iStorage is a British company that launched in 2009 after the founder saw a market for encrypted storage, and their own website tells me the 2008 guffaw with the UK Home Office played a big role here. They have since put out products in different segments, including USB drives and portable hard drives, and moved on to 2.5″ SSDs when those became more affordable. Our coverage of portable encrypted storage caught their eye, as did the follow-up from a company started by Russians using military-grade encryption tech, which definitely got some attention! With M.2 drives approaching a similar level of affordability while providing excellent speeds, iStorage contacted us to see if we would be interested in their latest and greatest. It was happy coincidence that they are now also local to me, so here we are taking a look at the diskAshur M².
If the iStorage name rings a bell, it might be because Kingston.. worked.. with them to get their DataTraveller numpad-encrypted USB drive, which still had the iStorage logo on it. So needless to say, this is not just any company when it comes to these devices. In fact, iStorage is the only company to date to have FIPS 140-2 Level 2/3, NCSC CPA, NLNCSA BSPA, and NATO Restricted (NR) level certifications on their portable HDDs, in addition to a whole bunch of other certifications which are not only useful, but also mean these drives can actually be used by companies requiring encrypted storage as part of work routines. The diskAshur M² aims to continue this trend in combining the portability of the USB drive, the storage capacity and speeds of external SSDs, and certifications galore.
Packaging & Accessories
The diskAshur M² ships in a small, colorful box that has the company and product name on front, along with a large render of the drive and its salient features. This continues on the back with more specifications and features listed, and on the sides in multiple languages. A security seal and flaps keep the box sealed during transit, and we see an inner box inside what we now know was mostly for aesthetics.
The inner box is white and out of plain cardboard to keep things simple. More flaps here keep the contents inside in place during transit, and opening the box, we see a carry case inside bubble wrap for some overkill packaging that is right up my alley. Underneath, we see the accessories that come in the box.
iStorage includes a handy quick start guide (online copy here) that goes over the setup, locking, and unlocking of the drive in multiple languages. Also included is a note that walks users through solving an annoying Windows suspend state bug I have dealt with before, and this is the first time I have seen a company work with Microsoft to resolve the issue. So major props to iStorage for this. They also provide a much more detailed user manual online, which I recommend reading over the quick start guide when you have the time. Finally, we get two cables for the drive. Both have a USB 3.2 Gen 1 (USB 3.0) Micro-B SuperSpeed plug on one end and either a USB Type-A connector or a USB Type-C connector on the other for use with your PC/laptop port options.
The diskAshur M² comes inside a handy carry case that has a handle, a zipper lock, and the iStorage logo on front. Opening the case, we see the drive enclosed on one side and a zip-lined pouch for accessories (the cables seen above) on the other.
Closer Look & Performance Testing
The diskAshur M² is a small drive compared to your average portable storage, and this is before we even get into the encrypted storage world. It measures in at 45 x 106 x 12 mm and weighs all of 86 g as it comes out of the box. There is actually a protective sleeve fitted with a rubber gasket seal going over a zinc alloy base such that the drive is IP68-rated, and iStorage says it can withstand the weight of a 2.7 ton vehicle rolling over it, as well as a 4 m drop onto hard concrete. Remove the sleeve and you now have a 65 g drive that is quite petite, with the size of the M.2 enclosure used to good effect with the polymer-coated alphanumeric keypad used for encryption.
The drive housing and protective sleeve are made out of hard anodized extruded aluminium, and on the back we see certification information along with the storage capacity. The opposite end of the base has the USB 3.2 Gen 1 Micro-B SS port (10-pin) the cables plug into. There are also three LED lights here (red, green, and blue) which go over the various operating modes and act as status indicators. The IP68 rating means it is quite hard to disassemble the drive, but iStorage tells us there is an epoxy coating inside in addition to thermal heat transfer considerations for the NAND flash, flash controller, and Common Criteria EAL5+ (Hardware Certified) secure microprocessor.
Setting up the diskAshur M² is actually among the simplest processes for any such encrypted portable storage drive because iStorage ships the drive without a factory code. Instead, you have to put it into Admin mode to set up a pin before use, which is where the quick start guide or user manual comes in. As should be the case, the pin requirements are non-trivial, and from there, iStorage allows for a plethora of other options, including setup of user pins for guests, creating recovery pins for users and the admin, setting the drive to read-only mode, enabling auto-lock after a preset amount of time, configuring the brute hack defense mechanism in terms of how many failed attempts are allowed before certain actions have to be taken, doing a complete reset, and, my personal favorite, setting a self-destruct pin which can be used to erase all stored content in pressing times, including encryption keys. Everything is done onboard the device without any software drivers, although the three LEDs can be a bad game of Simon if you don’t have the documentation on hand.
iStorage is using a Western Digital 1 TB M.2 SATA drive on my sample—there is no point in using an NVMe protocol drive when you are bottlenecked by the USB protocol anyway. It would have been nice to see a Thunderbolt implementation, but it would highly limit your client base, which is a big no-no for such products. The drive is rated for up to 370 Mbps read and write speeds, with the default CrystalDiskMark 8 test producing results in line with expectations. Of course, these numbers tend to be for sequential operations only, with random read/write test results a lot lower. BlackMagic Design’s speed test approaches the drive from a content creator’s perspective, which arguably is not the core audience, but professional content creators will appreciate encrypted portable storage just as much as those mandated to have such storage by work. Here we see similar if not slightly slower numbers as well as compatibility for most video format recording. These numbers show the diskAshur M² to be faster than every other portable encrypted drive I have tested to date, including full-size SATA SSDs and the Hawk Drive that uses an M.2 drive.
The drive supports MS Windows, macOS, Linux, Chrome, Android, Thin Clients, Zero Clients, Embedded Systems, Citrix, and VMware. It uses AES-XTS 256-bit hardware encryption and has FIPS 140-3 Level 3 certification on the way. Capacities range from 120 GB to 2 TB, and all drives come with a 3-year warranty and free lifetime technical support. Prices range from $142 to $474 from retailers, including Amazon for customers in the US, with this 1 TB model coming in at $275. UK prices are somehow worse for this UK product even with VAT included, as prices range from £153 to £496 from Amazon UK. This actually makes the diskAshur M² not only the best-performing such drive tested so far here, but also the least expensive of the SSD drives. There is no reason to get the Hawk S-Drive, for example, which is hotter, slower, and more expensive. The SecureDrive products tested thus far do manage to offer some more encryptions, but if there was one product I had to go with, the iStorage diskAshur M² would be it.