Buffalo MiniStation Extreme NFC review: Fast and secure with easy encryption unlocking
The Buffalo MiniStation Extreme is a portable drive like no other. Not only is it fast, the drive includes protection against shocks and drops and is water-resistant. What's more, it has a secure data encryption feature that can use a near-field communication (NFC)-enabled device -- such as a smartphone -- as the key to unlock it for quick access. There's also an integrated wraparound USB cable that saves you from having to carry a separate one along.
There are a few catches, though. The drive is bulkier than most portable drives on the market and is also noticeably more expensive, at about $130 and $200 for 1TB and 2TB capacity, respectively. (That converts to about £85 and £130 pounds, or AU$165 and AU$255.)
In testing, I also found out that its security software did not work with some older Windows computers.
Clearly, the Buffalo is not for everyone, but if you're looking for a device that can protect your data against mishaps and most importantly safeguard your privacy, this is an excellent buy, especially for those with an NFC-enabled phone. On the other hand, those needing a drive for straightforward storage expansion or data backup, check out the alternatives on our list of top portable drives on the market.
Slightly bulky but for a good reason
Measuring 3.51x5.04x0.71 inches (8.91x12.8x1.77 cm) this drive is quite large, almost twice the volume of a typical portable drive, such as the Seagate Expansion or the WD Elements. This means you won't be able to easily tuck it away in your pocket. The drive is not large enough, however, to be categorized as a desktop external hard drive -- it's still quite portable.
The reason for this bulkiness is because it has layers of protection. Buffalo says the MiniStation Extreme features US military standard shock protection with a rugged chassis and specialized internal bumpers designed to absorb and transfer shock away from the internal hard drive on the inside. As the result, the drive can survive drops from up to 1.2 meters (4 feet). It's also compliant with the IPX3 standard for water resistance, meaning it can handle water spray at a up to 60-degree angle, and the IP5X standard for dust resistance, meaning it's close to dust-proof.
The MiniStation features an integrated USB 3.0 cable that's permanently attached to its body. The cable wraps around the drive edge in a groove that neatly hides it when not in use. When need be, you can just pull the cable out and plug into a computer's USB port. This built-in cable device means you won't need to carry one along but if the cable breaks, which is rare, or gets cut off, you will need to replace the drive, too.
Buffalo MiniStation Extreme NFC specs
|Drive type||Bus-powered portable hard drive|
|Connector options||USB 3.0, USB 2.0|
|Available capacities||1TB and 2TB|
|Internal drive speed||7,200rpm|
|Capacity of review unit||1TB|
|Dimensions||3.51 inches by 5.04 inches by 0.71 inch (8.91x12.8x1.77 cm)|
|Weight||8.12 oz ounces (230 grams)|
|Software included||Security software|
|OSes supported||Windows XP or later; Mac OS 10.4 or later|
Plug and play, optional encryption
Out of the box, the MiniStation is preformatted in NTFS and will work right away with a Windows computer, just like most portable drives on the market. You can use it like that or reformat it into HFS+ for Mac or exFAT to support both platforms at the same time. This is the drive's default open mode, but it can also work in the secure mode.
The drive is preloaded with a piece of software called ModeChanger for both Windows and Mac. ModeChanger's function is to change the drive from the open mode to secure mode and vice versa. Switching between the two modes requires the drive to be reformatted, so make sure you do this before putting information on the drive. I found it took about 30 seconds to change from one mode to the other.
In the secure mode, the drive supports 256-bit AES Full Disk Encryption (FDE) to protect your data from unauthorized access. As with any other portable drive that has this security feature, you will need to pick a password, which you'll need to enter each time you you plug the drive into a computer. Once the secure mode is turned on, when you first plug the drive in, it appears as a small partition called Utilities that contains an Open_HS program; run this program and it will prompt for the password before the main partition of the drive can be unlocked and mounted.
Typing in the password can be a tedious process, so the MiniStation gives you the option to register an NFC device as the key. The drive includes an NFC key card but you can also use a mobile device that has the NFC function, such as a smartphone, as the key. In this case, instead of entering the password, all you have to do is put the key device near the drive and it's unlocked, quick and easy. Note that only one NFC device can be registered as the key at a time.
Also note that in secure mode, the MiniStation will only work with a Windows or Mac computer. It can no longer work with other generic hosts, such as a game console or a set-top box. This is because the Open_HS program only works with Windows or Mac.
In my testing, the security feature worked well for the most part, though I did run into a few hiccups.
First of all, ModeChanger and Open_HS didn't work on all Windows computers. On some older models, such as the Dell Studio XPS 435T, the software would crash the computer each time I ran it. Using an NFC device to open the drive also caused the computer's networking function to go haywire for a short time. I didn't know exactly why this happened but it happened consistently. It was quite rare to find a computer that this software didn't work on, however -- all other computers I tried it with, including a few Macs, had no problems at all.
And secondly, the NFC feature didn't work with the iPhone 6 or 6 Plus. This is because the NFC function on these two phones is strictly used for Apple Pay and nothing else. In my tests, the phone did recognize the drive as an NFC station but behaved as though I were trying make a purchase. I suspect that all devices with non-restricted NFC functions will work with the Buffalo.
The Buffalo MiniStation Extreme NFC did well in my testing. Via USB 3.0, the drive registered a sustained copy speed of 110MBps for writing and 119MBps for reading. For a drive that doesn't support RAID or use solid-state storage, these are among the fastest speeds on the market.
At this speed, you can transfer a DVD's worth of data to the drive in less than 30 seconds. I also noticed that the drive performed the same in secure mode, suggesting that turning on the data protection will not affect its performance.
The drive also worked with USB 2.0 in my testing but at much slower speeds, in the neighborhood of 28-30MBps.
If you have a smartphone that supports NFC (many phones do nowadays), the Buffalo MiniStation Extreme NFC is a nice accessory if you also happen to be greatly concerned about securing data against mishaps and safeguarding your privacy. Combine that with the fast performance, and the high price of $200 for 2TB (or $130 for 1TB) doesn't seem over the top.
But if you don't have an NFC-enabled phone or if you have the iPhone 6/Plus (which doesn't work with the drive), the Buffalo's bulky size makes it less competitive against more compact drives with similar security or rugged features, such as the WD My Passport Ultra or the SiliconPower A60 , which are also significant cheaper. The WD drive also includes helpful backup software and SiliconPower can withstand even higher punishment than the Buffalo.
In the end, the Baffalo is not a must-have for everyone but a good niche product for a small group of users.