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LaCie Safe Mobile Hard Drive

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It’s easy to imagine you’re a covert operative in a James Bond movie as you swipe your finger across the biometric sensor on LaCie’s Safe Mobile Hard Drive. But if your life depends on keeping secrets, you’d better find a more-secure solution.

Easy setup

Even though the Safe’s case was created by Porsche Design, the gray plastic box with faux brushed-metal top isn’t visually appealing, nor does it feel particularly sturdy. The back contains two connectors: one for power, another for data transfers (via USB 2.0). LaCie says that its power-sharing cable—which plugs into a USB 2.0 port and is solely for drawing power—is necessary only when connecting to an unpowered USB port. However, I experienced “failure to communicate” errors when I attached just the data cable to an iMac G5’s built-in USB 2.0 port (I also found that the cable disconnects too easily from the drive). The fact that you may need two USB ports eliminates the Safe as an option for many, especially laptop users.

Whenever you connect the FAT 32-formatted drive to your Mac, a 468 KB volume mounts, revealing only the LaCie Safe drive application. Initially, an assistant utility walks you through the simple process of configuring the drive. Each user (as many as five) must have at least two fingerprints on file (stored in encrypted format on the drive), which prevents you from getting locked out if you have a bandaged finger. You must scan your chosen digits three times each, with help from the software’s Goldilocks-like feedback: too slow, too fast, too skewed … just right.

User privileges

The first user you create is the administrator, who has the responsibility of granting administrative, read/write, or read-only rights to others. All users have access to the same volume, not just their own folders or partitions.

Launching the LaCie Safe drive application prompts you to authenticate by swiping your finger over the recessed fingerprint sensor. You needn’t indicate who you are, or which finger you’re scanning. The embedded software takes a few seconds to analyze your fingerprint before it either denies access or mounts the drive (the 80GB drive I tested had 74.39GB of free space to start). The feature works well: I rarely had difficulty authenticating, and I was unable to gain access when scanning an unregistered finger.

Drive performance

Depending upon permissions, you can read from or write to the drive, and even erase or repartition it with OS X’s Disk Utility. (You can also back up, compare, synchronize, and restore with LaCie’s bundled SilverKeeper software). Spinning at 5,400 RPM with an 8MB cache, the virtually silent drive features average performance for a 2.5-inch mechanism. For instance, duplicating a 1GB file took 3 minutes and 56 seconds, while Macworld’s Photoshop test suite averaged 4 minutes and 8 seconds.

But here’s the problem: Since your files are not encrypted, someone could access them by simply removing the drive mechanism and placing it in another computer or enclosure, then scanning it with a utility such as Prosoft Engineering’s Data Rescue X (   , May 2004 ). Other annoyances: You can’t use it as a startup drive, nor can you disable the fingerprint feature. This can be a hassle if you want to send the drive to someone else (say, a client in another state) and that person’s print is not registered.

Macworld’s buying advice

Fingerprint protection is definitely cool and more convenient than remembering passwords—but in this case, it can be defeated. You can get more-robust protection and greater flexibility by combining a regular external hard drive (you can find ones of the same capacity for half the price) with encrypted disk images you create with Disk Utility. Until LaCie offers a Mobile Safe Drive model with data encryption, the fingerprint sensor is just a novelty that provides the mere illusion of security.

[ Owen W. Linzmayer is a San Francisco-based freelance writer who has recently written two Apple Training Series books: Desktop and Portable Systems , 2nd Edition (Peachpit Press, 2005) and Mac OS X Support Essentials , 2nd Edition (Peachpit Press, 2005). ]

LaCie Safe Mobile Hard DriveTo ensure good scans, you must successfully swipe your finger three times.To unlock the drive and mount its volume(s), you need to swipe your finger over the sensor.
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