Flash Drive Warning: U3 drives=Not so Smart

David Parry bio photo By David Parry


I was at Best Buy looking at monitors with someone the other day (looking not buying, as you can get better tech prices online-personally I buy from (Newegg but that’s not the point). I saw they had Flash Drives on sale. Now before on this blog I have talked about the importance of having one of these to help you with so many tech issues, from transporting data, to checking email on any computer, and giving problem free presentations. I have been wanting a larger one lately so I can pull off some sweeter hacks and demonstrations for classes. They had a 2GB one on sale for $44, so I thought sure. . . this was a mistake. Why? The drive was a u3 drive. I didn’t know about the problem with these things and it took me a couple of hours to fix it. So here is my advice: If you are going to buy a flash drive get one that is not u3, if you already have one, or find one on the cheap keep reading as I am going to explain the steps to fix this. But first let me explain what the problem is with these “smart” drives is, and why you have to fix them, they pose a particualr problem for academic uses.

What is u3?

The makers of u3 call it a “smart drive,” a way to carry on a flash drive all of your preferences, a few key programs, documents, data etc. This way you can, “plug into any Windows 2000 or XP PC, and work.” Basically they are marketing the techniques I talked about earlier here of putting small applications onto a flash drive so that you can hook into any computer and make it work the way you want. Especially useful for working on community computers where you are not allowed to change the settings. For example, you can carry firefox as a web browser on your flash drive, that way you can have all you bookmarks, and tab browse on computers where the only broswer is the woefully inadequate Internet Explorer. This is a great technique. And the promise of u3 is that they make this really easy by having a small part of the flash drive pre-installed with software that helps you do this. The problem: This is a Lie! It doesn’t Work!

Okay without getting to technical, (if you want more in depth explanation go here). But basically it comes with an autorun program pre-installed, it tries to run this every time you log into a windows machine. (On a philosophical level this is bad as no company should produce software that installs and runs without you first accepting-this is how spyware gets started.) Now the huge problem for academics is that not all windows machines can run the program that it tries to run. So when I first tried to put my new flashdrive into the office computer on campus, nothing happens, the computer can’t see the flash drive, or worse, it causes the computer to “hang“. If a machine doesn’t let you access the toolbar (many don’t) the program can’t run. Here’s a brief note to the makers of u3:

The ”u“ in ”USB“ stands for universal, the idea is that I should be able to plug my flash drive into any computer and have it work, by trying to make this thing ”smart“ you have taken away the whole reason I use a flashdrive!.</p> It is no longer universal. What is more, everything u3 does can be done without u3. And sometimes computers will recognize a u3 drive and sometimes not, so you might think everything is okay, and than one time when you are trying to print the chapter of your dissertation for a meeting with your advisor it won’t work. And, here is the real kicker, the drive does apparently leave ”traces“ on the computer, that means you are not completely operating safely.

And to make this quadruply heinous the evil developers at u3 won’t let you erase this piece of crap autorun software. It is write protected, which means you have read only privileges. I thought the problem would be simply fixed by erasing and reformating the drive, no such luck.

Let me say again, Evil, Evil, Evil, this can only cause problems as you try to use your drive across a range of institutional machines. Never fear though, there are steps for fixing this.

How to Fix a u3 drive.

Basically the fix here is to wipe the drive and start out fresh. This way you have a real univerisal flash drive and can actually plug into any computer. Initally the developers of u3 wouldn’t let you unistall the part of the flashdrive that is causing all of these problems, luckily enough people seemed to have complained and they have now made an unistall program available. The problem is that you need a PC to do this, so if you own a Mac you need to find someone with a PC. A community computer might not work as you need to run the uninstall off the main hard drive, and often community computers don’t let you do this.

  • First back up all your data as this process will completely erase the disk, but this is good as it will make the drive actually universal. So save all your data you want onto your desktop in a folder titled ”Flash Drive“ or something.
  • Second go to the uninstall webstie at u3. They will ask you to fill out a form as to why you are uninstalling their software. The final box is for comments. If you are so inclined you can cut and paste the following into the box:
    > I am unistalling this crap piece of software because it is autorun and automatically installs without asking my permission. Second, it doesn’t work on all computers. Third, it is not secure. In short, it sucks! In fact I recommend that whoever thought of this idea be promptly demoted to mail room clerk in charge of licking stamps and since most stamps are now peel and stick this will ensure that they never create such another horrible product. Thanks. </p>
  • Third, once you go thru all of their steps it will download a program called unistall.exe.
  • Fourth, with your flashdrive in the port run this program. It will now ask you again if you sure you want to do this. I wish this also had a comment box. I would write: You have asked me this four times already, of course I want to make my flash drive work correctly.
  • If you are having problems getting your computer to recongnize your flash drive you can hold down “Shift” key as you put the drive in, this will prevent (this time only) the autorun program from loading allowing you to run the install and wipe the drive.
  • Note for Mac Users: If you are only using the drive on a Mac you will be okay. Although everytime you put the drive in the computer you see two drives: one a cd, the other the flash drive, and you always have to eject both. To make sure you can run this drive on a PC you should do this uninstall.

I realize this might seem hard to get done, and it is a bit tricky, but if you are going to use one of these U3 drives it is essential