A tiny drive that holds billions of bits

Darien Graham-Smith
15 Jun 2010

“Dude, someone’s snapped the end off your USB stick.” That’s what you’d probably say if you saw the new Lexar Echo ZE flash drive sitting on my desk.

Yet I can assure you, as one dude to another, that no one has. What you see above is the whole thing. Somehow, while I was briefly looking the other way, flash drives have become so compact that the entire device is now basically the size of the plug.

Billions of bits

And this isn’t a little 512MB drive either — not that 512MB is actually little. In these days of terabyte hard disks we’ve become accustomed to thinking of anything less than a gigabyte as piddling small change; but 512MB is still 4,294,967,296 binary cells. That’s a lot of cells. If each one were a mere millimetre in size, 4,294,967,296 of them in a row would stretch from here to Baghdad. Don't ask about latency.

Yet what we have here is even more impressive. The Lexar Echo ZE is a 32GB device, which according to Excel means it holds an amazing 2.74878E+11 bits. At one millimetre per bit, that’s enough bits to reach three quarters of the way to the moon.

The Echo ZE crams its 274 billion cells into a tiny nub roughly a quarter of a cubic centimetre in volume

Of course, one millimetre per bit is a wholly imaginary scale, which I made up simply because a millimetre is pretty much the smallest unit of measurement I can visualise. In reality, the Echo ZE crams its 274 billion cells into a tiny nub roughly a quarter of a cubic centimetre in volume. If my GCSE maths hasn’t wholly deserted me, this means that, on average, each cubic millimetre of this thing stores around 131MB of data. If you’re old, like me, you may enjoy visualising that as 373 5.25" floppy disks, teetering in an unlikely column.

An archive in your pocket

Though this advance in storage density is strictly speaking only quantitative, it opens up whole new possibilities. The Echo ZE is marketed as a backup drive that’s compact enough to leave plugged in at all times, and that’s a pretty ingenious angle — look out for a review soon.

But personally, as soon as I saw the Echo ZE I started thinking about how convenient it would be to keep multiple OS distributions in my pocket, not to mention applications, perhaps a copy of the PC Pro benchmarks, even – why not? – a whole library of books, films and TV shows.

(Eventually the idea of carrying data anywhere will be absurd, of course, because it’ll all be floating about in the cloud, ready to be accessed from wherever you happen to be. But if you think that’s viable today, click here and let me know when you get bored. For bonus points, try it over a 3G connection.)

Size and capacity

To be fair, the Echo ZE isn’t the most capacious USB flash drive we’ve seen: that would be Kingston’s 256GB DataTraveler 300. I shudder to think how many bits that one holds. But the Kingston drive is, by the standards of these things, a comparatively chunky device. If I were to keep it in my pocket I would be inviting an unending stream of comedy from my hilarious colleagues with respect to the bulge in my trousers. Since the DataTraveler 300 still sells for over £600, I would also be inviting a well-deserved mugging.

The Echo ZE, by contrast, is so tiny and light that you can stick it in a pocket and genuinely forget about it until you need it. Plus, since it costs little more than £60, losing it wouldn’t be quite such a disaster.

Having said that, since it has no sort of clip or cord to attach to a key-ring, I would lose it. And the loss wouldn’t be merely financial: think of the data! 274 billion bits gone, just like that, fallen through a hole in my pocket, or accidentally swept into a friend’s bin.

But to me that is, in a slightly cussed way, perhaps the most inspiring reflection of all. How fantastic it is that we live in a world where you can so easily misplace ninety thousand floppy disks’ worth of data! And it makes me wonder — what might we be able to lose tomorrow?

Read more about: