Review: 7 secure USB drives

Should you trust these flash drives to safeguard your data?

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The Imation Pivot Plus Flash Drive

The Pivot Plus Flash Drive is not actually made by Imation; it's manufactured for the company by a firm that Imation won't disclose. But I really like several features about this simple drive.

For one, I like its form factor: It's small but not too small, and it opens on a pivoting arm from a sheath that protects the USB plug, so there's no cap to lose (I always lose my USB stick caps). I also like that everything you download to this drive is automatically encrypted -- period. There's only one partition for storage and it's secure, so human error can't be a factor in exposing data.

Because of the simple physical makeup of this drive, I expected my experience would be describable in a word: easy. Alas, it wasn't.

Immediately after plugging in the Pivot Plus Flash Drive, I was slapped with a rather inscrutable message stating "No Imation Pivot Plus Flash Drive found. Pivot Plus Login Application will now terminate." I called Imation and the company explained that the security feature on the drive requires two drive letters be assigned to the device. The first drive letter is automatically assigned to a read-only, preformatted partition of the drive that has no usable capacity assigned it; the second drive letter is assigned to the flash drive's main read/write partition.

My PC assigned the letter "E" to the security portion of the drive, but then it couldn't assign the next available drive letter ("F") to the device because it was already assigned as my network share. Imation called this a bug in Microsoft Windows XP, saying that it will occur with any drive that uses similar security features.

There are two ways to address this glitch. The work-around involves remapping your network drive to another letter to free up the F drive for the local volume, or assigning a new drive to the USB flash drive. The alternative is to download a patch from Microsoft, a description of which is in this Microsoft knowledge base article.

I tried the patch, which is inconveniently not in any monthly Microsoft updates. You'll have to submit a request to Microsoft Online Customer Services to obtain the hot fix. Mine arrived later that day. Unfortunately, the patch didn't work, so I switched to plan B and went into my PC's Disk Manager File and changed the drive assigned to the flash drive. Onward and upward.

Security features

The first thing the drive log-in application asks is for a password and password hint. There is a minimum of seven characters that must include both alpha and numeric characters. Once you've created a password, a separate box allows you to continue the start-up in standard mode or switch to corporate mode. Corporate mode allows users to create an Administrator override password that can be used to access the drive in case they forget their password.

The start-up menu then asks for a password to log onto the Imation Encryption Manager Plus application. Once you do that, you're in, and all but 455KB of space is available to you.

Imation drive_small.jpg

The Imation Pivot Plus Flash Drive

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Like most of the other drives tested for this series of articles, Imation's Pivot Plug USB stick uses 256-bit AES, hardware-based encryption in ECB mode. It features a single password-protected partition that does not allow storage of unencrypted content. And, after seven failed password attempts, the flash drive requires reformatting for use, a feature to protect against brute force security attacks. The hardware-based encryption software also leaves no footprint on whatever host computer you're using.

One feature I liked about this drive is a physical write-protection switch on the outside of the case. It works in the same way that the switches on the old floppy disks did -- push them one way, and you can write onto the drive; push them the other, and you can't. As a result, you can change your drive to read-only mode so that the files can't be overwritten accidentally.

Speed, pricing and the bottom line

It took 5 minutes and 20 seconds to copy a 1GB folder with 303 photos and/or video to the drive. An I/O test using Hd Tach showed a 16.1MB/sec. average read speed and a burst rate of 16.7MB/sec. The random access speed was .9 milliseconds -- pretty middle of the road. All in all, I wasn't impressed with the drive's speed, but on the plus side, the CPU utilization was a frugal 8%.

The Pivot Plus Drive is compatible with Windows ME, 2000, XP, Vista and Apple Mac OS 9.0 and above. The Pivot Flash Drive is also compatible with Windows Vista ReadyBoost technology, which is supposed to allow you to add memory to a system through the flash drive in order to improve performance. Computerworld, however, saw little benefit from its use (see "Vista's ReadyBoost flash drives lack significant boost").

Pricing for the Imation Pivot Plus on PriceGrabber ranged from $41 for a 1GB model to $191 for an 8GB model.

While the Pivot Plus doesn't offer the best security of the drives tested, it's a good drive with better than average security. I'd recommend this drive to the average user because of its handy ergonomic design and relative ease of use. -- Lucas Mearian

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