by Edward Mendelson
USB thumb drives have shown themselves to be a superior alternative to other portable media such as diskettes and writable optical discs. They're smaller and can hold tons of data, and most current operating systems recognize them without needing any special drivers. We've seen 1GB drives for under $100, and drives with smaller capacities start at under $20.
Most people don't realize that these drives can also carry enough applications to serve as a personal office on the road, and can even contain a complete bootable operating system to provide total security when you are computing away from home. There are plenty of reasons to carry applications or an operating system on your USB drive: You'll have your e-mail and instant messaging accounts, Internet bookmarks, log-on passwords, and even document templates instantly available on any computer you find in a hotel's computer center, a home, or an office that you might visit. You can also be certain that your settings will stay on your USB drive and won't be stored in the browser cache or anywhere else on a remote machine. Here's what we put on our ultimate USB drive the programs are free for personal use, unless noted. Most of the apps we describe can run entirely from the USB drive without installation.