Review: IronKey USB drive for Windows 7

IronKey doubled the maximum capacity of its ultra-secure USB flash drive

It has been more than a year-and-a-half since I last reviewed an IronKey secure USB flash drive, so when the company sent one my way with a few new features I jumped at the chance to see if there had been any major improvements over the last version I tested.

From what I can tell, and what IronKey can tell me, there are scant few upgrades to this latest version of what is still arguably the most secure USB drive in existence. The new S200 IronKey model doubles the maximum capacity of the previous drive to 16GB, and it is now compatible with Windows 7. (The drive was already compatible with Windows Vista, XP, Mac OS X and Linux.)

This is not a drive for the average user. The IronKey is high-end and its price tag reflects that. A drive with only 1GB capacity costs $79.00 retail. If you want the maximum 16GB capacity, the price jumps to $299.00.

I don't know that this falls under the term "upgrade," but the drive has received validation with the Federal Information Processing Standards 140-2, Level 3, which covers document processing, encryption algorithms and other IT standards for use in non-military government agencies, including their vendors and contractors. IronKey states that it is the world's only FIPS 140-2, Level 3 certified USB drive.

Speed

What sets the IronKey apart from most other USB drives is that its maker uses high-end single-level cell (SLC) NAND flash memory chips as opposed to multi-level cell, consumer-grade (MLC) NAND. SLC has better native performance over MLC, and, perhaps most importantly, it has as much as 10 times the lifespan, up to 100,000 write/erase cycles.

Because the IronKey uses high-end SLC NAND, its throughput tends to be a bit higher than most MLC-based flash drives, particularly when it comes to write rates. An IronKey representative said this new version is also supposed to be faster than the last model due to improvements in the firmware.

I tested the drive using ATTO Technology's ATTO Disk Benchmark v2.34, and Simpli Software's HD Tach v3.0.4 benchmarking utilities. With the HD Tach utility, the IronKey returned a random access time of 4.2 milliseconds, an average sequential read rate of 25.7MB/sec and a burst rate only slightly higher of 26.9MB/sec. CPU utilization was a high 19%. The ATTO Benchmarking software showed a similar read rate, 24.4MB/sec, and a write rate of 14.8MB/sec.

The tests revealed generally slower I/O throughput rates than the last version of the IronKey drive I tested, but to be fair, the last drive had 5GB of capacity and the one I was testing for this review had only 1GB. Generally speaking, the more capacity a NAND flash drive has, the better the performance.

All the same, the performance results using HD Tach on the last drive came back with 31MB/sec. burst speed and an average read rate of 29.6MB/sec. CPU utilization rate was higher at 22%.

To compare, I tested SanDisk's Ultra Backup USB flash drive, which is based on consumer-class multi-level cell NAND flash. SanDisk's drive returned a random access time of .8 milliseconds, an average read rate of 24.7MB/sec, a burst rate of 26.4MB/sec and CPU utilization of 12%.

ATTO's benchmark software showed the greatest disparity between the two drives; SanDisk's drive turned in a respectable 24.2MB/sec average read rate, but a slow 6.7MB/sec write rate. So, there is something to be said for SLC NAND performance.

Security

Apart from the use of SLC NAND flash, what really sets IronKey apart from the vast majority of other USB flash drives is its Cryptochip, an ASIC dedicated to encrypting all data on the drive using 256-bit AES algorithm.

IronKey's online security applications are also pretty impressive. As soon as you plug the IronKey drive into your USB port, a pop up box appears asking you to create a password. What's relatively cool about this password box is that it also automatically rates the security level of the password you create. It also offers the user the opportunity to backup the password on line with IronKey in case you forget it.

The initialization of the drive takes less than a minute, at which time you're asked to set up an online account with IronKey, which enables certain features included with the drive, such as device and software updates and access to IronKeys encrypted web surfing service. By activating the online account, a secure web browser already installed on the drive opens, taking you to my.ironkey.com.

The online account then sets up a separate username and password to access information on the site. The site requires supplemental authorization that includes creating three challenge and answer questions based on personal information you provide.

You can securely and directly log into your online IronKey account from within your IronKey Secure Flash Drive. For times where you cannot access your IronKey drive (e.g. you forgot your device password or lost your IronKey), you can log into "Safe Mode" using the credentials you set up online. Also, IronKey will email you with account alerts, such as when there is suspicious activity with your account.

IronKey then sets up anti-phishing protection by using a secret image that is displayed every time you log in to help assure you that you are at the real my.ironkey.com Web site and not a counterfeit site. You can change your Secret Image at any time in your account settings.

It also has you set up a secret phrase presented to you in the subject line of every email you receive from IronKey regarding your account. It is an anti-phishing technology that helps assure you that the email is legitimate and safe to open. You can change your Secret Phrase at any time in your account settings.

Once you pick and image and secret pass phrase, IronKey asks you to enter activation code that it has e-mailed to you. Once the activation code is entered, your IronKey is ready to use.

To say that this activation process is highly secure is an understatement -- neurotic is probably closer to the truth.

Another safety feature that protects against brute force attacks is the self-destruct mode. If someone does get their hands on your flash drive and they fail to type in the correct password 10 times, on the eleventh attempt, the IronKey drive will self-destruct and permanently lock out users and wipe out all the data on the drive.

One friendly feature of the IronKey drive is the ability to access your password and even data backed up online using the Remote Device Management Manage tool.

IronKey's online Account Dashboard let's you see all your account information at a glance, such as the latest activity on your account as well as the status of all your IronKeys. And, the Account Alerts features will also give you a heads up by e-mail if someone is trying to break into your account, allowing you to change your password.

All in all, the IronKey is a really great drive. I've had one now for two years and it has never failed me, but beware the price tag. This drive is targeted at people who need to go that extra mile for security and are willing to pay for it, but if you must have the highest possible reliability and encryption, this drive should be at the top of your portable storage list.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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