Move over Prada, Gucci, and Calvin Klein, SanDisk's new Cruzer Contour flash drive, "is a unique fashion statement". We know this because SanDisk says so. What it actually means, once you parse out the Web 2.0 idiom, is that the Contour doesn't look like a pack of bubble gum. Instead, it slopes downward at the back and there's no cap for its USB connector, which is stowed away inside the housing.

To access the connector you press down slightly on the top panel with your thumb, slide it back to expose the connector, and then slide it forward so the connector is extended. You do exactly the reverse to retract it. (Any questions as to why they call it a "thumb drive"?) Our only complaint is that while the tip of the USB connector has a spring-loaded metal flap to cover it, it often doesn't work -- unintentionally exposing the opening of the connector to the most dreaded of all contaminants, pocket lint.

The Cruzer Contour's literature contains some impressive performance claims -- principally that it has a write speed of 18Mbps and reads at 25Mbps. Both of these rates, according to SanDisk, are substantially better (double and two-thirds better, respectively) than "SanDisk's previous top-of-the-line model". That's nice for SanDisk, but there are other flash drives and flash drive makers in the world. We tested the Contour against two Corsair contemporaries, the Flash ReadOut and the Flash Voyager GT using Simpli Software's HDTach benchmark.

The Contour's resulting 0.5msec random access speed is half that of the GT's and well below the ReadOut's 7.8msec. CPU utilization for the three units was just about equal, all being within the test's margin of error. It was the Corsair, however, that pulled ahead in average reads, scoring 29.8Mbit/sec to the Contour's 25.5Mbit/sec. (The ReadOut trailed by a hair at 25.3Mbps.) The conclusion, of course, is that while the Contour may now be the fastest SanDisk drive, it's simply competitive within the superset of the rest of the world.

SanDisk also claims that the Cruzer Contour is a capable Vista ReadyBoost Drive, but we've heard that song before -most notably with Corsair's Voyager GT. The GT's track record of cooperation with Vista was hit or miss. Sometimes it was recognized on boot-up, sometimes not, and Vista seemed happy to forget about it whenever it could.

In stark contrast, the Contour is a wonderfully simple "plug-in and be recognized" operation with its definition as a ReadyBoost drive through its properties folders. It's no more than a simple matter of checking the options and clicking OK. It's difficult to tell whether either drive actually made much of a difference in Vista, but the Contour's easier installation will make you want to believe that it does. With a random access time that's half of the Voyager GT's, it should.

Not everything is easy about the Contour and Vista, however. SanDisk has added its usual cadre of software to the drive: including U3 technology (so you can carry your files and application software on a secure USB drive), Skype, CruzerSync (you can have your wallpaper, preferences, favorites, profiles, and more available on the go), Avast (anti-virus), SignupShield (for password management) and HP Photosmart (for image management).

U3 applications are specially written to be portable. We found them to be hit or miss under Vista. OpenOffice wouldn't run, but Weatherbug had no problem. Both ran well under XP off the drive. (Vista's security also adds extra steps when attempting to install U3 software and you should also suspect expect? that CruzerSync might hiccup a bit if you're trying to overlay your Vista desktop appliqu├ęs on XP or vice versa.)

When you connect the Contour you end up with one SanDisk desktop icon for the U3 and the supplied software and two icons in My Computer -one duplicating the desktop application and the other for the drive itself. Ejecting the drive differs between Vista and XP. It's a one-click process under XP using the standard USB device eject tool in the taskbar. Under Vista, we needed to first close the desktop icon and then eject the drive.

The Contour is a good deal for Vista, based on our experience, and while most of its performance stats are similar to the Corsair's similarly- sized Flash Voyager GT, it's that extra versatility that makes us lean in its direction.