Tools of the Trade: IBM's T42 Thinkpad

The laptop that will keep thieving fingers off your data
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The Independent Online

Security will be high on the list of concerns for anyone who keeps valuable data on a portable computer. There have been plenty of reported incidents where workers in government departments, the police and even the intelligence services have lost machines carrying confidential information.

The best way to protect data from prying eyes is by using biometric security, such as iris or fingerprint recognition. Organisations in high-security fields have been using bio-metrics to check computer users' identities for some years, so it is not science fiction. But biometric systems can be clumsy to use, as well as expensive.

This is why IBM scores points for the way it has built biometric security into its latest laptop computer, the T42 Thinkpad. A simple fingerprint reader, positioned below the keyboard, allows the user to log in to the machine without a password,

Using the fingerprint reader is extremely simple and, yes, it does make a T42 owner feel rather like an extra from the TV series Spooks. Setting it up is easy, too: run the fingerprint ID utility supplied by IBM, swipe your finger three times over the sensor, and you are ready to go. IBM does, though, advise registering at least two separate fingerprints, just in case.

Aside from the fingerprint reader, the T42 Thinkpad looks and functions in a very similar way to any other IBM portable. The computer is well built, as should be expected from IBM. It comes with both Bluetooth and wireless LAN (WiFi) connections built in, and there are two PC card slots for applications such as a 3G data card.

The screen is a standard rather than widescreen 15-inch format and is clear from any normal angle of use, while the Intel Centrino processor gives enough power for business applications, running Windows XP Professional.

IBM offers a number of battery options for the T42, with the standard six-cell type giving a claimed operating life of 4.9 hours.

The company sells a range of higher-capacity batteries for frequent travellers. On the standard version, though, three hours away from a charger is certainly possible. Turning WiFi off could well push this up to four hours.

The main reason for considering this computer, however, will be security. And whether the T42 is any more secure, in practice, than an ordinary laptop is not entirely clear.

Using the fingerprint scanner to log on is certainly convenient, and there is no danger of someone seeing the password, noting it and getting into the system later. But out of the box, the T42 Thinkpad allows users to log on either with a password or with their fingerprint. If the password is compromised, this machine is no more secure than any other personal computer.

The fingerprint scanner offers convenience, but it stops short of providing what IT security experts describe as "two-factor" authentication. This is where users require something they should have, such as a token or a piece of biometric ID, and something they should know, such as a password, to log on.

There is support in the T42 Thinkpad for IT managers who want to set up two-factor authentication, but it requires careful configuration, or the use of a third-party security utility.

This is a missed oppor-tunity, because there will be plenty of small businesses and self-employed workers out there who want a very secure personal computer, without needing to hire a security professional to set it up.


Rating: 3 out of 5.

Pros: solid, extra security from fingerprint reader.

Cons: reader models cost extra, and are no more secure than a standard PC using default settings.

Price: from £1,300.

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