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Maxtor BlackArmor 320GB Review

Highs

  • Totally secure external storage; does backups/sync; super easy to use

Rating

Our Score 7
User Score 0

Lows

  • Expensive; backup options are somewhat limited; no FireWire; doesn't work on Macs
We've never seen a drive as secure as this...

Summary

If you’re the paranoid type or just someone who cannot afford to have his or her data stolen, the Maxtor BlackArmor external backup drive will likely bring you a large dose of piece-of-mind. Data on the drive is encrypted with a key at the hardware level using government-grade 128-bit AES encryption, so if you lose it whoever finds it will have zero chance of recovering the data. Even better, if someone steals the drive and doesn’t have the password, they can reformat the drive but the process destroys the encryption key, making all the data inaccessible even by data recovery professionals. This high level of security comes with a high price tag though, and the drive also suffers a few design drawbacks too, so you should only consider it if data security is a top priority.

Features and Design

The BlackArmor drive we received for testing is the smaller 160GB version, but Maxtor sells a 320GB version for $249 direct from its website. The package includes just the drive itself and a small USB cable that is about 12 inches long. It’s a standard USB cable too, and not one of those twin-plug types common on older USB drives. The drive inside the chassis is a 5,400rpm model with 8MB of cache. Maxtor also includes a swank suede carrying case that can double as a polishing cloth for the drive’s reflective areas.

There are no software CDs or anything as everything is on the drive itself, which is handy for those of us who are prone to losing discs. The software that comes with the drive is called Maxtor Manager and is a home-base type of application that lets you configure and administer all of the drive’s functions. You don’t have to use Maxtor Manager at all if you don’t want to, as its primary purpose is to allow you to set up backup and sync options for files and folders. Additionally you can change your password, add a password hint (a wise move since if you forget the password the drive has to be re-formatted).

Additional features include the ability to test the drive for errors as well as toggle power settings in order to spin the drive down when not in use in order to increase its lifespan.

Again, you don’t have to install the Maxtor Manager if you don’t want to, as the encryption program runs straight off the drive so if you plug it into any PC it’ll ask you for the password and then become an open volume. If you provide the wrong password the drive is inaccessible.

Maxtor BlackArmor
Image Courtesy of Maxtor

Use and Testing

When we plugged the BlackArmor into a USB port for the first time, and a configuration screen popped up asking us to create a password. To do this we had to type in both a password as well as a 25-character serial key that’s printed on the bottom of the drive. Once we set our password, it gave us an option of using a password hint as well. And that’s it as far as initial configuration goes – it’s that simple.

Once we had configured the drive with a password, locking the drive is as easy as unplugging it from the USB port. Then, once it’s plugged back in, you have to type in the password again to unlock the drive. If you don’t have the password, you can choose to change the password by re-formatting the drive, which destroys the encryption key and makes any data that might be recovered useless. All in all we love the simple operation of the drive. The encryption/decryption process is invisible to the end user, though the unlocking utility is a Windows program, so only users of Windows XP and Vista can use the BlackArmor drive.

Maxtor Manager

As we said before, you don’t have to install the Maxtor Manager software, but we don’t see any reason not to. It includes easy-to-use backup and syncing tools as well as a host of administrative tools that let you adjust power settings, test the drive for errors and so forth.

Maxtor BlackArmor Bakcup Screenshot
The Maxtor Manager software lets you set up backup and sync plans, as well as tweak the drive’s settings.

 

The backup functionality is pretty straight-forward and lets you select folders to be backed up at a regular interval. You can select the number of days (Monday through Sunday) and select the time, and the drive will silently copy the target data to a folder on the drive it creates called Maxtor Backup. Maxtor lets you choose a “simple” backup which consists of the My Documents folder, or a custom backup where you can choose your own folders, but it limits what folders you can choose. For example, you can backup the folder named “desktop,” but not individual folders on your desktop – it’s all or nothing. Similarly you can’t backup any mail at all, as the Manager software doesn’t include the root profile folder (Documents and settings in XP) that you’d have to navigate to in order to locate Outlook or Outlook Express mail.

If you don’t want to wait around for a backup to occur, you can also sync folders between the drive and your PC. This syncing action keeps the contents of the folders the same at all times, so if you add a file to the target folder it’s copied to the drive, and if you delete a file it’s deleted from the drive as well. The sync tool features the same limitations as the backup tool, so you’re limited somewhat in the folders you can choose, but it works perfectly and we had no issues with it during testing, and the same goes for the backup tool.

Conclusion

We’ve never seen a drive as secure as this, as most other solutions use software encryption that is much less robust than the hardware-level encryption Maxtor uses. It would be comforting if we lost it to know the scumbags would never be able to access our data, and given the recent rise in corporate laptop theft, we can see why Maxtor released this drive. Though it’s sublimely simple to operate it still has its drawbacks, chief among them its limited backup capabilities. We understand Maxtor chose this route for simplicity’s sake, but why not let a “custom” backup be just that –custom? And of course, Mac users and FireWire enthusiasts are not invited to this party either, but if you’re a Windows user and need hardcore security for your documents, the BlackArmor will serve you well.

Pros:

• Totally secure external storage
• Does backups/sync
• Super easy to use

Cons:

• Expensive
• Backup options are somewhat limited
• No FireWire
• Doesn’t work on Macs

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