Recently a US Department of Veteran Affairs consultant took home his laptop and a disk containing the identity details of over 26 million US military service veterans. His home was burglarised and the disk stolen. What a nightmare for everyone concerned and how very careless. If he had used Memory Experts International's Outbacker MXP portable hard drive the data would have been completely safe.

It works to keep data safe in several ways. You can have public and private partitions on the device, which is essentially a USB-connected hard drive with a processor and memory and firmware to provide the security functions. On the casing of the device is a fingerprint reader.

First of all the data in private partitions is encrypted. Secondly the carrier of the device has to have a fingerprint captured and validated by it. Then they have to enter a username and password. If that is accepted then access to the private partitions for that user is granted.

It is 3-factor security. You have to possess the device, have a biometric identity process validate who you are, and, thirdly, supply the right password, in order to access the data on the device. If you fail to meet any one of these three factors the data remains inviolate.

MXI is head-quartered in North America and has a European office in Isleworth, London. Taking advantage of that we reviewed a 40GB version. It looks solidly and professionally built with a well-finished case fitted with corner shock absorbers. It comes in a wallet and will, at a pinch, fit in a large shirt pocket.

It connects via a supplied USB cable. There is also a 3-pin plug, transformer and power cable in case power delivered through the USB port is insufficient.

Installing the product is a matter of mounting the supplied CD and following the usual instructions. Then you connect the device and find that installation starts getting interesting. It is recognised as a USB item by Windows and a blue light flickers on it.

In a few moments there will be two additional drive icons in the My Computer window: ACCESS SW: which contains the Access software and manuals; and a normal looking drive such as G:. This is the public partition and you can drag and drop files to and from it.

The installing user gets administrator privileges and can use the management software.

Three software programmes are installed on the host PC during the installation process:-

- The Access Console programme lets you manage the device and set up or delete partitions. These can be public or private.
- The Access Status programme tells you if the device is locked or unlocked and lets you lock it if you need to.
- The Access Unlock programme lets you unlock a device by swiping your finger across the reader and inputting a password.

These three pieces of software are easy to use, common sense in their approach, and backed up by good documentation - PDFs. The console software will, for example, tell you the configuration of the device in terms of partitions, their sizes, and the unused space. It will give you a full account of all the named users for the device and their various privileges.

To set up private partitions you need to give the device a username and password combination and have it capture your fingerprint, by using the Access Console software. This entails selecting a finger and then swiping it across the reader until an acceptable image is captured. The Console software provides a hand and finger icon which indicates the chosen finger. Then all you need to remember is which direction you swipe it across the reader.

Once this is done then the partition is set up. It appears in the My Computer window as a separate hard drive, such as H:.

Once partitions are set up then you or the partition owner if it is not you, can drag and drop files to them. A blue light, a bright and small one, flickers if the device is being accessed and files transferred.

Once the device is detached from its USB port private partitions are hidden. When you re-connect the Outbacker MXP to the original system, or a new system, any private partitions are locked. A red light by a padlock icon is lit up on the device. If you double-click on that partition's drive icon Windows XP misleadingly tells you to insert a disk in the drive.

This is very good as it is not saying that you need to pass any security check and so provide someone who has stolen the device any clue. Misleading is good.

What you have to do is fire up the Access Unlock application and swipe your finger across the reader. If your finger isn't centred or not close enough to the scanner you get so-advised. Once an acceptable image has been captured and validated then it's necessary to put in a password. The clever software even realises that a keyboard Caps Lock key is on which could invalidate your password.

Once the password has been accepted then you have access to your private partition. Now a green light shines by the small padlock icon.

Someone has given this a lot of thought and it shows. The price for this high level of security is time spent initially connecting the device and time going through the security routine. It is time well spent if you need to protect the data you are carrying about. It amounts to a few seconds only, possibly a minute or so if you have to swipe your finger more than once.

On any PC or laptop on which the Outbacker software has not been loaded you use the Access Unlock software on the drive itself and so pass through the validation routines. Naturally all the fingerprint data and password data is kept in a separate area of the device. It cannot be seen by Windows nor by users and its contents are encrypted as well as being invisible.

This device does an excellent job at protecting the data carried within it. It is capacious and convenient to use while being as secure a vault for data as Fort Knox is for gold. You need have no worries about unauthorised data access if you use it and then lose it.

OUR VERDICT

Buy a flash-based Stealth MXP if small size and lower capacity is all you need. But for tens of gigabytes of compact and highly secure portable storage the Outbacker MXP cannot be beaten.