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USB Flash Drives are the new hot device. Their compact size, relative low cost, large storage capacities, and ease of use lend them to a broad range of applications. While many flash drives end up in single user or personal use applications, a growing number are finding their way into mass distribution channels much the same as CD and DVD distribution where many drives need to be produced with the same or slightly varying content. In order to meet that need, a Flash Drive (or "Memory Stick") Duplicator is often the best choice. Unfortunately, there are nearly as many varieties of duplicator as there are flash drives and selecting the proper one for your needs can be a difficult operation with expensive consequences should a poor choice be made. We want you to make informed decisions and we want you to be happy with your selection. The following article will assist you in making the choice of which type of USB duplicator that would best suit your needs.

Features and things to look for:

1.) Image copy. Image copy software is standard with all altec systems. The duplicator reads a master drive to an "Image File" which is a copy of the sectors of the flash drive stored in a single file. When that image is duplicated back to your blank drives, the end result is an exact duplicate of the original. This method tends to be faster then copying the files individually and is generally considered a more accurate copy method.

2.) Short Image copy. Image copy typically copies the entire drive regardless of the amount of content. So if you "image copy" a 1 GB flash drive that contains 50 MB of data, the image file will be 1 GB - the entire drive. That 1 GB is then copied to all your blank drives. The time it takes to copy is directly proportional to the size of the image. Short Image copy allows for the image to only contain the actual data on the drive. So, in the example above, a short image file of the same master would be 50 MB. Short image copy can significantly decrease the duplication cycle time when the drive capacity is much larger then the actual drive content.

3.) File Copy. File copy is the automated copying of specific files or groups of files to the USB Flash Drives. This tends to be a slower process then image copy since each file has to be individually located and copied. It is also considered less accurate then image copy since the drive contents are not being copied verbatim. It does however offer more flexibility in choosing files to include/exclude, particularly when used on a dedicated computer based system.

4.) Verification. Verification checks the copied drive against the original to make sure the copies match. In most cases, this is overkill since any errors that occur during the copy process are likely to cause the writing to fail. With a failed write, the operator would be warned by the system even before verification started. In either case, there are two common types of verification used; checksum and bitwise. Checksum verification is faster and works by the corresponding data from the master and the copy and then processing it with a special algorithm to create a "checksum" value. If the values match, then the data is the same in both the master and the copy. While considered a reliable method, it is possible to get the same checksum value without the data actually matching so it is not a foolproof check of data integrity. Bitwise verification reads and compares each corresponding bit in the master and copy. Doing so requires more time, making this method slower but perfectly accurate.

5.) Serialization. This software is optional on some of the higher end systems which allows each drive to copied and then "Personalized" so each drive is unique. This can include things such as special files based on individual end users, passwords, license files, etc. It operates by having the duplication software call an accessory program at the end of the duplication cycle. That program can then, for example, read a database and copy a license file for the next X entries to each individual drive, with each license file containing the appropriate information for each entry in the database. Serialization software allows for quick automation and rapid production of unique drives.

6.) Can the machine copy to multiple drives of varying capacity? Many standalone systems cannot do this. If you have a 10 drive standalone and your master is 50 MB you cannot in many cases load the machine with a mix of 256 MB, 512 MB and 1 GB drives. They are all large enough, but many systems require that all the target drives to be copied be the same capacity (1 GB for example). This may not seem like a big issue, but note that many manufacturers of inexpensive flash drives have varying capacity's. For example if you buy 50 - 1 GB drives, their actual formatted capacities may be more like 30 - 1 GB, 10 - .99 GB and 10 - 1.01 GB. If your machine can't handle this you are in for a very frustrating (and time consuming) copy session.

7.) Can the machine copy to drives of varying vendor ID and/or product ID? Like #6 above this may not seem significant on the surface but it can definitely be an issue in some circumstances. Every USB drive will have a vendor ID code and a product ID code, but like the capacity issue above some lower quality vendors or suppliers may not have those codes consistent across your order. If your machine cannot duplicate to mixed lots then you could run into problems.

8.) U3 Drives. As of this writing no duplicator that can properly copy U3 Drives with the Image or Short Image copy methods. You will need to use a system with FileCopy where you have control over which files you are copying. The U3 structure requires a hidden CDFS partition on the drive. Image copy software will copy it, but the controller chips on the copied drives will not correctly recognize it therefore the copied drives will not function correctly. Some file copy software or the copy software in standalone units may attempt to copy the CDFS partition as a file which again results in invalid copies. With a dedicated computer system and FileCopy you can select the specific files to copy from your hard drive without relying on reading from the master for each cycle. This finer control can allow you to copy files repeatedly to U3 drives without disturbing the CDFS partition.

9.) Master storage. You might want a system that reads your master once, and then remove and store it in a safe place. PC controlled systems or standalone systems with an internal hard drive will read the master to a hard drive or other internal storage device, and then make copies from that source. There are two advantages to this. The first is obvious, if your master is in the machine and not in safe storage for the duration of the duplication job then there is always the risk of damage or loss. This is amplified by the fact that every time that master is used it has to be dragged out and inserted into the duplicator for the entire job. The less obvious problem is that flash drives use NAND memory which has a finite life span which decreases with each read/write. That life span if very long and should not really come into play, however the more you read and write to a flash drive the more likely it is to fail. Systems that can store the master to a hard drive allow you to read that master once and then store it in a safe place. Every duplication job from that point on can be carried out using the image file stored on the hard drive. The only time the original master need be used would be in the case of hard drive failure, or if the master image were to be erased from the hard drive. Also, data transfer from a hard drive is much faster then from a flash drive, so writing to a flash drive from a hard drive image is faster then from a master flash drive.

10.) Sources for quality drives. We have so far gotten good reviews for the following brands: SanDisk, Lexar, Transend, Kingston, Memorex.  There are many lower cost producers (particularly in the far east), but finding a reputable one that produces a quality drive can be a daunting task. We have established a Flash Drive Review Database where flash drive users can look at the experiences other users have had with various manufacturers and drives. We hope this resource will help make your duplication experience as pain free as possible. This a new service and we rely on your feedback!

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