Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2006/04/06/roundup_biometric_usb_flash_drive/

Fingerprint-reading Flash drives

Time to invest in some biometric data storage?

By Lars-Göran Nilsson

Posted in Hardware, 6th April 2006 17:41 GMT

Group Test Fingerprint recognition might not be all it's cracked up to be - as it has been proven time and time again that there are ways around it - bit it's still far better than no security at all. As long as it's set up properly, it works well enough, and it's fairly easy to use. Many laptops now come with built-in biometric security, but what about the data that's not on your notebook?

What we have on test here are three different biometric USB Flash drives, all with their own unique features. The contestants are the RiTech BioSlimDisk, SanDisk's Cruzer Profile and the Sony MicroVault USM256F. Each uses fingerprint recognition so if you loose it, no one else can get at your valuable data.

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The three drives take different solutions to the same problem. The SanDisk and Sony devices offer further features, which I’ll go into more detail about in the individual reviews.

Although all three drives use a USB 2.0 interface, the memory used in the various drives means that there will be performance differences - see the charts. This shouldn’t prove to be too much of an issue in most instances though, but it is something worth taking into consideration before parting with your money. The cost of the various devices is also a factor to take into account of course, but you also have to consider what is more important, the cost of the device or the value of your data.

RiTech BioSlimDisk

RiTech isn’t a company that I was familiar with before writing this group test, but its BioSlimDisk is a very impressive product. You might think that this is too bold a statement to put in the first line of a review, but it's by far the easiest to use of the three devices I tested. Even more so if you use computers with different operating systems, as it's completely platform independent.

BioSlimDisk

It’s actually a rather strange experience using the BioSlimDisk, as it doesn’t come with any kind of software, but it is still very easy to use. It comes with a set of step-by-step instructions in a small pamphlet that tells you how to set it up for the first time. You have to set five unique fingerprints, just in case you have a cut or something which would prevent it from recognising that finger.

There are three LEDs on the BioSlimDisk. The one closest to the finger print sensor flashes once the drive has been inserted into a USB slot to indicate that you need to unlock the drive. The middle LED will either light up green or red, depending on whether the fingerprint was recognised. The third and final LED indicates if the drive has been reset to its default settings with no fingerprints recorded.

To reset the BioSlimDisk, you simply flick a small switch on the side of the USB key and enter one of the enrolled fingerprints. Enrolling is even easier: plug the drive into your computer, put five fingers on the fingerprint scanner in succession and, as long as all five are accepted, you’re ready to go.

The design of the BioSlimDisk isn’t what you’d call sexy, nor is it exactly slim or small. Read and write speeds are very good, so absolutely no complaints there. To be honest, the only complaint I have is the poor construction of the lanyard hoop, but that’s really it. You don’t get a lot of accessories with the BioSlimDisk, just a lanyard and a USB extension cable.

Verdict

The RiTech BioSlimDisk is without a doubt the best implementation on test. It’s easy to use, doesn’t need any software and it works on any platform that accepts USB Mass Storage devices. There’s the small matter of the cost, though. The 512MB version comes in at a very hefty £150, making it the most expensive of the products on test.

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More info The BioSlimDisk product page

Read and Write Speed Tests

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SanDisk Cruzer Profile

SanDisk is well-known for its Flash memory products and is a prominent brand on the high street. The Cruzer Profile is SanDisk's first biometric storage device and differs from the other two on test by using a swipe sensor rather than a pad.

Sandisk_2

The SanDisk also differs from the other two drives by having two partitions: on the 512MB version, an 18MB unsecured areas and a 470MB secured partition. The unprotected partition contains the software you need to set up the fingerprint recognition as well as a utility that allows you to use the Cruzer Profile to log in to Windows by swiping your fingerprint. You can enrol up to ten fingerprints. To edit the fingerprints or make any changes you have to swipe your finger, so you can’t bypass the security functionality.

A further two applications are provided on the secure partition of the Cruzer Profile. CruzerLock 2 allows you to encrypt files and use the fingerprint scanner instead of a password. CruzerSync synchronises files on your hard drive with those on your Cruzer Profile and again these can be encrypted, using a fingerprint to unlock them instead of a password.

The design of the Cruzer Profiler is rather odd, as it’s made up out of two parts. The top half slides out and is connected to the bottom half by a small length of wire which has a blue LED built in to the lower part of it to indicate when data is being accessed. Oddly enough, the top half only houses a USB connector and nothing else - a very strange design choice. The bottom half houses the swipe sensor and the Flash memory. The bottom of the Cruzer Profiler is rubber-coated to make it sit better on a desk, but due to the lightweight construction, this doesn’t really help. The short cable also limits where you can put it, although it’s ideal for use with most laptops.

The read and write speeds are generally excellent, although it’s not great for copying a large amount of small files as this test was very slow, taking almost eight minutes to complete. As with the other drives there’s very little in the way of accessories, and the only thing SanDisk bundles is a lanyard.

Verdict

The SanDisk Cruzer Profile is rather oddly shaped for a USB memory key, but it works well - although it’s only for Windows users. The additional software will come in handy for many users. The real icing on the cake though is the super-low price: you can pick one up for under £30 which makes it an absolute bargain.

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More info The SanDisk Cruzer Profile product page

Sony Micro Vault USM256F

The third and final device on test is the Sony Micro Vault USM256F, which is both the slimmest device here and the longest device on test. Actually, it’s not, as what makes it a lot larger than it really is, is the weird docking cradle that Sony ships with it. I'm not entirely sure how Sony came up with the idea of shipping a docking cradle with a USB storage device, especially as the cradle makes it much larger than it has to be.

Sonyusm256f

The cradle has a small rubber stand just below where the fingerprint sensor is located on the USB key when it's inserted into the cradle. The bottom of the cradle has a mini USB port into which you can connect the supplied mini-USB to USB cable. The only reason you would use this rather than plugging the USB key into your PC would be if you don’t have any front-mounted USB ports. Although a USB extension cable would’ve done the job just as well.

The Micro Vault also has the smallest storage capacity of the drives on test, a mere 256MB. But more intriguing is the way that Sony hasn't taken advantage of the fingerprint scanner. First of all you have to install drivers for the fingerprint scanner to work; it’s a rather large and cumbersome application that managed to crash my PC more than once. It doesn’t protect any data on the device itself, but is rather used with another piece of software to encrypt files stored on it.

If you want to encrypt more than one file, you have to encrypt a folder, but sub-folders aren’t supported, so only the first folder will be encrypted. You can also use the USM256F for storing passwords to websites and locking your screensaver, so rather than having to remember a password you put your finger on the scanner. Finally, you can store your Internet Explorer bookmarks securely on it.

There’s no denying that I was disappointed with the Micro Vault, although it is an older device compared to the other two, and Sony has a new version in the pipeline with a swipe scanner with 512MB capacity, but the rest is unchanged.

Performance-wise the Micro Vault is faster than the SanDisk when it comes to copying loads of small files to the device, but otherwise it is the slowest device on test by a few seconds.

Verdict

The Sony Micro Vault USM256F is disappointing in comparison to the competition. It's downfall lies in the software, along with the fact that it doesn’t automatically protect files stored on it. At £49 it’s not the most expensive device on test, but I’d get the SanDisk any day ahead of the Micro Vault.

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More Info The Sony Micro Vault USM256F product page