Combining hard disk passwords with power-on passwords

Before discussing the down side of hard disk passwords, I'd like to point out one more advantage.

Some laptops, such as ThinkPads, add a two-for-one bonus. That is, you can enter a single password at startup and have it serve as both the hard disk password and the power-on password. Thus, you can employ both security schemes and, when the password for each is the same, you only have to enter that password once.

On a ThinkPad, the BIOS seems to ask for the power-on password initially and after getting a valid one, it automatically passes that password downstream to the next security mechanism, the hard disk. Thus, simply by entering a single password at boot-up, you get two different and independent security protections. Pretty good deal. I can't help but think how easy this is every time I hear about a stolen laptop containing personal information.

Hewlett Packard refers to hard disk password protection as DriveLock. Some searching of their site shows that at least some of their computers have offered this feature. And, like ThinkPads, if the power-on password and DriveLock password are the same, you only need to enter the password once.

However, HP may have discontinued DriveLock in their current machines. I checked the specs on some new laptops and found no mention of it. Their page What makes a great notebook PC? has a security section which makes no mention of hard disk passwords. I'll try to contact HP and other computer vendors to see where things stand at the moment.

Hard disk passwords make the most sense for laptop computers which are more likely to be lost or stolen than large towers.

While a random handful of computers doesn't prove much, I checked three desktop machines (a Dell Dimension E521, an IBM ThinkCentre 8183 and an IBM Intellistation E Pro 6226) and none offered hard disk passwords.

In contrast, all the ThinkPads that I've come across seem to offer it.

As for netbook computers, the MSI Wind U100 and the Asus EEE 1000 do not offer hard disk password protection. However, the Acer Aspire One, perhaps the most popular netbook of all, does offer it, but not nearly as well as ThinkPads.

For one thing, on an Aspire One, you don't just enter the password, you first have to hit the Enter key, something that is not at all obvious. Then, there's a bug in the BIOS. The password has to be entered with the caps lock key on, even though caps lock was not set when the password was initially chosen. Fortunately for me, I ran across this problem when the machine was new. Still, my heart sank when I correctly entered the password and the computer rejected it.

The third strike for Acer is their handling of both a power-on and a hard disk password. Even when both passwords are the same, you have to enter each one individually.

I'm just a blogger not a lab, so we can all benefit from your experiences here. Feel free to add a comment below or write to me at michaelhorowitz at gmail to pass along your experience with hard disk passwords. I especially need to hear from Mac users as to whether Macs offer this at all. I've been in contact with two reasonably techie Mac users and neither was aware of hard disk passwords, so they may not be supported.

Despite a few downsides, which I'll go over next time, hard disk passwords offer pretty good security for very little work on your part. If your computer supports it.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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