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Have you ever wanted a physical key for your computer? Now that passwords are becoming obsolete Why Usernames & Passwords Are A Thing Of The Past, And How To Cope With This Why Usernames & Passwords Are A Thing Of The Past, And How To Cope With This With every other hacked database and credit card scandal that occurs, it becomes more evident that we can't rely on passwords for much longer. But if not passwords, what else is there? Read More , a tangible key would be more than a tricky gimmick. Indeed, requiring a physical component to unlock your PC may just be the most secure option right now, and if you have a spare USB thumb drive 5 Uses for a USB Stick You Didn't Know About 5 Uses for a USB Stick You Didn't Know About We’ve all used USB sticks to transport files between computers and back up our files, but there are other cool things you can do with a USB stick. Read More lying around, you can set up a key in just a few minutes.

It would be even better if these USB keys could replace all forms of password entry (e.g., websites) but for now they can only handle the locking and unlocking of PCs. Perhaps we’ll see further advancements in the near future.

USB Unlock Keys: The Good and the Bad

Relying on passwords alone is a big security misstep that may cause problems for you down the road. Even if you create strong passwords Everything You Need To Know About Passwords Everything You Need To Know About Passwords Passwords are important and most people don't know enough about them. How do you choose a strong password, use a unique password everywhere, and remember them all? How do you secure your accounts? How do... Read More and practice good security habits Change Your Bad Habits & Your Data Will Be More Secure Change Your Bad Habits & Your Data Will Be More Secure Read More , one flaw remains: once discovered, a password is useless. In that sense, a physical key is harder to compromise, and tangible keys are harder to steal than intangible thoughts.

Another obvious benefit is that you relieve yourself the burden of password memory, although this is less of an issue if you use a secure password manager 4 Open Source Password Managers To Keep Your Passwords Safe 4 Open Source Password Managers To Keep Your Passwords Safe Even if you’re accustomed to your beloved and convenient commercial password manager, it’s probably not a bad idea to try other ultra secure applications that offer some of the same features and risk less at... Read More . Additional benefits exist depending on the software you use for creating the USB key.

usb-key-dongle-tools-benefits

But it’s not all sunshine and roses.

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For one, you’ll suffer some headaches if you ever lose or damage the USB key; key recovery is more of a headache than resetting a password. Other drawbacks include the fact that the key permanently occupies USB port space and if you ever want to grant someone else access, you have to physically hand them the key.

Before plunging ahead and setting up your own key, you’ll have to decide for yourself whether the pros are worth the cons.

Predator [Windows]

Predator is one of the most popular tools for turning a USB drive into an access control device. It’s completely free with no limitations or missing features for personal and non-commercial use, but for professional and commercial environments, it costs $30 USD per computer. Not a bad price at all, considering what it does.

As long as the USB drive is plugged in, access to the computer is allowed.USB drives used as keys will remain completely unaltered. No files will be deleted or modified in any way.

usb-key-dongle-tools-predator

Advanced features include:

  • One USB drive can be used to lock/unlock multiple computers.
  • Multiple USB drives can be assigned to various users.
  • Built-in scheduler that can limit computer access to certain times of day.
  • Schedules can be determined on a per-user basis.
  • In case of a lost or broken USB key, per-user passwords can be entered instead.
  • The USB drive security codes are regularly changed, limiting the effectiveness of copied USB drives.

All in all, Predator is your best bet if you want a quick and simple solution that just works as long as you’re running Windows and have USB ports to spare. It’s the most powerful and flexible program on this list with its built-scheduler and per-user customization. You won’t find those features in its competitors.

To set up your first USB key with Predator:

  • Install Predator.
  • Run Predator.
  • Insert your USB drive when prompted.
  • Enter a password for this user.
  • Select the drive that represents the USB device.
  • Click the Register Key button.
  • Done!

Rohos Logon Key [Windows & Mac]

Rohos Logon Key is a multi-platform access control program that’s available to create USB keys on Windows and Mac. There is an unlimited free version with several key features missing (no pun intended), though it’s only available for Windows. If you want full security and protection or if you’re using a Mac, then you’ll need to pay the full $32 USD.

Rohos works by storing your logon information and automatically inputting your credentials when the USB is plugged in. Alternate logon methods exist for Android and iOS, allowing you to unlock access to your Windows or Mac computer through your smartphone.

usb-key-dongle-tools-rohos-logon

Features include:

As far as ease of setup is concerned, I found Rohos to be slightly easier and more straightforward than Predator. However, that’s probably because Rohos is a simpler program that’s fundamentally different. It’s a literal replacement for typing in credentials: at the unlock screen, you plug it in to unlock.

This, of course, makes it less secure than Predator so I would only use Rohos if you specifically need the USB-as-login-credential functionality rather than Predator’s keep-plugged-for-access functionality.

To set up your first key with Rohos Logon Key:

  • Install Rohos Logon Key.
  • Run Rohos Logon Key.
  • Insert your USB drive.
  • Type in your Windows password.
  • Click the Setup USB Key button.
  • Done!

USB Lock [Mac]

USB Lock is a Mac app that’s similar to Predator for Windows: it turns your USB drives into keys that grant access to the computer as long as the USB key is plugged in. Unplugging the drive instantly locks the computer. Creating a USB key with USB Lock will not affect your drive’s files in any way.

It’s a unique solution in the midst of other screen lockers that rely on text-input passwords and grid-swipe patterns. The only downside is that there isn’t a free version available, but for a price tag as low as $3 USD, it’s certainly worth the cost.

usb-key-dongle-tools-usb-lock

Features include:

  • Optional password requirement on top of the USB key requirement.
  • Does not sleep or close applications when entering locked mode.
  • Idle timer that locks the system during inactivity. (Coming soon)

When all is said and done, USB Lock is basically Predator Lite. It serves the same core purpose – requiring the USB key to be plugged in order for the computer to be usable – but it doesn’t have the extra bells and whistles that make Predator awesome (namely, the scheduler and per-user customization).

However, seeing as how Predator is only for Windows, USB Lock is the closest alternative for Mac users. Only use it if you can spare an entire USB port. If you can’t, you may be better off using Rohos instead.

To set up your first key with USB Lock:

  • Install USB Lock.
  • Run USB Lock.
  • Insert your USB drive when prompted.
  • Optionally enter a password if desired.
  • Done!

Have you turned your spare USB drives into physical keys? Give it a try with one of these tools and let us know how it works out for you in the comments below. It will be more effective than a single password and it may even end up being more convenient.

Image Credit: Computer Security Via Shutterstock, Key USB Drive Via Shutterstock

  1. lolol
    July 18, 2016 at 3:55 pm

    Don't download predator. The file carries malware that luckily Windows defender can detect.

  2. Glaux
    June 21, 2016 at 1:54 pm

    Please update this article, Predator is no longer free, it's $10 as pointed out over a year ago.

  3. fcd76218
    April 12, 2016 at 2:42 pm

    How can a USB drive be used to lock up a Linux PC/Laptop?

  4. Hemant kumar arya
    March 30, 2016 at 2:31 am

    Awesome post. This is really cool trick. Now we can lock and unlock computer with a USB drive which looks like a hacker lol.
    Thank you.. ?

    • Joel Lee
      April 1, 2016 at 1:33 am

      Yeah it's definitely a cool trick to know. You're welcome! Glad you found the post useful, Hemant. :)

  5. Caleb Faulkner
    August 27, 2015 at 3:42 am

    Predator is $10 for Home. It's no longer free. Neither is Rohos. :/

  6. mccannandrew16
    August 26, 2015 at 1:08 am

    Do you have the ability to load these programs onto USB Dongles instead of the bigger Standard Size USB?

  7. Tenzin Dorji
    July 4, 2015 at 6:18 am

    Wow thats great, and someone suggested of having several usb keys around the house, then its like defeating the purpose of it, anyone any grab one key and get access into the system ??

  8. Nathan
    May 21, 2015 at 9:36 am

    There is also an option in built in to windows it self that requires a usb stick to be plug in before u can log on it call syskey and it really simple to use and works great

  9. Arjan
    December 2, 2014 at 3:14 pm

    I've run USB Raptor (the free alternative to Predator) for a few months now, works like a charm! You can find it here on SourceForge: http://sourceforge.net/projects/usbraptor/

  10. Levi
    September 16, 2014 at 3:01 pm

    Exactly my thoughts! You could easily lose your USB drive only to realise it just when you need it. Passwords still make a lot of sense

  11. Dann A
    September 16, 2014 at 2:41 pm

    While I think this has a pretty serious cool factor, I'd be far too nervous of losing the USB drive. Or even if I didn't lose it, I feel like I'd be pretty likely to leave it at home when I go into town to work, or I'd leave it in my jeans pocket and be looking around the house for it for hours.

    Really cool idea, though! Maybe I'd consider it if I could have a bunch of keys that I could put in different places around my house. :-)

    • Victor O
      September 18, 2014 at 7:31 am

      I'd be worse: washing it with my pants :)

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