IBM beefs up notebook security

Big Blue unveils new notebook PCs with advanced security technology and speed upgrades based on the newest Intel chips.

IBM unveiled new notebook PCs with advanced security technology and speed upgrades based on the newest Intel chips.

IBM announced what it calls "secure" notebooks which are equipped with Asset ID, a "radio frequency-based security and asset tracking technology," the company said.

IBM also said that new ThinkPads come with the latest and greatest Intel 300- and 366-MHz Pentium II processors, support for advanced AGP 3D graphics technology, and software for playing back DVD titles and movies.

Other improvements include a 14 gigabyte hard drive--the largest capacity drive to appear in a mainstream notebook--and extra high-resolution LCD screens in the 770Z model. Prices for this high-end line start at about $4,800. The popular slim-design ThinkPad 600E model comes with slightly smaller screens and hard drive sizes--and is less expensive, starting at around $3,000.

For these two models, IBM's Asset ID solution combines a radio frequency ID tag and a handheld radio frequency (RF) scanner to read and store information--such as serial number and key component data--about every ID-enabled ThinkPad 770Z and 600E in a company's inventory, IBM said.

The security technology is aimed at reducing the cost of owning notebooks by making sure they stay with their proper owner. Some 51 percent of U.S. companies have experienced notebook theft in the last 6 months, IBM said.

The technology could also be a boon to information system managers who are in charge of tracking orders of notebooks numbering into the thousands. New notebooks don't even have to be taken out of the box for someone to add information about the notebook such as lease expiration dates, a feature which could help a company save money, said Phil Hester, vice president and chief technology officer, IBM Personal Systems Group.

Also, if the system is removed without authorization through a door protected by an RF sensor, IBM Asset ID will automatically cause the ThinkPad to become password-protected.

Added security features
One model in each of the 600 and 770 series notebooks includes special circuitry and a programmable chip. Resellers working under IBM's version of build-to-order manufacturing, called the Authorized Assembler program, insert a custom hard drive with an antennae built in.

While IBM is making two motherboards for both notebook lines, raising the possibility of inventory management issues for the company, IBM's Hester said the security technology is being included in the high volume "workhorse" model of the line, which changes less rapidly than other models. Corporate customers often ask for notebook designs that change infrequently so as to make management of inventory easier.

IBM also said that it is shipping a Smart Card Security Kit, which includes security software, a smart card, and a smart card reader installed in a notebook PC Card slot. If this is enabled, users insert a personalized smart card to authorize access.

IBM cites average annual losses from computer hardware theft at about $8 billion last year. Notebooks, in particular, are vulnerable to theft because of their size and the fact that they are often carried from place to place.

IBM also unveiled mobile options for the 770Z and 600E models and other ThinkPads. IBM said hard drive capacity can be doubled by adding a second 10GB drive to the ThinkPad 600E or a second 14GB drive to the ThinkPad 770Z.

CNET's Jim Davis contributed to this report.