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IronKey Workspace, a Windows 8 PC on a stick: Hands-on

What has also set IronKey apart from other USB flash drives in the past is that it uses high-end single-level cell (SLC) NAND flash memory chips as opposed to multilevel cell, consumer-grade (MLC) NAND. SLC has better native performance over MLC and, perhaps most importantly, it has as much as 10 times the lifespan, up to 100,000 write/erase cycles.

The newest drives, like the IronKey Workspace, use MLC, which is less expensive than SLC but, with new firmware, offers nearly as fast data transfer rates.

Imation's says that, because of the drive's architecture, it delivers over five times the minimum read/write performance required for Windows To Go-certified devices.

Setting up

Because most computers boot up from their internal hard drives, you'll need to change your BIOS settings to boot up from this USB device; it's a very simple process.

First, insert the drive into an external USB port while the computer is powered off (or simply restart it). Before Windows has booted up, you'll need to press either the F2 or F12 key, depending on your PC. That will bring you to a BIOS setup screen, where you can choose to boot up from an external USB device.

What's interesting is that this drive is even easier to boot up from a Mac. All you have to do is hold down the "alt" key on boot-up and you'll be offered an external disk icon from which to boot up. I tried it with my MacBook Pro, and I had no issues. There I was running a Windows 8 machine on my Apple.

The first time the flash drive is used, the system will ask you to accept Windows' licensing terms; once you agree, you're given a wide choice of background colors and the ability to name the machine.

Next, you're asked to choose the wireless network you'll be using (if, of course, you're using one). You'll then be asked to choose your personal settings, such as turning on the "Do Not Track" feature in Internet Explorer and sharing with other devices on your network (i.e. printers). Instead of wasting time on customized settings, I chose Windows' express settings setup.

Next, a screen pops up and asks you to use your favorite email address to sign into Windows (they actually promise not to send you spam). Lastly, Windows has you set up a user name and password.

Once you're signed into Windows, you can download apps from the Windows Store, have online content run automatically using Microsoft apps and synchronize settings such as your browser history, account picture and background color.

I'd never used a Windows 8 machine before, so I was impressed with its tile interface—and even more so that I could simply unplug the USB drive and carry my personalized Windows machines and all my apps and data around with me.

Performance

According to Imation's specifications, the IronKey Workspace has a maximum average read speed of 300MB/sec. and an average write speed of 100MB/sec. to 200MB/sec. Unfortunately, my Sony Vaio uses a USB 2.0 (480Mbps) external port, so it may not have taken advantage of the full throughput this USB 3.0 drive can offer.

When I timed the boot-up times, the initial boot-up from the USB drive was slow—3 minutes and 40 seconds—but the drive was configuring itself. Subsequent boot-ups took a mere 35 seconds. Shutdown is near instantaneous—about 2 seconds.

Bottom line

The IronKey Workspace USB flash drive can be found on Imation's retail site for $129 for the 32GB model, $215 for the 64GB model and $389 for the 128GB drive.

Solid state drives, even external ones, can typically cost less than $1 per gigabyte of capacity. So when I saw the price of this flash drive was almost four times that, I was a bit shocked. Admittedly, you're getting a high-quality external flash device that will act as an internal drive, but I still believe the price should come down—and hopefully eventually it will.

Overall, I really like the IronKey Workspace USB drive. It's made by a reputable company and offers great security features and quality construction. If you have need of such a device, I'd recommend this one.

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