would be better. The Transcend JetFlash V60 is the nearest competitor to these two speed demons, but still loses by a small margin. Transcend’s own JetFlash V30 brings up the rear.
If you are a security nut, and more concerned about who’s viewing your personal stuff then go with the Kingston DataTraveler Secure—no more worries except the price: Rs 11,111. If that’s a little too much to cough up, you should look at the U3-based SanDisk Cruzer—for Rs 7,990, you get decent speed, and great build quality. You’ll also get security as all the Cruzer drives come with the U3 interface, which has security features in-built.
If you’re really looking for something cheap try the Transcend JetFlash V60 8 GB (Rs 3,100). Buffalo’s Turbo USB is another decent offering for Rs 5,220, and is a good mix of performance and price. However much we like performance, a mix of value is important. As far as the delicate balance goes, nothing sets a better example than the Transcend JetFlash V60 8GB which shames its V30 brethren by a good margin. Our Best Buy Gold goes to the Transcend JetFlash V60—good for carrying around volumes of data, and you won’t really feel the pinch.