iTwin Connect review

iTwin Connect takes a hardware approach to secure Web browsing via a VPN service and can be treated as an alternative to setting up a VPN server. A USB device with heavy-duty encryption built in, iTwin secures those wandering users who need secure remote access back to the office.
Photo of iTwin Connect

For road warriors, remote workers, and agents in the field, there are many different ways to surf online safely, securely connect to a computer back in their home offices, and securely share files between computers. iTwin Connect ($129) from Singapore-based iTwin is a nifty USB-based device that can do all of the above easily and simply. iTwin Connect, available directly from iTwin and other major online retailers, offers a built-in VPN service, file-sharing, remote desktop, and Windows network and printer sharing.

There are many ways to use the iTwin Connect. Small business administrators can issue the device instead of setting up a VPN server for the handful of employees who need to remotely log into the network or use Remote Desktop to access their computers from outside the office. Agents in the field can save files to their laptops and watch as iTwin syncs the file back to the computer in the office. There is no need to worry about being on an open wireless hotspot, since the Connect can establish an encrypted tunnel back to an iTwin server or to the home computer to ensure all online communications are protected.

Considering iTwin is not charging a regular subscription for the VPN service, the Connect is a complete bargain for small businesses and individual users alike.

The Hardware Stuff
PCMag is no stranger to iTwin’s unique hardware, as PCMag previously iTwin File Access. The iTwin Connect looks the same—two USB keys that physically connect to each other via a Smart Connector and communicate wirelessly when separated.

When physically combined, the iTwin Connect measures 3.54 inches by 0.83 inches by 0.31inches (HWD) and weighs a mere 0.11 pounds. When the two pieces are separated, the biggest danger is losing them because they are so small. iTwin provides a nifty leather case to store one half for safe-keeping. If either half is ever lost, iTwin offers a simple way to remotely disable the lost piece. That way, someone who finds it can’t use it to access your home computer. The smart thing to do is to set the password when doing the initial setup. I was surprised that passwords were optional on the iTwin Connect. For some thing like this, users should be required to set up a strong password right away.

The iTwin Connect is a 32-bit microchip USB microcontroller with on-board AES 256 and SHA-256 encryption, on-board Diffie-Hellman key agreement protocol to handle how cryptographic keys are exchanged, and an on-board random generator. When the connectors are “paired” during the initial installation, the cryptographic key is transferred to both halves of the device.

When iTwin Connect is plugged in and working, the two LED lights on the unit glow a solid bright blue. The lights turn red to indicate an error has occurred. iTwin also rolls out regular firmware updates, and the Connect automatically prompts the user whenever the latest firmware is available.

Getting Started
Installation is dead simple: plug the whole iTwin Connect device (the two pieces joined as one) into the computer’s USB port. Doing so automatically installs all the necessary drivers and files. I assigned a name and password to the device, and I was good to go.
That installation process configures both halves of the iTwin Connect. At this point, I split the device and set the second half aside for safe-keeping. I just need one half of the unit plugged into my computer to take advantage of most of iTwin Connect’s features. For the sake of clarity in this review, I will refer to the computer with the first half of the dongle the “home computer.”

When I plugged the other half into another computer’s USB port, the “remote computer,” it installed the same software onto that computer. It uses the same name and password (if assigned) originally selected for the home computer.

Teleport Away
The Connect offers a VPN service as part of its “Teleport” feature where the device establishes an encrypted tunnel with iTwin’s servers. I can connect to a server in the U.S., European Union, and Singapore. I tried connecting and disconnecting a few times, and it looks like the U.S. servers are based in San Jose, Calif., and the European servers in Amsterdam, Netherlands—Next: Performance, Remote Connectivity

I ran the iTwin through the same performance tests I use on other VPN services. I viewed video clips on Hulu, watched a movie via  Netflix, and surfed online while streaming music from Pandora. I didn’t encounter any noticeable delays. I also measured actual speeds using SpeedTest.net for each city. The measurements are over a wired connection, not wireless.

The VPN service is more or less on par with other services we have seen. Considering that VPN services can range from free to a more than $20 a month, the iTwin Connect’s price is a little steep if all you need it for is VPN service. There isn’t enough of a performance boost to make it worth the upfront investment, especially since VyprVPN also offers 256-bit encryption.

However, the iTwin Connect’s attraction lies in the fact that it is so much more than a VPN service. Maybe, you aren’t comfortable using iTwin’s servers to surf the Web securely, since it’s a matter of trusting yet another company. That’s not a problem, as iTwin offers a “Teleport Me” feature where you use your own trusted connection. From the remote computer, I clicked on Teleport Me, which automatically created an encrypted tunnel back to my home computer, which was still on and connected to the Internet.

Once I was connected to my home computer, I could piggy back on that computer’s Internet connection to go online. I tested this by setting up my home computer in New York City, and setting up the remote computer in San Francisco. When I checked whatismyipaddress.com, the remote computer was showing a New York-based address, the same one I saw if I checked the site from my home computer. The performance hit was noticeable so I wouldn’t recommend doing any speed-sensitive tasks over this form of connection, but it is secure. The home computer displayed a notification that the remote computer was connected, in case I was wondering why the Internet bandwidth suddenly got sluggish.

If I have some internal applications or certain sites that are accessible only for certain IP addresses, this method allows remote users to connect easily. Since Teleport Me gets me onto the work network, I can access any corporate resources. This is quite handy for a small business not quite ready, or able, to set up a VPN server.

If I use a proxy server and help keep my employees safe and private online, this feature allows me to extend that protection to remote users.

Other Ways to Connect
On the iTwin menu, there is a “Remote Desktop” option. This lets me setup a remote desktop session where I log in to a different computer using the Windows Remote Desktop client built into most versions of the Windows operating system. If I didn’t want to use the Windows Remote Desktop client, I could use a third-party tool such as VNC.
Using the iTwin Connect’s Remote Desktop option allows me to access my home computer and all its files over a secure, encrypted tunnel. This is much safer than just using the built-in client over the Web. The iTwin device lets me approximate the experience of logging into a VPN server and then launching the remote desktop session, without the hassle of a VPN server. is this better?

Since the two halves of iTwin Connect talk to each other, my home and remote computers formed their own virtual private network. This meant I could use standard Windows filing-sharing features on both computers. I was also able to use printer-sharing and send print jobs remotely to the printer attached to my home computer.
With iTwin Connect’s file sharing feature, I could map a directory on the home computer onto my remote computer so that I could access files and folders directly. I was even able to use the iTwin Connect to access a shared drive on the Windows domain that my home computer had access to from my remote computer.
The iTwin Connect is supremely useful, so it’s a little disappointing that it can be used only on desktop version of Windows. I wouldn’t be able to take advantage of the Teleport Me feature with a Windows Server 2003 or Windows Server 2008 box. Unlike its earlier iteration iTwin FileAccess, iTwin Connect also does not support Mac OS X at this time.

Would I iTwin?
In a word, yes. I actually wrote this review while sitting in my hotel room in San Francisco and connected to my work computer back in New York City using the iTwin Connect. I wouldn’t advise watching movies on Netflix Instant using Teleport Me, but it made connecting back to my home network really simple. My biggest worry was losing the dongle for the remote computer.

I wouldn’t use iTwin Connect if all I needed was a VPN service to secure my online activities, but if I needed a way to have secure Web browsing and remote access to another computer or network, I would pick iTwin Connect without hesitation. The 256-bit encrypted tunnel ensures all my activities are secure and it is easy to set up and get started. For frequent travelers and any small business struggling with remote access, iTwin Connect is worth the investment.

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Specifications
Device Type Expandable Home NAS
Operating System Embedded Windows
Rack-mount or Standalone Standalone
Network Medium Wireless

Verdict
iTwin Connect takes a hardware approach to secure Web browsing via a VPN service and can be treated as an alternative to setting up a VPN server. A USB device with heavy-duty encryption built in, iTwin secures those wandering users who need secure remote access back to the office.
Published under license from Ziff Davis, Inc., New York, All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc