A simple marriage of a compact storage technology and a nearly ubiquitous connector, USB flash drives long ago became heir to the floppy disk, a convenient way to move files between multiple computers.
Prices, which vary with capacity, buy you more capacity as time goes on.
According to NPD's Retail Tracking Service, the most popular capacity for a USB flash drive in 2010 was 4 gigabytes, which cost an average of $13. But low-capacity drives are so cheap that they are often given away as promotions.
But while the USB drive is simple and affordable, it has some limitations that are getting addressed by an array of products that bring creative spins on network and wireless capabilities to the familiar PC appendage.
Tazzle IT ($79.95) addresses a common issue of how difficult it can sometimes be to transfer information between a smartphone and a PC even when they are right next to each other, especially if you don't have a cable handy.
The slim half-height Bluetooth adapter makes it simple for you to view, transfer or print documents such as photos from a BlackBerry using a PC. Tazzle IT adds a couple of menu commands to BlackBerry applications that manage messages and photos.
Simply select what you want to send, and choose Tazzle IT from the application menu to send it to the PC using the adapter and running the software.
Once the PC and BlackBerry software is installed, Tazzle IT is easy to use, although you'll have to hunt among the BlackBerry's sometimes excessively long menus to find its features. Unfortunately, the product doesn't yet work with any other smartphones or with a Mac, and the speed of Bluetooth means that you may want to step up to a USB cable transfer for moving across lots of photos or long videos.
The chunky, plainly named and colored Wireless Media Stick ($119.99) 2.0 acts like most USB flash drives, but retains a live link back to the original PC or Mac -- or even multiple PCs and Macs -- in a home network.
If you copy a folder of photos to the Stick and attach it to, say, a digital picture frame, it can be updated every time you add photos to that folder without having to bring the stick back and load it up again.
You can even configure the Stick wirelessly with a Web browser to, for example, add access to shared network folders without having to physically insert the drive in the computers that are sharing them.
The Wireless Media Stick lives up to its promise but there are a few things to keep in mind. Since it has no storage itself, the PCs or Macs with the files on them will have to be on and connected to the network for it to work.
Also, some devices may not recognize new files added without restarting them or reinserting the Stick, and -- as with any USB drive -- the receiving device must be able to handle the format of the files on it.
Many USB-equipped Blu-ray players, for example, support only a few video file formats. In addition, using high-definition videos with the Stick may be challenging in some home networks. At times, high-definition movies streamed smoothly. At other times, they buffered and stuttered.
AirStash ($99.99) uses Wi-Fi to form a bridge with a destination device; it is the only of the four devices discussed herein that uses any local storage, but even that depends on the SD card used with it.