A-Data's FP1 fingerprint flash drive

Encryption made easy
— 12:55 AM on November 2, 2007

Manufacturer A-Data
Model FP1
Price (MSRP) $39.99 (2GB)
Availability Now

Once an exclusively geek accessory, it seems everyone and their mother has a USB thumb drives these days. It's really amazing how quickly portable flash storage has become ubiquitous, but then I suppose we shouldn't be all that surprised. Thumb drive prices have plummeted over the last couple of years, making them practically cheap enough to include in a box of Cracker Jacks. Growing capacities have made thumb drives significantly more useful, too, extending their appeal far beyond mere floppy replacement.

You really couldn't fit much on the first few generations of flash drives, but things have changed dramatically. Multi-gigabyte models are common now, and they're perfect for lugging your life—or at least the part of it defined by 1s and 0s—around with you.

Unfortunately, because of their small size, flash drives are also easy to lose. With identity theft on the rise, you certainly don't want your personal information falling into unscrupulous or even nosey hands. To foil prying eyes, you could manually password-protect or otherwise encrypt files stored on your thumb drive. Drives are even available with fancy combination locks to keep outsiders at bay. Or you could opt for something a little more exotic: fingerprint authentication.

A-Data has done just that with the FP1 flash drive, which gates its contents with a clever fingerprint scanner. Read on to see how it works and whether it's a worth considering for your thumb-sized storage needs.

All at the tip of your finger
There admittedly isn't much to the FP1, or any thumb drive for that matter, which is why you don't see them covered much here at TR. I mean, what can you really say about the drive? Measuring 66 mm long, 24 mm wide, and 9 mm tall, the FP1 is roughly, er, thumb-sized. I'm not entirely sure how much the average human thumb weighs, but at 15 grams, I'm willing to bet that the FP1 is lighter. In fact, it actually feels a little too light for my tastes. The drive has an almost airy feel, and while its plastic casing should hold up to day-to-day abuse, it's hard for something this light to feel really solid.

A-Data has also gone light in the color department, draping the FP1 in an all-white casing that should suit the iMac crowd. Macs certainly have more style than the average PC, so copping their color palette isn't such a bad idea. However, I can't help but wish the FP1 riffed on the industrial aesthetic of the PowerMac rather than the stark, clinical whiteness of the iMac.

At least the all-white look matches a French manicure.

Removing the FP1's outer casing reveals the drive's USB interface, and more importantly, a little gold strip that serves as the device's "sweep-type" fingerprint scanner. The scanner is remarkably small, requiring that you run your entire fingerprint across the strip to complete a scan.

Of course, the FP1 doesn't handle fingerprint scanning all on its own. Software is required, and it's conveniently embedded on the drive in a partition masquerading as a CDROM. The virtual CDROM launches a fingerprint verification app when the FP1 is plugged into a system, and if it's your first time, you'll be asked to provide a master password and scan in your fingerprints.

Registering fingerprints is an easy task once you get the hang of the sweep scanner, which requires a little delicacy to get a clean picture of your fingertip. A total of ten fingertips can be scanned in, but don't feel the need to limit yourself to your own hands. The additional fingerprint memory makes it easy to allow multiple users access to the contents of the drive without revealing the master password.

If, by chance, you should lose your fingertips—either because you didn't listen to your high school shop teacher or because you are a high school shop teacher—the FP's master password will still give you access to the contents of the drive. There's actually no need to use the fingerprint scanning if you'd prefer to use password authentication.

Once you've been verified, either via fingerprint or password, the rest of the FP1 reveals itself as a removable storage device. The drive otherwise remains inaccessible, with its contents protected by 256-bit AES encryption. All the number crunching behind the encryption is handled on the client PC rather than dedicated hardware inside the FP1.

Having the host PC handle the heavy lifting behind encryption makes a lot of sense, especially since it reduces the complexity and cost of the FP1. The encryption doesn't monopolize CPU resources, either; during transfers, we didn't see CPU utilization tick above 10%. But maybe it should, because the FP1's actual transfer rates are pretty slow. Writing close to 600MB of files onto the FP1 took 113 seconds, and we were able to copy those files back in 18 seconds. Corsair's Survivor GT thumb drive managed to write the same files in only 12 seconds and read them back in just 10.

There's no getting around the fact that the FP1 is slow, particularly when writing files, and that will be a dealbreaker for some. However, if you aren't regularly moving large amounts of data back and forth from the drive, it's probably fast enough, especially if you value the peace of mind afforded by the automatic encryption.

The FP1 is really more about convenience than performance, and few things are as convenient as swiping your finger. A-Data also throws in FPManager software that takes up 8MB of space on the drive and provides a utility for managing fingerprints, a mail app, an autologin database if you tend to forget usernames and passwords for websites, and a tool that keeps track of your favorites. Picky users will probably want to manage these things on their own, but it's nice to have the built-in capability, especially since the software's footprint is relatively small. The minimal footprint is also important because you can't actually delete the FPManager software from the drive—the FP1's encryption scheme appears to depends on it.

A-Data makes the FP1 available in 512MB, 1GB, and 2GB capacities that carry MSRPs of $24.99, $29.99, and $39.99, respectively. As one might expect, those prices are higher than what you'd pay for a standard thumb drive of equivalent capacity. Regular 2GB thumb drives, for example, can be had for less than half the price of the 2GB FP1.

So fingerprint authentication doesn't come cheap, and on-the-fly encryption isn't particularly fast. Those considerations will likely turn off PC enthusiasts perfectly capable of using free software to encrypt the contents of faster flash drives. But the FP1 is still dead easy to use, and that makes it perfect for mainstream users who don't know how to encrypt files on their own or those who just don't bother to, even if they know they should.TR

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Tags: Storage