The Gizmo Report: Sentry's QE5541 Fire-Safe

Glaskowsky reviews a new USB-compatible fire- and water-resistant media safe introduced at CES 2008.

There was only one product at CES 2008 that I couldn't wait to get--a new model of safe from the Sentry Safe company. I even tried to buy one from Sentry's website one evening while I was still in Las Vegas, but that turned out to be impossible; it has to be shipped by truck freight, so I had to place the order with Sentry over the phone to make those arrangements.

Sentry QE5541 Fire-Safe
The Sentry QE5541 Fire-Safe offers commercial-grade protection for computer media at a price low enough for home computer users. Sentry Safe

I ordered the safe when I got back home, and it arrived here last week--a good bit sooner than the company predicted. I've got it all set up and it's all working. I'm very happy with it.

I got the QE5541, the largest model in a new line of six fire- and water-resistant safes designed to protect CDs, DVDs, flash drives, iPods, etc. from fires lasting up to two hours at temperatures up to 1,850° F.

And the really cool thing is that it'll also protect a 2.5" USB hard drive...while the drive is operating and connected to a computer outside the safe via a USB passthrough in the safe door. So for the first time, your backups can be continuously protected, even if you're not around.

If you're like most people, you don't even make regular backups of your personal computer. Most people who lose digital family photos, electronic book manuscripts, and disk files containing critical financial records to house fires don't make backups, either. But the worst thing must be to have a full set of backups get burned up along with your computer.

It's never happened to me, but I try to learn from my own mistakes before I make them. During 2007, I nearly placed an order for the Phoenix Datacare 2025 Media Safe, which is available from the Keystone Safe Company and other Internet vendors. The 2025 is another fire- and water-resistant safe designed to protect computer media. It has an internal volume of 1.22 cubic feet and costs $1,579 from Keystone. Compared with other safes I considered, the Phoenix was a pretty good deal.

Sentry's QE5541, by comparison, has an internal volume of 2.0 cubic feet and costs $519.99. Freight costs for both safes are similar, around $75 for basic delivery. So the Sentry safe is a really great deal.

And then there's that USB connection. That's unique. It makes the Sentry safe useful in a way the Phoenix safe could never be. I can stick a USB-powered hard disk inside--there's a pocket for it on the door--and run my nightly backups, or Apple's Time Machine software, without having to remember to move the disk drive into the safe after the backup finishes.

There are some limitations. The disk drive has to be a 2.5" USB-powered model because there's no separate power pass-through on the safe, just the USB connection. In my testing, a new Western Digital Passport 320GB drive worked fine but some older USB-powered drives didn't. Even the Passport didn't work unless I hooked up the second power connector on the USB cable Sentry provides to hook up the safe to a computer.

The problem is that USB ports provide +5V DC power and USB-powered hard drives require +5V DC power. That may sound more like a solution than a problem, but the USB specification also requires that power-hungry USB peripherals such as hard drives be connected to a USB port through just one cable. On the Sentry safe, there are effectively three cables: one outside the safe, one inside the safe, and one buried in the door of the safe to bring the USB connection through.

The resistance of all that extra wire and the extra connectors causes a voltage drop that could interfere with proper operation of the hard drive. I tested the power inside the safe with the hard drive running using a special USB cable I built for testing purposes some years ago. The final voltage was only barely in spec with the Passport and significantly lower with those older drives. But Sentry provides high-quality cables and connectors, and I think it should be reliable as long as you're using the provided cables and a good hard drive.

There's another consequence of this issue: there isn't enough power coming into the safe to run more than one hard drive. You'd need a hub in the safe, but bus-powered USB hubs don't provide enough power for USB hard drives anyway. I was able to use a bus-powered hub to hook up several flash drives just for testing purposes, but there's little practical value to that. I'd like to see Sentry offer a model that can support one or more full-size (3.5") drives, but in that situation, heating could be a problem; a fire safe has to be well-insulated, so even the ten watts or so produced by a 3.5" hard drive might be too much.

(I have my own solution to that problem, which I hope to discuss with Sentry at some point.)

I said earlier that the QE5541 is one of six new safes from Sentry, but that's an oversimplification. Two of these models, the QA0002 and QA0004, are actually just hard drives permanently sealed in a protective safe-like case. They're like big, heavy, virtually indestructible external USB-powered hard drives. Unfortunately, they're also just 80GB and 160GB drives based on Maxtor mechanisms, well behind today's state of the art in USB-powered drives. And at $339.99 for the 160GB model, they're expensive, too.

Sentry provides an interesting service for these two models. From the Web page: "If your Sentry Safe hard drive experiences fire or water damage, we will attempt to recover your data free of charge and send you a new unit." That's a good deal.

Sentry's $99.99 QA0110 is designed to protect up to 100 CDs or DVDs, but doesn't have a USB pass-through, so I don't find this model particularly attractive.

The QE5541 I bought has a smaller sibling, the QE4531, with 1.2 cubic feet of interior space plus the USB passthrough. If I bought the Papa Bear model, the QE4531 is for Mama Bear.

The remaining model, then, would be Baby Bear's--the QA0121, which can hold 60 optical disks plus a standard 2.5" USB-powered hard drive like the Passport. I think this one will be "just right" for most people, and at a price of $169.99, it's a lot more affordable than the big models. The one downside to the QA0121 is that the fire protection is only good for 30 minutes at 1,550° F. That's probably adequate for most residential fires, but you should think about how long it's likely to take for your local fire department to respond, how soon they can get to your home office, and what the construction of your house is like.

I wanted the extra protection and security of the QE5541, however, so that's what I bought. Sentry said it would take 3 to 5 weeks to arrive, but it got here in just ten days. It was delivered to my driveway in a big cardboard box with a small forklift-type wood pallet on the bottom; it was up to me to get it up the front steps and into the house. I was prepared for that, but if you need inside delivery, be sure to ask for it. (Sentry didn't mention that service when I placed my order, but it's a routine add-on from most shipping companies.)

Once I had the safe inside and located where I wanted it, I drilled a couple of holes through the bottom of the safe as directed in Sentry's documentation so I could use the provided lag screws to secure the safe to the floor. This procedure is easy enough, but if you want to do the same you'll need a drill with the right bit, plus a suitable tool for driving in the lag screws.

Then it was just a matter of installing the batteries for the electronic lock, testing the combination a few times (the safe comes with one predefined combination; you can set more), and hooking up the hard drive.

I've moved in all my backup media, some old external hard drives I'm not using, original install disks for my commercial software, and three complete older laptops. (The product page mentions "protects up to 72 CDs and DVDs" but this refers only to the capacity of a removable shelf provided with the safe. The safe will actually hold hundreds of DVDs on spindles or in the Maxell Double Slimline jewel cases I use.) I feel a lot better knowing that these items are now much more likely to survive a house fire.

If I have a fire, I'll post here about how well the safe works. But I hope I never have to make good on that promise!

About the author

    Peter N. Glaskowsky is a computer architect in Silicon Valley and a technology analyst for the Envisioneering Group. He has designed chip- and board-level products in the defense and computer industries, managed design teams, and served as editor in chief of the industry newsletter "Microprocessor Report." He is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not an employee of CNET. Disclosure.

     

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