BlackArmor: Locked and Loaded

Seagate Technology's attractive, portable backup drive emphasizes security, its No. 1 sales feature. Just don't forget your password

Editor's Rating:

The Good: Sleek, lightweight drive locks your data away from prying eyes

The Bad: Setup requires running Windows in administrator mode, a privilege many companies don't grant workers

The Bottom Line: One of the most secure ways to protect data, but corporate PC users will need administrator rights

In my eight-month quest for better backup for business professionals, I've tried svelte hard drives that slip in a pocket, stylish drives that shimmer with designer touches, and portly drives that stand on a desk and house huge amounts of data. In June, storage vendor Seagate Technology (STX) came out with BlackArmor, a $150 portable drive that aims to one-up all of those: a way to back up data so securely that even losing the drive won't compromise its contents.

At first glance, Seagate's latest business product seems to combine the best of all worlds. It's affordable, lightweight, and attractive, stores 160GB of data, and encrypts files written onto the drive so they can't be viewed without a password. A 320GB version that lists for $250 is expected to hit stores by mid-July. Seagate's instructions and the software that comes with BlackArmor repeatedly warn users not to lose the password they create. Without it, you won't get access to the data, period. You can still use the drive, but you'll need to wipe it clean and lose the stored data.

A Couple of Caveats

But BlackArmor contains a drawback that prevents me from recommending it wholeheartedly. Setting the drive up on a Microsoft (MSFT) Windows XP or Vista PC requires possessing "administrator rights"—a status that companies typically do not confer on rank-and-file staffers, for fear users will louse up their machines by installing hardware and software willy-nilly. Trouble is, BlackArmor is aimed at those very consumers. So users will likely buy it for their own use, rather than having it supplied by their company, and anyone who wants to use BlackArmor on a company-issued machine will need an IT-department dispensation.

Another caveat is that byte for byte, BlackArmor isn't the best buy on the market. At 94¢ per gigabyte of storage space, it's one of the more expensive portable drives I've tested—both Fabrik's Signature Mini and LaCie's (ELED) Little Disk are better bargains.

Security Sells

But security is the selling point here. BlackArmor uses "full disk encryption," meaning it obscures every bit of data, including temporary files used by Windows, and closes loopholes that hackers can exploit. Each time you drag a file to the drive, it's encrypted. When you shut down your PC, the drive automatically locks up and only a password can open it. Unplugging the USB cable that connects BlackArmor to your PC locks the drive, too.

Remembering that password is critical. If you forget it, Seagate's software will show you a hint you've written during the setup process, though that hint itself is hidden behind a security question, like, "What's your mother's maiden name." Users can also wipe the drive completely clean by deleting the "key" that unlocks the encryption scheme.

Seagate brings other security measures to bear. The encryption key is stored on the drive, where its data live, instead of on the computer. And a chip inside the drive controls its encryption scheme. That means a thief can't crack BlackArmor's contents by running a software program in Windows, and can't get at its data by dismantling the device and installing its disk into another drive, Seagate says.

An Accessible Looker

Appearance-wise, BlackArmor is sleek. It measures 5.5 in. long, 3.5 in. high, a half-inch thick, and weighs just 7 oz. It's housed in a matte black casing that's partly covered by shiny silver plastic.

Seagate's software is easier to use than the confusing and counterintuitive programs that ship with many portable drives (see Fabrik and LaCie). But BlackArmor's setup process is a bit cumbersome, involving copying a 25-digit code from a label on the drive's back into Seagate's software. From there, users choose a password, write out a hint for it, and choose a stock question from a list to protect the hint. Once that's done, a big, blue light on the drive's edge blinks to indicate it's secure, and a new screen prompts users to enter a password. Clicking "unlock" puts BlackArmor in business.

Backing up data goes smoothly, too. Once the drive's unlocked, users can drag and drop files onto the drive's window, or use Seagate's Maxtor Manager software to create a backup schedule in a way that's truly painless—a far cry from competitors' often convoluted programs. Within a few seconds I created a schedule that would back up important folders from Windows' My Documents directory at 6 p.m. each weekday.

Administrative Issues

My qualms aside, Seagate's BlackArmor could be a worthy companion in the office and on business trips. I fill my laptop with lots of notes and drafts that form the skeleton of my professional output, and I'd hate to lose them or have them fall into malevolent hands. Someone who works with financial data could find the drive an even greater value.

Yet the administration problem is a big stumbling block. A Seagate spokesman couched it as a positive, saying IT departments don't want encrypted copies of company data created without their permission. I had a hard time reconciling this with the message I got from a Seagate marketing executive, who told me BlackArmor is intended for a small business owner or company staffer to buy on their own.

The bottom line is you'll need to do as I did, and try to curry favor with the help desk. It's getting hard for IT to stop the march of DIY technology, but to use this product, you'll still need to go through gatekeepers.

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