It’s the size of a conventional USB stick, hugely expensive, but there’s a lot more going on under the hood of the LaCie FastKey than meets the eye.

Is this drive actually a new type of drive altogether, part portable drive, part hard drive?

The main claim to fame is the drive’s use of SSD memory rather than a variant of conventional flash, which gives it better-than-hard-disk performance when transferring larger files. Officially, that’s 260MBit/s, but even at lower throughputs it should still be faster than any equivalent drive around today. This is sensibly coupled with USB 3.0, which stops the interface being a bottleneck.

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It’s an interesting halfway house between a full spinning hard disk and the convenience of a flash USB stick that signals that the former might be slowly heading for the door marked ‘obsolete’. As is the case on an increasing number of USB sticks, the FastKey has a built-in encryption chip for transparent 256-bit AES data security.

There are only two problems. Anyone buying it will ideally need USB 3.0 to get the best out of it and those interfaces are only now creeping into laptops and PCs. Retro-fitting one to a laptop is a compromise no matter what vendors claim.

The second and bigger one is cost. This is an expensive drive by anyone’s standards. The 30GB drive retails at £135 (approx $215), or £215 for 60Gb or £395 for 120GB. Most USB sticks by comparison now cost around £15 for a tiny 16GB micro-flash drive, with hard drives offering 500GB for £60. At that cost, the FastKey has some price-performance argument to make.

When will the SSD takeover happen? The more SSDs develop, paradoxically, the further away that day seems. Hard drives keep expanding in size in response to SSD while developments such as USB 3.0 boost the performance just enough to keep up with those growing capacities. At the other end, flash drives get smaller and smaller.

Or is the FastKey the start of a new type of drive altogether, a sort of external-internal drive? If the technology can be made bootable in a flexible way, perhaps all hard drives will one day be semi-portable, reconfiguring themselves to work with local hardware using USB.