LaCie Safe 250GB biometric hard drive
World Exclusive Review You don't have to have filled you hard drive with scandalous shots of your holiday to the fleshpots of the Far East to want to keep your files safe from prying eyes. Depending on your operating system, you can use built-in tools or third-party apps to protect the information on your computer, but what about back-ups and live data on external media? What if some crafty Herbert makes off with that 120GB hard drive all your business plans are on?
LaCie's answer is simple: buy a biometric drive. The storage specialist has been offering a pair of mobile products with integrated fingerprint scanners for a while now. One of them even automatically encrypts the data stored on it. But today it has begun shipping a desktop version - minus the encryption feature, alas - for buyers who need the speed and capacity mobile drives can't yet offer.
Dubbed simply the Safe, the hard drive is available in a range of capacities up to 500GB. I tested the 250GB model.
Installation is straightforward: connect the drive to a spare USB port and run the bundled software. First time round, LaCie's Hard Drive Configuration code will ask you to create an administrator account and register two fingerprints for identification. With that done, you can add up to four further users: extra administrators, people who can read and write data to and from the drive, and others who can only read files. Administrators have the ability to add and remove users, but any user with write rights can reformat and/or repartition the drive. Every extra user has to register two fingerprint scans.
Each account is stored on the drive itself, allowing you to carry the unit to another machine and, after installing the configuration software, access the Safe's contents. All it lacks is a read-only partition to save you having to carry the CD around. I hooked the drive up to my MacBook Pro first then established three user accounts, one of each type. You can eject the drive in the usual way. Alternatively, tapping the fingerprint sensor locks the drive after a five-second cooling off period - a dialogue box pops up with a Cancel button - and automatically unmounts the drive.
Reconnecting the drive or touching the sensor pops up a second dialogue that first prompts you to swipe your fingerprint then takes you either to the user configuration window or just unlocks the drive for use. If you choose the former, you'll have to re-scan your fingerprint to unlock the drive afterwards - the drive doesn't mount while you're modifying or viewing the configuration information.
After ejecting the drive from the Mac, I carried it over to an Alienware M5500 Windows XP notebook and plugged it in. Windows registers the presence of the drive, listing it in My Computer as a removable drive. Double-clicking on the icon pops up the a dialogue that requests you insert a disk. Instead, I ejected the drive, installed LaCie's software, then plugged the hard drive back in. This time, tapping the sensor invoked the fingerprint-scan dialogue, and I was able to swipe my finger and either unlock the drive or re-configure the three user accounts.
Any attempt I made, on the Mac or the PC, to access the drive with unregistered fingers - mine or other folks' - proved unsuccessful, as did trying to open the drive on machines that didn't have LaCie's software installed. I didn't try it on a Linux box, or on machines with ancient versions of the other operating systems, but go too far back and you won't get USB support in any case.
Physically, the drive is encased in a two-part 18.8 x 11.6 x 4.4cm shell: a brushed-metal look plastic top which fits over the black base. There are no screws visible, so you're looking at breaking the casing open to get the disk itself out. Anticipating such a move, LaCie has tied the disk to the board through hard-coded ID tags to prevent it from being connected to another enclosure or computer. There's a Kensington slot on the back to allow the unit to be physically locked down.
The disk inside the drive is a 7,200rpm model with at least 8MB of cache. I ran our usual hard drive performance test: create on the drive a folder containing ten 20MB files and then duplicate it. The Safe yielded a (fast) average time of 21.23s - a rate of 9.42MBps. Copying the same folder off the drive took 10.26s.
As is ships, the drive is formatted with a FAT32 file system, primarily for cross-platform compatibility. But it's easy enough to reformat the drive once you unlocked it. I re-partitioned the drive into two equal FAT32 zones. Both mounted correctly on the Mac, but I couldn't get the PC to see the second partition. Ejecting one partition on the Mac auto-ejected the other. However, the drive thought the disks were still unlocked.
The moral here is retain the single partition - the Safe seems happier that way. Another moral is watch your fingers. The Safe's AC adaptor runs hot and so does the drive itself - including the fingerprint scanner. You have to move your fingertip over the scanner slowly - go too quickly and it doesn't scan correctly - and you certainly feel the heat.
A third warning: keep away from the scanner. I accidentally tapped the sensor mid-partition without realising it and the drive went ahead and locked on me. Fortunately, I was able to recover it.
There's an old saying that what one coder can hack, another can crack, and I wouldn't like to say hand on heart that LaCie's Safe drive is entirely impregnable. Data-security obsessives may feel uncomfortable without data encryption, but there's nothing to stop anyone encrypting the data on the drive with a third-party app. If LaCie runs true to form you can expect an auto-encrypting version of the Safe in due course. Meanwhile, the current model provides solid data protection at a very reasonable price. ®