The Universal Serial Bus (USB) was originally created to replace legacy parallel and serial ports on PCs, for example, mouse and keyboard connections, printer parallel cables, outboard modem serial cables and so on.
But the "U" in USB could just as easily stand for useful, unusual or even ubiquitous. On the unusual front are the US$29.95 USB Beverage Cooler, the US$12.99 USB Coffee Warmer and four-port hub, and the US$9.99 USB Vibe Personal Massage.
But don't let those fool you -- there's a lot of useful desktop and mobile USB peripherals and other devices out there, enough to clutter your desk or fill your carry-on. Here's a look at some of today's USB offerings that can make you more productive. Although, of course, if you use too many of them, they'll make you less mobile. (Disclaimer: I've only tried a few of these.)
Mobile storage, of course -- for data and also apps
USB flash drives are the "sneakernet" of the new millennium. This season, US$50 4GB drives are common, and 8GB USB drives start in the US$50-to-$100 range. That's big enough for files, applications, a Linux distro, even a few movies and a whole lotta MP3s.
If you want to carry around dozens of gigabytes, and access it away from a wall outlet, bus-powered pocket USB hard drives have gone below the dollar-a-gigabyte range, like Seagate's FreeAgent Go in 80GB to 160GB versions, and Toshiba America Information Systems' USB 2.0 Portable External Hard Drive line, in 100GB through 200GB versions.
These drives should be fast enough to, say, watch movies from (I've done this, with a Toshiba 160GB drive), and are also useful if you need to schlep 100GB or 200GB around. Your pocket USB drive may need two USB ports' worth of power; the drive should include a power-port and additional power-only cable, and an optional AC adapter. You can even carry live apps on your USB storage, ranging from browsers and e-mail clients to OpenOffice.
Companies have started distributing apps on also-use-them-for-storage flash drives, such as CA's Secure & Store Flash Drive with its Internet Security Suite and Desktop DNA migrator. After you're done, you've got a 2GB flash drive. Another example: H&R Block's Tax Cut USB Flash Drive.
If you want to load apps yourself, you've got several approaches, including 1) portable applications (PortableApps.com) (they simply run), 2) getting a U3-enabled flash drive, which lets you get and run U3-enabled applications, or 3) using Ceedo or MojoPack application USB managers.