Sony puts a chunk of memory on a key chain

As computers and other digital devices become more pervasive, the need to transfer files between machines becomes greater. Sony Corp. on Monday joined a small number of lesser-known companies with the unveiling of its Micro Vault, a stylish and cool new keychain device designed to make this task easier.

The Micro Vault is a chunk of flash memory that can hang on a key chain. Available in 16M-byte, 32M-byte, 64M-byte and 128M-byte capacities, the device is small, portable and doesn't come with all the hassles of memory cards which require dedicated drives or adapters and often special drivers too. However, this convenience comes at a not-so-cool premium price.

Like competing products, it gets around these hassles by employing a USB interface, which means it can connect to almost any personal computer. Machines running Microsoft Corp.'s Windows 2000, ME or XP, or Apple Computer Inc.'s MacOS 9 and above, don't require a driver to be installed. Other machines will require a driver but it's a standard one that is supplied with the MicroVault and might already be on your system. It also includes Sony's Privacy Zone software, which allows users to create a password-protected zone for storage of personal files.

With a loop so that it can be attached to a key chain, the small device is certainly cool -- something not unusual from Sony. However, users will have to decide on what premium they attach to this coolness: the cheapest Micro Vault, the 16M-byte version, will carry a US$50 manufacturer price tag, and the 32M-byte version will cost $90. At 64M bytes, the device will cost $150, and the 128M-byte version will cost a cool $300.

The 16M-byte model is $15 more expensive than a Sony Memory Stick module of the same capacity, and the price difference gets larger as the capacity increases, with the 128M-byte Micro Vault costing double the price of the equivalent Memory Stick.

The price difference is largely a tax on convenience. With Memory Stick, users need to purchase an adapter and install a driver on the computer they are using, says Deborah Szajngarten, a spokeswoman for Sony Electronics, explaining the price difference between the two devices.

And while the Micro Vault will connect to personal computers, it won't be able to connect to, say, a digital still camera via USB for storage of images. That function will have to wait for the new USB On-The-Go system, which is still being finalized. Just like memory cards, the MicroVault does not require a battery because flash memory only needs power when data is being read or written and that can be gained from the USB cable.

The Micro Vault will be available first in the U.S., in January 2002, and Sony plans to follow with launches in other markets, although timing has not been decided. The devices will come in four colors, coded to the four capacities. The 16M-byte device will be orange, the 32M-byte one red, the 64M-byte one blue and the 128M-byte model black, said Sony.

Competing products from manufacturers such as JMTek LLC and K&C Tech are already available -- and typically cheaper than Sony's recommended pricing -- and come in capacities as large as 1G byte. However, they are not widely distributed. Sony's entry into the market should mean that such devices become better known and could also increase the profile of such lesser-known companies.

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Martyn Williams

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