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U3 Smart drives

Community Veteran
Posts: 14,440
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Registered: ‎01-08-2007

U3 Smart drives

I stumbled over these while investigating how my 3G dongle could autoplay software with a autorun.inf filw while no other usb dongle could. After much googling I found out that they use U3 technology inside.
U3 tech is rather useful because the hardware emulates a USB hub. It then emulates the main usb drive being connected to it but crucially it also emulates a usb CD-Rom drive being attached with a CD in it. Windows then detects this CD-Rom and unlike normal USB flash drives, will autoplay the virtual CD (IE it will autoplay like a real CD being put into your drive).
Well for Christmas I put one of these U3 drives on my wishlist.. and lo and behold got one! Woohoo! Last night was victorious because despite managing to wreak the LPInstaller.exe writing process to the CD-Rom, I found another program which is pretty indestructible and can still put new .iso's onto it for autoplaying.
Despite most U3 manufacturers putting their own U3 launcher panels on these drives (and thus annoying the hell out of people who thought they were just 'normal' drives - consequently gaining U3 a bad reputation and getting it scrapped), these drives had massively huge potential.
For many years I have been frustrated by the lack of thinking by USB creators for their usb hardware. It always seemed stupid that they didn't have a small flash drive directly inside the device which could hold the software and drivers etc. It was my dongle that gave me hope..
Just imagine.. you buy your new webcam in a big bulky box the size of a router or two. It's got to be that way because of the CD-Rom inside.. but with U3 it could of been truly plug and play - the PC would auto detect the virtual CD inside the camera and autoplay the software which would detect/install the drivers needed. The best bit being that its all inside the existing device which then allows the packaging to be shrunk drastically. Even better, in the case of plusnet, USB modems which hold their own drivers and configuration software. Printers.. again no need for hassle as its done automagically, cameras which can also install their own drivers and editing software.. the possibilities were truly endless.
I've done more research into U3 and it was a joint effort between Sandisk and a few others who had in principle agreed that it would be an open standard with SDK's and HDK's available for those who wanted to use this tech in their own devices. Thanks to the many who didn't understand (or bother to check) the difference between a flash drive and U3 drive, U3 gained a terrible reputation for being invasive and has now basically been withdrawn. You can still buy the drives but the actual development and software / hardware development kits is now not available and U3.com is now pointing to another site. This means that the tech is now not available to anyone else who may have found a use for it in their own developments.
I think its a very sad day when such a useful technology has become so overlooked and frowned upon. It seems that the only company who truly recognised its potential was Huawei - the company who make 3G modems and datacards for the mobile networks!
If anyone knows of any sites which offer U3 development kits, tech specs, instructions and samples etc I'd be mighty grateful for a tip Wink
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10 REPLIES
Community Veteran
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Registered: ‎10-09-2010

Re: U3 Smart drives

I don't get what is so special about U3, USB dongles with a storage element could always be autoplayed if autoplay was enabled...  But proved as always with Windows to be a huge security risk... How is U3 any different from this (either in Autoplay respects or security?)
Community Veteran
Posts: 14,440
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Registered: ‎01-08-2007

Re: U3 Smart drives

No, you are confused.
When inserting a USB drive you get a prompt asking you what you'd like to do. Open the folder to view files, play music etc. It's not a proper autoplay like a data CD.
You're thinking of this:

With U3, the drive acts like a CD-Rom and will automatically execute the pre-set .exe file. That program can then do whatever is needed - copy drivers over to the system HDD, run a presentation, install or uninstall software etc. It isn't the same as the Windows 'default action' autoplay thing. Windows won't actually take any notice of the autorun.inf file placed on any normal usb drive.
While you say its a security risk, so is putting in a CD-rom from someone else along with downloading anything from the internet, p2p servers or from a friends CD/usb drive. Disabling autoplay for CD-roms would effectively render this useless though you can still right click and hit autoplay but I don't understand why you're asking about the benefits.
I did point out above that using this tech usb device manufacturers can store their drivers and software on the actual physical device. In the same way that a 3G dongle stores its software and drivers which when first used, it installs itself and sets up the dialling and connection software. Imagine a usb webcam which doesn't need a CD to carry its drivers - because as soon as you plug it in, the system autoruns a virtual CD drive inside it and automatically installs its drivers. I'm pretty sure I did mention this above  Undecided Quite a few USB devices have a different preference as to whether you plug the device in first, install the drivers first or install and then plug in half way through etc. Using U3 would mean that all USB devices were installed the same way - plug in and let the software do it all.
It basically cuts down on the need for a real CD-rom.
You can also create autoplaying operating system ISO's too from what I've read. Imagine.. Winblows has gone cranky and you want to reinstall it on your notebook.. which has no optical drive..
The potential for these drives was actually very cool. Imagine also creating your own electronic device (I dunno.. door lock, PIR sensor, Wifi controlled car etc) and just being able to plug it into any computer without needing to carry around a CD to install it every time. The possible uses for this technology are pretty limitless. Shame it now seems to reside with the Huawei company and no-one else!
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Community Veteran
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Registered: ‎10-09-2010

Re: U3 Smart drives

Well as I said, if autoplay was enabled for USB's they would autoplay, just as CD are defaulted to do.
I no longer use Windows, amongst the reasons why are things like autoplay, a
Quote
program can then do whatever is needed - copy drivers over to the system HDD, run a presentation, install or uninstall software etc
without my knowledge is a program I want no where near my computer.  When I did use Windows autoplay was one of the first features I always disabled, which if you look at just about any security sites or advisory's is exactly what they recommend you do.
So if you want a system that is wide open for virus's etc, then sure, enabled autoplay on everything (in which case U3 does nothing special) on the other hand if you want a secure system disabled autoplay (in which case U3 does nothing special) and if you decided to leave everything as it defaults out the box, all U3 does is circumvent the one small nod to security MS did give when it came to USB memory sticks, which is they defaulted to asking you what you wanted to do.
For me, U3 at best is uninteresting as it does nothing, there is nothing stopping USB device manufacturers putting some small memory into their USB devices anyway, the only feature missing would be the autorun, and at worst U3 is yet another technology that was inviting to be misused.
Community Veteran
Posts: 14,440
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Registered: ‎01-08-2007

Re: U3 Smart drives

4Ok let me put it like this... autorun aside.. (although its still a nifty idea and pretty useful to non-windows bashers) its the onboard memory via an emulated hub which is the root of this tech and it's THAT which makes it incredibly useful.
Onboard drivers for any usb device with no CD needed. Isn't that idea in its own right a genius idea?
The autorun thing is handy.. I do agree its a security risk (along with downloading things from the internet) but for the 'dummys' type of people out there, the ability to plug and play is incredibly useful. It's also useful for techs who need to plug and play diagnostic software etc. At the end of the day, virtual CD with autorun or not, it's the emulated USB hub and some type of disk which is the key here and I think its a technology which has not had its potential recognised.
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Community Veteran
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Registered: ‎10-09-2010

Re: U3 Smart drives

Quote from: okrzynska
Onboard drivers for any usb device with no CD needed. Isn't that idea in its own right a genius idea?
But U3 isn't needed for that, USB device manufacturers can already do this if they wanted to, there's even no need to emulate a USB hub, USB was originally designed to chain device, back when the first devices were released they often had two sockets an in and out, but then someone came up with the idea of a hub and chaining was forgotten, but there is no reason someone couldn't put 2 or more logical devices into one physical device...
So all that U3 does is... well not much, it fools the OS into thinking its a CD... seriously, what's so special about that?
Community Veteran
Posts: 14,440
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Fixes: 12
Registered: ‎01-08-2007

Re: U3 Smart drives

Well as I uynderstood it, the U3 thing was the emulated hub and other emulated hardware.
Quote from: fourfourdevon
Quote from: okrzynska
Onboard drivers for any usb device with no CD needed. Isn't that idea in its own right a genius idea?
But U3 isn't needed for that, USB device manufacturers can already do this if they wanted to, there's even no need to emulate a USB hub

So why isn't it used? - Why do Huawei use an emulated hub and drive to store their drivers and software? I've never found a printer with its own onboard drivers.. or a webcam.. or anything else usb related.. except the dongles!
You say there is no need to emulate a hub but then how do you get 2 usb devices to work inside one physical package without one? - You yourself have just said that the hub was created to solve the chaining problem. Does USB2/3 still support the old chain methods?
I've yet to find one usb device yet that stores its own drivers onboard unless its running this emulated stuff (whether its called U3 or not!). Most of the devices seem to be miraculously recognised by Windows which has a rather extensive range of drivers which is somewhat of a miracle in its own right.
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Community Veteran
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Registered: ‎10-09-2010

Re: U3 Smart drives

Why does anyone choose expensive proprietary solutions when cheaper standards based solutions exist?  I don't know, but they do, repeatedly.  I'm just telling you what is, not why, I can't say why, I don't know.
Apparently with USB 1.1 specification they banned passed through due to voltage problems that some users experienced with some devices, however on the documentation I could find they said pass through still works as USB is a bus, and extending the bus is fine so long as all the devices on the bus can get the power they need.
As someone building two logical devices into one physical device has complete control over the voltage draw down I can see no reason they would suffer.
Community Veteran
Posts: 14,440
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Registered: ‎01-08-2007

Re: U3 Smart drives

Interestig info that is!
Gotta say though from my POV doing something like that could be asking for trouble as you said with voltages etc. The hub thing however looks cool because in theory it is scalable and could potentially allow any usb device to do cooler things.
I would certainly be interested in any sites that have instructions on usb emulation as clearly sandisk won't be sharing any time soon Sad
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barky
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Registered: ‎21-01-2009

Re: U3 Smart drives

I thought u3 was thing of the past .. no longer supported much ?Huh
am all portableapps here!
Community Veteran
Posts: 14,440
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Registered: ‎01-08-2007

Re: U3 Smart drives

Er, yes it is a thing of the past but you can still get them from ebay.
Portable apps is perfect for U3 - you can create a .iso image to run the portable apps menu automatically from the CD-Rom drive.
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