Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Flash-drive Foibles

I know a few of you are regular USB disk users and that at least one of you are in the market for one. I thus feel that it is my duty to warn you of a most unpleasant detail that has recently come to my attention.

Flash drives (or pen drives, jump drives, thumb drives, etc.) are now being bundled with spyware.

Yep, you read that right. Not only that, it's a really nasty crapware bundle that is really nastily hard to get rid of.

The software is called "U3" and a drive will be labeled as "U3 Smart" as they naturally pay off the manufacturers to include the software and spin it as a feature. What's worse is that there is NO WAY to get this crap off of the drive short of using a U3-developed utility to reflash the drive firmware.

Basically what happens is that the USB disk is equipped with firmware that splits it into two pseudo-partitions. One is the primary storage partition which equals roughly the advertised space minus about 60MB (considerable when you realize that USB disks are usually used for smaller files) and the other is a CDFS-formatted partition that acts like a virtual CD-ROM and launches U3's proprietary "LaunchPad" software.

Naturally the first thing I tried was just deleting the files, as is usually sufficient for "value-added" scumware shipped with various electronic gizmos. When that didn't work, I tried formatting. No dice.

Repartitioning with Windows NT Disk Management, FDISK, Mac OS X Disk Utility, and even QTParted on my Ubuntu box all yielded no results. The only way to clean the U3 crap and turn my flash drive into a plain-Jane storage device was to use a Windows-only firmware reflash utility that exorcises the U3 demons. Of course, it only does this after about 3 click-thru "warnings" about how wonderful U3 is and why you should never remove it and how the cute little bunny gets it if you do.

So yeah, long story short, examine packaging very closely if you want to buy a flash drive in the near future, and avoid the models listed here:

If you do somehow get nailed with this crap, go here and download the reflash utility to clean your USB disk and get your 60MB back.

And if, for whatever reason, you get a U3 drive and want to keep U3... I think you're nuts, but I guess you have your reasons. Whatever, dude.


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