Data security is always a hot topic for IT professionals, and recent headlines have underscored the need for a rigorous approach to data security. The need for a more aggressive security approach extends to removable storage devices, such as USB flash drives, hard drives, and other locally attached storage devices. WiebeTech’s ToughTech mini-Q external hard drive seems well-positioned to fill that need. The ToughTech provides several security features that could make it a valuable tool in any administrator’s toolbox.
My review unit was WiebeTech’s ToughTech mini-Q drive with WriteLock; it came shipped with a pre-installed 500GB Serial ATA (SATA) 2.5" hard drive. WiebeTech typically sells the ToughTech as an empty enclosure without a hard drive, and customers can install their own 2.5" SATA hard drive of up to 750GB capacity. It’s important to note that only 9mm or thinner drives will fit within the ToughTech enclosure, so make sure to measure the thickness of any drives you plan on installing. The ToughTech also supports installation of solid state disk (SSD) drives of acceptable size.
The ToughTech ships with a plethora of cables and connection types. I counted support for four different connectors, including FireWire 400 (via adapter cable), FireWire 800, external SATA (eSATA), and USB 2.0. I was a bit disappointed to see that support for USB 3.0 or Thunderbolt wasn’t included, but WeibeTech might consider supporting those connection types in future versions of the ToughTech. The product also ships with connection cables for all the ports I mentioned, as well as an AC adapter, a small screwdriver (for installing your own drive), three hardware AES-128 encryption keys, and three lanyards for those keys. That’s an impressive number of supporting accessories for a single product, and they all help make the ToughTech a more useful storage device for a wide array of use cases.
After I unpacked the drive and all the related cables, installing the ToughTech was as simple as plugging in the AC adapter and connecting the drive to my laptop via USB cable. An OEM copy of Prosoft Engineering’s Data Backup PC 3 is included for helping with file backup duties. The ToughTech is compatible with most modern OSs with USB 2.0 support, including Windows 7, Windows Vista, and Windows XP; Mac OS X; and many Linux distributions. For this review, my primary test computer was a Dell Latitude D630 laptop using a USB 2.0 connection running Windows 7 Enterprise.
The particular model of the ToughTech that I tested requires the use of an AES-128 (FIPS-197 listed, certification number 60) hardware-based encryption key to operate, which takes the form of a small chunk of black rubber that includes a mini USB connector on one end and a hole for the lanyard on the other. In order for the drive to operate, the key has to be inserted into a mini-USB connector on the front faceplate of the drive. Remove the key, and any data you have on the drive will be inaccessible until the key is reinserted.
The ToughTech ships in a textured aluminum enclosure, which serves double-duty as a heat sink—drawing heat away from the drive—and giving the drive a bit more protection from physical impacts and jolts than a traditional USB hard drive might have. The aluminum casing doesn’t extend to the front and rear panels, which are both silver-colored plastic. The ToughTech also ships with shock-dampening strips between the bottom of the drive case and the aluminum shell, which gives the drive additional protection against jolts, shocks, and bumps. The ToughTech did slip off a low table during testing and has operated without any problems since then.
I used the ToughTech for several weeks, copying files back and forth from a variety of PCs to the drive. I also tried to access the drive without the key installed. It definitely works as advertised; the files were inaccessible without the AES key inserted into the drive. Drive performance can vary widely depending on what 2.5" drive you choose for the enclosure, but in my testing the drive copied files and data just as quickly as some other, non-secure USB hard drives I’ve looked at.
If you’re looking for an external USB hard drive solution that offers more storage and security than traditional USB flash drives, you can’t go wrong with the ToughTech. An all-aluminum case design and USB 3.0 support would have bumped my review up by at least a half a star, but as-is the ToughTech is a fine choice for security-minded admins looking for additional portable storage.