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On The...Torture Rack? LaCie's Unbreakable USB Thumb Drive

An Unbreakable USB Key?

Today we have a set of test lines up that are certainly not par for Tom's Hardware: we're putting LaCie's XtremKey through hell and back. This USB key is marketed as being very sturdy: “With its impenetrable shell, the LaCie XtremKey is a USB key that’s extremely durable, with industrial-strength protection. The XtremKey is constructed with zamac, a metal alloy composed of zinc, aluminum, magnesium, and copper.

The Tom's Hardware staff prides itself on in-depth testing. And impenetrable is a mighty strong word to use in a marketing document. So, we decided to torture this USB key to see just how robust it really is.

First, a note on performance: LaCie claims a 40 MB/s read speed and a 30 MB/s write speed, but we measured (on the 16 GB version) 38 MB/s (which is still very good) and 12 MB/s (note that LaCie claims only 15 MB/s for the 8 GB version).

Test 1: In A 200°C Oven

For the first test, we baked the USB key in an oven heated to 200°C (392°F) for 25 minutes. And no, we didn’t forget to preheat.

Verdict: No effect on the USB key, which LaCie says is capable of withstanding that temperature.

Test 1: In A 200°C Oven, Cont.

We ran the same test on our first control USB key (there will be others), a metal SanDisk Cruzer Micro.

Verdict: That key suffered a little; especially the part that’s made of plastic, which started to melt. But it still worked perfectly once it cooled down.

Test 2: In The Freezer

Take two USB keys. Place them in water-filled containers. Place the containers in the freezer overnight. Yield: Two USB keys frozen in blocks of ice.

Verdict: The USB keys work. Neither the cold nor the water seem to bother them. This would explain why I've yet to kill a thumb drive by putting it through the washing machine on accident.

Test 2: In The Freezer, Cont.

As you can see, the USB keys are frozen in ice.

Verdict: The control key, even though it made no particular claims as to robustness, suffered no ill effects.

Test 3: Cold. Extreme Cold

For the next test, we chilled the USB keys with a mixture of propane and dimethyl ether, which can reach a temperature of approximately -57° C (-70.6° F). 

Verdict: Nothing. The USB key was no more fazed than after we froze it in a block of ice.

Test 3: Cold. Extreme Cold, Cont.

The SanDisk USB key was given the same treatment.

Verdict: The metal can handle the cold. The key continued to function.

Test 4: In The Microwave

Now for a somewhat more extreme test: the metal key was placed in a microwave oven.

Contrary to popular belief, there was no sparking in the microwave from the LaCie USB key, since (quoting Wikipedia) "It is possible for metal objects to be microwave-oven compatible, although experimentation by users is not encouraged. Microwaving an individual smooth metal object without pointed ends, for example, a spoon or shallow metal pan, usually does not produce sparking." And the LaCie key is rounded, with no points or sharp corners.

Verdict: The USB key smelled a little burnt, but worked perfectly.

Test 4: In The Microwave, Cont.

The SanDisk USB key, however, did create electrical arcs. Its corners are sharp and pointed.

The microwave oven wasn't any the worse for the experiment.

Verdict: Despite the sparking, the USB key continued to work. What does it take to kill these things?

Test 5: Dipped In Caustic Soda

For the fifth test, we immersed the USB keys in a caustic soda solution used to unstop drains. Please note that this is a corrosive product and must be handled with care.

Verdict: The LaCie USB key is leak-proof and showed no ill effects.

Test 5 : Dipped In Caustic Soda, Cont.

With the SanDisk USB key, which is not leak-proof, it was a different story. During the test, a week ago, the key stopped working. So we replaced it with another USB key for the subsequent tests. But a week later (we do one test per day), it started working again.

Verdict: It stopped working, but came back to life a week later.