Buffalo MiniStation DataVault
By Joel Santo Domingo at PC Magazine 6.13.08
The Buffalo MiniStation DataVault (160GB) ($129 direct) is a portable USB drive that comes with a guard dog for your data. The drive has encryption-based security, active from the time you take it out of the box. Unlike other secure drives, you don't have to pre-install anything on Windows PCs. The DataVault also comes with Mac-compatible software—something its rivals can't claim. It might not have the strongest encryption out there, but it is easy to use, and as any locksmith can tell you, a lock you can't use is as bad as having no lock at all. It's ease of use, Mac and PC compatibility, speed, small price premium, and shock resistance all combine together in a hard drive earns that fits the secure data storage niche well. You can get more storage for less money, but if you need to keep your data secure, lock it up tight with the DataVault.
Other than the inclusion of encryption software, the DataVault is very similar to the Buffalo MiniStation. It comes in an updated version of the MiniStation case: a 3.3-by-5-by-0.9-inch slab with a mini-USB port and an auxiliary power jack on one end. The DataVault has a different (and more attractive) faceplate or top cover than the earlier model, but physically they're essentially the same drive. The DataVault also has the same wrap-around USB cable as the MiniStation. The case is a bit bigger than those of rivals like the Western Digital My Passport series and the Toshiba USB 2.0 drive, but that larger case holds a slew of anti-shock bumpers and enough float space to protect the drive from a significant fall. This is a drive to get if you're particularly harsh on your equipment.
The DataVault is fully encrypted with a 128-bit AES cipher, so it's safe from all but the most determined datajackers. The drive has an open partition that launches itself like a CD: The auto-run app asks you for your password and gives you the chance to change the default password on the drive. If you enter the wrong password, the drive denies access to the data. This will happen even if you pull the drive mechanism from the enclosure and plug it into a laptop. Once you enter the correct password, the secure partition opens up, and you can use it like any other external hard drive. There are drives out there with stronger 256-bit AES encryption like the ABS-Secure Encrypted Backup Solution (stay tuned for our review on this device), but that drive requires that the Microsoft .NET 2.0 Framework be pre-installed on the computer you're using before you use the drive. That's a step that may not be possible on a shared computer like one in an Internet café, the sort of situation where you'd really want to use a secure portable drive.
The Windows unlocking program is an auto-run program pre-installed on the drive. On a computer running Mac OS X 10.4 or higher, you'll have to install a Secure Lock Ware program from the unlocked utility partition on the drive; it opens up like an auto-loading CD. At least it's a one-time-run, and the password works on both Macs and Windows PCs, so you can use the drive with both operating systems. Once you run the security software, you can use the drive on a Mac just like any other external drive. (It can be used as a data drive or as a Time Machine backup drive.)
The DataVault came with the same version of Memeo AutoBackup software that the original MiniStation comes with, and it has the same strengths and weaknesses. It is more of a data backup app than one that saves a complete snapshot of your system. The DataVault also came with mobile versions of the Firefox Web browser and Thunderbird e-mail client, so you could theoretically bring your Web browsing and e-mail environment with you wherever you go, and it will be secure in case anyone absconds with your drive. You won't be leaving your e-mail, personal information, cached files, or shopping site cookies on any shared computer if you browse from the DataVault's mobile Firefox app. This is a good thing.
The DataVault was plenty fast in my hard-drive testing: 2,999 score at PCMark05, which is good for a USB drive (the fastest USB drive I tested was the MiniStation with a score of 3,236). The drag and drop test took a speedy 56 seconds, and a backup of the same folder with Memeo took 1:14. The drive is a little slower than its older cousin, but this one has security features the older drive lacks.
The Buffalo MiniStation DataVault comes with a 3-year warranty, a vast improvement over the 1-year warranty on the MiniStation and some other drives. The original MiniStation launched last year with a $150 price for 160GB, but you can find it online for much cheaper (around $90). The DataVault comes at relatively minor price premium, one that's worth it for the protection it offers. I can see this drive as an alternative for the frequent traveler or person who uses an external drive to carry his work home from the office everyday. It comes highly recommended. If you want a more compact drive with a better GB to dollar ratio, however, go with our current Editors' Choice, the Western Digital My Passport, but keep the DataVault on your short list if you're looking for a rugged, secure drive.