Maxtor Black-Armor; Some Serious Data Protection

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If you work with digital content – be they photos, music or even documents – you’re going to need a storage solution.

CDs and DVDs have a limited shelf life and are unwieldy if the data you’re storing is larger than 4GB. That’s where portable hard drives come in.

External drives, at least those that are portable, are typically between 160GB and 500GB (and increasing every day). They are often plug-and-play, so moving your data is as easy as plugging in a USB cord and dragging your data to the drive to back it up. And now they’re even coming in secure, standalone models.

Maxtor’s BlackArmor Always encrypted Government-grade Hard Drive – $169.99 MSRP for 320GB – $119.99 MSRP for 160GB. However these were marked down on Maxtor’s web site the day I wrote this article to $134.99 and $59.99 respectively.

The BlackArmor’s claim to fame is that it has government-grade AES encryption certified by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). It also comes with the “Maxtor Manager” software suite and the “BlackArmor Manager” software suite. These software suites can be installed and used to automatically back up files, synchronize folders on multiple computers, update passwords, and test the drive.

Any time the drive is disconnected it automatically locks, and without a password, one cannot access any of the backed up files on the drive. But how does it work? Let’s go from box to backup…

In the box are the BlackArmor drive, a USB cable to connect it to your computer, a carrying pouch, and a Quick Start Guide. In less than a minute I had it hooked up to my desktop and the BlackArmor Manager Configure screen auto launched. The first steps are to enter the drive’s 25-character Security ID (SID) that is printed on the back of the drive, and then create a password. Once this is done, you can now click Unlock and unlock the drive. When this is done the autoplay window will open and the guide instructs you to select Install Maxtor Manager from this window. This is just a straight forward install with a EULA screen and then install. Took all of about 90 seconds and then a re-start is needed.

MaxtorBag

One nice thing I noticed right away about this drive is that it has two soft blue lights on the side. One is a large light that will only light up once the correct password has been entered. The other is a smaller light that comes on as soon as the drive is plugged in to your computer, but will blink and then go out when you use the “Safely Remove Hardware” tool to remove the drive.

My 320GB drive showed a capacity of 298GB. The drive comes loaded with the above mentioned software along with a PDF user’s guide. The guide is quite comprehensive and goes over all the features of the drive and goes very in depth on the functionality of the Maxtor Manager and BlackArmor Manager software. It tells you how to enter different modes, change passwords, change hint questions and answers, and all the different features of the automatic backup software. The manual is 126 pages, but a big reason it is so long is because of the extensive use of screen shots that make it much easier to learn how to use all the features of the software.

One major limitation to this drive is that the software only work on PCs and will not work on a Mac, so the testing done on this drive was performed by my friend Henry DuLaurence. I expect to leverage his PC farm for other devices that aren’t Mac friendly. But back to the test…

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Moving files, deleting, copying and saving data was easy. I was able to read and copy the data on my PC and when locked down, the drive protected the files perfectly.

Unplugging/disconnecting the drive puts it back into locked mode, so whenever you’re done using it your files remain safe.

Things I like…

It is USB powered which means no clunky power adaptor to carry around.

The size and the feel of this drive are great. It feels heavy, solid, and well made in your hand. It fits into a pocket or laptop bag easily. The rubbery exterior ensures you won’t fumble it.

The password screen launches quickly when the drive is connected so you can enter your password and get to your files fast. I like the clean black and brushed aluminum design, and that your stuff is completely protected by passwords you choose. I like the ease of changing your password when needed.

Automated backup software included. Makes it easy to plug and play and start backing up in minutes and restore if and when needed.

maxtor-Reflection

Things I don’t like…

The BlackArmor drive will not run on a Mac. The BlackArmor will only work on a PC running Windows XP or Vista. It will not work with any other operating systems as an unlocking utility is required that only runs on these operating systems.

Initial setup and configuration is somewhat tedious, but needed in order to set the encryption key. But once it is done, you won’t need to do it again unless you forget your password and need to erase your drive to reset it. This could be a little intimidating for the basic consumer or the user who misplaces his manual.

Cords are way too short, which seems to be the norm for most of the portable drives I see. I understand that portable is important, but portable doesn’t mean minimal.

Only has USB support. All external drives should come with an ESATA port. Considering the amount of data that can be stored, you would think these companies would give you an option to move it quickly if you wanted, and if you haven’t tried an external drive connected with ESATA, which is must faster than FireWire, you would be amazed at how fast it is.

Finally, it gets dirty and smudgy WAY EASILY. The gloss surface holds fingerprints better than the FBI and the black case shows every speck of dust. In some photos you’ll almost be able to see my camera in the reflection. Sure, it looks striking and gorgeous in reflective black, but it gets dusty and dirty quick.

The verdict…

Unless you have a Mac, I think the Maxtor BlackArmor Drive makes the cut. It is priced similarly to other secure drives and the backup software is easy to use and very intuitive. Once it is configured it is easy to use on any PC. And if you shop around you can probably find a 320GB BlackArmor for around $90 which is a pretty good deal for someone who wants to securely transport their data.

Company URL: http://www.maxtor.com

(A good portion of this Cut-List piece was made possible with the help of Henry DuLaurence)


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3 Comments

  1. Don Wyzlic (WC) says:

    I have been using this drive for a couple of years now, mostly at work. I paused here, at this site, during my search for an ESATA/USB version of the same (no luck). I thought to comment on MAC usage… my laptop, a MAC, is dual bootable. When I need to access files from the MAC partition, I first boot into Windows, unlock the drive, and restart into the MAC OS. During restart the Black Armor doesn’t lock as power is never interrupted. Once the restart is complete, I am able to access files from this drive, as if it were any other external USB drive, from the MAC OS. I know it doesn’t help much, but it helps me. WC

  2. LJR says:

    Try and understand that just adding an eSata connector is NOT going to speed up the computer inside this unit. That computer is saturated with the processing demands of encryption and decryption. Sure you can have the faster connector but fat lotta good it's gonna do. Same for firewire. You guys without any technical background should really just stay out of the deep water.

  3. PJA says:

    Good drive – but somewhat useless in emergency. Scenario: you have it stored in a safe place because its your backup "safe" drive. Your home is destoyed due to a fire or natural disaster and you have to live in a hotel for a week or so. In the meantime you retrieve your drive so you can get at your important docs – well here's the problem. You are using the hotels "business center" computer – you plug the drive in and your stuck because you need to be logged in as a "administrator" in order to enter your password. Bad news! I am able to use a thumb drive that I password protect as well as a regular 80 gig usb drive password protected without needing to be logged on as a admin.

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