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Hands on: Lexar total security thumbdrive

Lexar's new thumbdrive can keep your data safe, even when you lose it.

Lexar's JumpDrive Safe S3000 FIPS keeps your data safe in case of theft or loss. Dong Ngo/CNET

Thumbdrives offer arguably one of the most convenient ways to carry data around. However, because they are so small, they have been frequent culprits of data breaches. Enter the JumpDrive from Lexar.

The company announced Thursday its new JumpDrive Safe S3000 FIPS, which it claims is the world's first smart-card-based FITS 140-2 Level 3 validated flash drive.

Lengthy name aside, this is the most secure and easy-to-use thumbdrive I've ever gotten my hands on.

(FIPS 140-2, by the way, stands for Federal Information Processing Standard and is a U.S. government computer security standard used to accredit cryptographic modules. Level 3 of this standard is the second highest level of data security, which prevents the intruder from gaining access and requires a physical security mechanism to protect the data inside.)

Physically, the new JumpDrive looks very much like most standard thumbdrives on the market with a detachable lid that reveals the USB head. However, it is noticeably heavier due to its thick metal housing and a presumably sophisticated mix of high-security components inside. Its lid also has a thick layer of rubber insulation to keep the moisture out. According to Lexar, the drive exceeds military waterproof standards.

Lexar said the JumpDrive Safe S3000 FIPS is certified by the National Institute of Standards and Technology and features hardware encryption and is the first of its kind to have atemper-resistant smart card to manage all security critical computations. The drive uses the Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) 256-bit technology and utilizes an onboard hardware cryptographic controller to encrypt and decrypt data.

From the user's perspective, however, the drive is almost as easy to use as any thumbdrive. I tried it with a few computers and it worked very well.

The drive comes with two separate partitions. One is a fixed 30MB read-only partition that contains the security software. The second is the rest of the drive's capacity to store data.

The first time you insert the drive into a computer, be it a PC or a Mac, its self-contained security software will prompt you to pick a password and a security question for retrieving password when it's forgotten. Once a password is chosen, you'll need to run the software again each time you connect the drive to a computer, then enter the password to gain access to the drive's data partition. After that, the drive works just like any other thumbdrive.

While thumbdrives with similar security measures have been available for a while, the JumpDrive Safe S3000 FIPS is the first that will automatically block access if wrong passwords have been entered multiple times. After that, if you don't remember the answer to the security question, you can choose to reset the password but all the data contained on the device will be erased. While this is overkill in most cases, it's a great solution for environments where data security is of the utmost importance.

Other than the security features, the new JumpDrive supports USB 2.0 and worked very fast in my trials--it finished 2GB of mixed data in less then 90 seconds, faster than most regular USB 2.0 thumbdrives I've used.

After having used it for a while, I found just two catches. The first is you will need to run the security software each time you insert the drive into a computer, which takes a little time before you can access the data. The second catch, the price, is much bigger.

The new JumpDrive Safe S3000 FIPS is available in 2GB, 4GB, 8GB, and 16GB models that cost $80, $100, $180, and $300, respectively. These are about 10 times the price of regular thumbdrives with the same capacities.

Obviously, the JumpDrive Safe S3000 FIPS is only suitable for enterprise or military environments where data security is crucial. And yes, the JumpDrive Safe S3000 FIPS will definitely give you a sense of total security.

For a regular consumer like me, however, the security feature of the drive is redundant since when I have to pay that much for something, I will do whatever I can to make sure I won't lose it.