Ah, USB thumb drives. In the not-so-distant past, these were prized possessions. Their ability to store tensnay, hundredsof megabytes on a few flash chips strapped to a USB connector drew oohs and aahs, and some of us pondered whether, once prices came down, these devices could one day come to replace the mighty floppy disk.
Today, USB thumb drives are all but exciting. Odds are you’ve bought several, scrounged a few more, and left all but a couple sitting quietly in a forgotten drawer, waiting for their siblings to go missing.
Once in a while, though, someone spices things up. Corsair did just that at CES 2007 with the original Flash Padlock, a USB thumb drive whose contents users could lock by setting a code on the device itself. Today, we’re looking at the 8GB Flash Padlock 2, a smaller, more rugged, and purportedly more secure successor that retains its predecessor’s principal featureand lets you reset the code if your memory ever fails you.
The Flash Padlock 2
Corsair dresses the Flash Padlock 2 in the same thick, curvy rubber garb that covers the Flash Voyager GT, although the top surface has much more going on: red and green lock lights, six buttons (including one key button and five number buttons), plus a big, blue activity light. Popping off the soft rubber cap also reveals a shiny USB 2.0 connector.
Everything related to encryption and locking happens on the drive itself, so you won’t need any software to get going. You will, however, want to check the manual, because configuring the drive using the six surface buttons isn’t as intuitive as it might seem.
Unlocking is simple enough: press the key button, enter your PIN, and once the green padlock light flashes, you can insert the Flash Padlock 2 in the nearest available USB port and access your data. The drive will lock itself again as soon as you remove it form the port. Feel like trying to brute-force someone else’s PIN? Not so fast. After five erroneous inputs, the Flash Padlock 2 will disable itself for two minutes.
Other features are a tad less straightforward to memorize, though. To set a PIN, for instance, you’ll want to press and hold the key button for three seconds, enter your PIN (up to 10 digits), then press and hold the key button again, enter your PIN again, then press the key button one last time. If you ever forget your PIN, you can press the key and 0/1 buttons simultaneously for three seconds, enter “911,” and hit the key icon again. After that, the drive will mount as an unformatted volume.
There are other features, too, like a master PIN that can be set in addition to the user PIN (likely a useful feature for administrators in business environments). There’s even a way to keep the Flash Padlock 2 unlocked all the time, should you wish to move it back and forth between multiple systems without having to enter the PIN each time. Good luck figuring any of those things out without the manual.
Corsair says it keeps the Flash Padlock 2’s contents secure using 256-bit encryption. The firm claims to have “dramatically increased” the security of transfers between the drive and USB controller compared to the first-gen Flash Padlock, as well. We hear the drive might even be eligible for certification under the Federal Information Processing Standard, should Corsair wish to spend the necessary cash. In any case, we reckon the PIN system and the fact that the drive doesn’t mount when locked will probably suffice to keep data safe from the vast, vast majority of muggers, thieves, or nosy co-workers.
Fancy security features aside, the Flash Padlock 2 ships in a fairly inconspicuous package with a blue lanyard and a USB extension cord. Why the cord, you might ask? Well, this drive is a little chubbychubby enough that the rubber enclosure can spill across to other USB ports and render them unusable. On my MacBook, for example, plugging in the Flash Padlock 2 without the extension means sacrificing two other ports: either one Ethernet and one USB or one USB and one Mini DisplayPort. The drive similarly intrudes on other USB ports when hooked up to a typical desktop motherboard’s port cluster.
Now that we know a little bit about the Flash Padlock 2, let’s see if it performs as advertisedand if it’s really as rugged as Corsair claims.
Our testing methods
Because the Flash Padlock 2 encrypts and decrypts data on the fly, we were especially curious to see whether transfer rates were in the same league as those of other USB thumb drives. So, we singled out three other contestantsa 4GB OCZ Rally2, a 2GB OCZ Diesel, and a beat-up 2GB Kingston DataTraveler Mini, whose sliding plug cover broke off many moons agoand ran a handful of performance tests.
We used the following system configuration for testing:
|Processor||Core i5-750 2.66GHz|
|North bridge||P55 PCH|
|Memory size||4GB (4 DIMMs)|
|Memory type||Kingston ValueRAM DDR3 SDRAM at 1333MHz|
|Memory timings||9-9-9-24 1T|
|Chipset drivers||Matrix Storage Manager 126.96.36.1993|
|Audio||Creative SoundBlaster X-Fi XtremeGamer
with Creative 2.18.0013 driver
|Graphics||XFX Radeon HD 5770 1GB
with Catalyst 10.2 drivers
|Hard drives||Dual WD Caviar SE16 320GB SATA hard drives in RAID 1 mode|
|Power supply||Corsair HX450W|
|OS||Windows 7 Ultimate x64 Edition RTM|
All tests were run at least three times, with their results averaged. We used the following versions of our test applications:
- HD Tach v3.01
All the tests and methods we employed are publicly available and reproducible. If you have questions about our methods, hit our forums to talk with us about them.
Let’s get started with a staple of storage benchmarking, HD Tach. We tested with that application’s full variable zone size setting.
At least in this synthetic test, the Flash Padlock 2 delivers strictly middle-of-the-pack performance. OCZ’s Rally2 leads by a comfortable and consistent margin, but OCZ specifically advertises that product as “one of the fastest flash drives available,” so we’re not particularly surprised. The Flash Padlock 2 fares well compared to the 2GB drives, though.
To add to our synthetic testing, we busted out our stopwatch and timed the transfer of a 656MB directory containing 83 files, most of them MP3 songs, from our test system to the Flash Padlock 2.
Satisfyingly, this test echoes HD Tach’s average write speed benchmark. The Rally2 comes out on top, the Flash Padlock 2 ends up not too far behind, and the 2GB OCZ and Kingston offerings take third and fourth places, respectively. (We tried timing file copies from those drives toward our test system, too, but the results weren’t all that enlightening. All four drives took about four to five seconds, and manual stopwatch testing made it difficult to detect minute differences.)
If we can draw one conclusion from these tests, it’s that the Flash Padlock 2’s encryption hijinks don’t translate into unusually slow file transfers. However, folks chiefly concerned with performance will find there are quicker USB thumb drives on the market.
We weren’t finished with the Flash Padlock 2. Is that chubby rubber enclosure actually good for something, or does it just block off other USB ports for no reason? To find out, I threw the Flash Padlock 2 into the front pocket of my jeans. I then placed the jeans and some other laundry in the washing machine on a 90-minute cycle, at a temperature of 40°C (104°F).
The drive came out of the wash safe and soundand it remains fully functional over a month later. This Flash Padlock 2 has also gotten sat on, tossed around at the bottom of a loaded backpack during a transatlantic flight, and thrown multiple times onto a hard tile floor, all without suffering a scratch. Speaking of scratches, Corsair has neatly embossed the labels on the six surface buttons (as well as its logo, of course), so even if the white paint does get scratched off, the symbols will live on.
As far as we’ve seen, the Flash Padlock 2 delivers on its promises: the PIN locking and unlocking system works, the drive doesn’t even register on a host system when locked, performance seems very acceptable, and the enclosure can take plenty of punishment. Sure, the button interface on the front could be a little more intuitive, and the rubber enclosure could probably do its job without blocking off adjacent USB ports. But those are fairly minor complaints. Corsair definitely looks to have a very solid product here.
This solidity comes at a price. Right now, the 8GB Flash Padlock 2 sells for $54.99 shipped at Newegg. That’s quite a leap over even the company’s own 8GB Flash Voyager drive, which the same e-tailer offers for just $24.99 with free shipping. With USB 3.0 thumb drives drawing close on the horizon, charging that much extra for a USB 2.0 product seems bold. (Reports say 16GB thumb drives with much quicker USB 3.0 connectivity should soon retail for less than $70 a piece.) Then again, none of the drives we tested came close to pushing the limits of a USB 2.0 interface, even in our burst read tests.
Regardless of the interface type, we’d ideally like to see higher transfer rates from the Padlock 2. A little more speed would mix well with the drive’s other virtuesthe 10-year warranty, elaborate security features, and tough outer enclosureand make the price easier to swallow. Still, folks who regularly carry sensitive data, or who just don’t want anyone else getting access to their personal files, may well find spending an extra $20 or so on the Flash Padlock 2 a no-brainer.