Last Friday I partook in the Black Friday sales frenzy and purchased a 4GB SanDisk Micro Cruzer USB flash drive for 60. It seemed like a great deal compared to the retail price of 99. This drive was U3 Enabled, a term I had heard a few times before but that I was overall clueless about. U3 is an LLC backed by SanDisk and M-Systems that created a specification for USB flash drives to run Microsoft Windows programs directly off the drive. Specially formatted drives that meet this criteria are labeled as U3 smart drives and come with pre-installed software for Windows computers.
Similar to the fine offerings of Portable Apps, U3 smart drives come with a similar launchpad to control the pre-installed applications. The applications that come on the drive vary by make and model but mine came with a SanDisk application CruzerSync for email and backups, a password management program I've never heard of as well as Skype of all things. The first time you connect a U3 smart flash drive to your Windows PC, it will autorun some stuff and place a dandy (sarcasm) icon in your taskbar tray. For a second, I had flashbacks of the AOL days.
Whenever you plug the same U3 smart flash drive into your Mac you are presented with two items on your desktop - the actual usable read/write partition and an annoying 60MB read-only partition that stores the pre-installed Windows software.
For Windows users, U3 might serve some purpose including the ability to download additional U3 smart software such as Trillian, OpenOffice and Firefox that reside on the protected U3 System partition. My problem with U3 is that the average user that won't use the pre-installed software loses valuable storage space.
U3 is actually a pain to uninstall. I loaded the drive in OS X's disk utility and reformatted it but the partition that mimics a CD-ROM drive remained. It was only after Best Buy's Geek Squad complained about the difficulty of removing U3 functionality that U3 began bundling an uninstall application this month. The uninstall application is of course Windows only, so I had to briefly borrow my roommate's PC.
How do you feel about U3 and other software that comes pre-installed on flash USB sticks? I buy USB sticks for their versatility, utility and storage space, not their pre-installed software that takes up space. The fact that the U3 software autoruns everytime you plug it in is also a bit disconcerting. Similar to Jakob Nielsen's qualm about websites that open new browser windows (#9), software that runs on its own scares the casual PC user and invokes a frantic thought of "what's going on?"
I do realize that U3 is an attempt by SanDisk to add features to the otherwise bland USB flash drive product, but unreliable software (many reports of U3 software freezing systems) that doesn't work on most operating systems is not the way to go.
I can't think of a time that I actually used software that came bundled with a PC. When Intel gave me a laptop for their blog challenge, I spent 3 hours uninstalling the useless bundled and pre-installed software. If I had my way, I would have just reinstalled XP but it didn't come with any such discs.
Other than that, I love this flash drive - great form factor and speed.
Left to Right: AA battery, SanDisk 4GB Cruzer Micro, SanDisk 2GB Cruzer Micro, Lexar 1GB JumpDrive (very old), SanDisk 512MB Cruzer Micro