Storage beaters

Introduction

You may think that the world of removable storage is less crowded after the demise of SyQuest. The former removable-drive giant gave up the ghost earlier this year. However, the advent of USB and FireWire in the latest Macs – and the disappearance of SCSI as a standard interface – means that choosing a suitable drive is as complex as ever. Here, we’ll help you get to grips with standards new and old, and help you decide which is most suitable for you. There was no cost limit for the drives we tested, because there’s an obvious limit to what people will pay for the convenience of removable drives. The only requirements were that the drives be mountable on the desktop – which precluded tape drives – and that they should be cartridge-based. The cartridge requirement meant there was no room for CD-RW drives – which can be classified as removable drives. CD-based drives will, though, be covered in next month’s Macworld. The drives we tested fall into two categories: USB and SCSI. SCSI has always been the first choice for Macintosh users for high-speed data transfer. This hasn’t changed, even though SCSI is no longer a standard feature. The iMac poses a particular problem: it has no SCSI or any other high-speed peripheral connection – making the only option USB. Though this is far slower than faster flavours of SCSI, it is still useable – especially when you have no other option. You can soon expect to see the first FireWire storage peripherals hit the streets. The first ones will be fixed hard-drives, but these should soon be followed by just about every type of removable storage option. How quickly this happens will depend on how popular the first fixed drives prove to be. There was about a one-year lag between the iMac’s release and a wide availability of USB peripherals. It’s probably safe to assume that there will be a similar lag for FireWire peripherals. The FireWire interface has only been a standard feature on Power Macs since the beginning of this year, so by this reckoning, a similar flood of FireWire peripherals will appear early next year. Removable drives play a part in many people’s computing lives. Whether for simple backup or files-exchange, some kind of removable media is essential for most people. Mac’s axing of the floppy in iMacs and Power Mac G3s was a shock to many people, but I can’t be alone in thinking it wasn’t soon enough. A measly 1.4MB of information was barely enough to carry a couple of shareware games and maybe a font. Macworld actually had cover-mounted floppies up until three years ago. The changing formats of removable media is nothing new – it has always changed rapidly and, often, inconveniently. The first floppies were 5.25-inch disks followed by 3.5-inch disks. The smaller disks first held only 400K, but this increased to 800K, meaning users with 400K models had to upgrade to an 800K drive – and upgrade yet again with the advent of the 1.4MB drive. Drives that use SCSI have an added complication that did not exist before the new Power Mac G3 arrived. In the past, SCSI was something that even entry-level Macs boasted. Having SCSI on the motherboard was seen as a problem by some peripheral vendors. SCSI comes in many flavours, but Apple opted for an old and slow flavour for its motherboards. This meant people were reluctant to pay extra for higher performance. Just because SCSI is merely an option for many Macintosh users, it’s wrong to assume that SCSI is dead. Apple’s move to cease supplying it on its logic boards was merely designed to keep up with the quickly moving SCSI standard. Now, you can choose the card most suited to the kind of connection you need to make. Whether USB or SCSI, removable drives need disks. Disk prices vary, but as a rule the larger the disk capacity, the cheaper it is per MB. For example, the DVD-RAM drive has a capacity of 5.2GB, making the price per MB tiny, especially when compared to smaller media, such as Zip disks. To counter the small cost of media, large-capacity drives usually cost more. One of the most important requirements of a removable drive is that it is cross-platform compatible. The ability to exchange files with friends and clients is often more important than anything else. To ensure you’re going to be compatible – and stay compatible – you should find out what other people use. If, for example, your main use for removable storage is transferring files to a repro house, you should be able to use most types of drive. If it’s worth its salt, your repro house should have the main formats – but check with them to make sure. Some companies may not possess the latest equipment, such as the DVD-RAM drive. From a repro point of view, a DVD-RAM drive is a helpful thing to have around. Not only does it have the ability to read and write DVD-RAM disks, but also just about every other CD-based media. If you use this kind of storage, you should consider one of the optical options. Optical drives of all types provide a much more stable way of keeping data long-term. Jaz, Zip and other magnetic media are fine for everyday stuff, but they are not exactly bullet-proof. Magnetic media deteriorates, even if it is just left sitting on a shelf. It might take a few years, but eventually your data will become corrupted. If you have any floppies over five years old, try reading them – and see how many errors you get. If looked after properly, optical drives should keep their integrity for up to twenty years. Usually, optical disks come in cartridge-form, but CD-RW and other CD-based storage is usually in disc form. The data on such disks may be fine for years if left undisturbed. However, the discs are easily scratched, so if you want to use CDs for long-term storage, look for either a CD drive that uses caddies – or treat them with great caution. Using caddies may seem a bit primitive, but CDs have always been vulnerable to rough handling, especially CD-R disks. It makes sense to have a caddy for each archive CD that you use, meaning that only a caddy-style drive can read the discs safely. Plextor make a range of CD drives that use caddies. Optical discs come in two main types, using 5.25-inch and 3.5-inch. Both formats have been around for a number of years, with the capacity steadily increasing. As the capacity swells, the older, lower-capacity disk will remain compatible in the newer drives. This has made optical drives popular. Their only drawback is speed. Even though their speed has increased over the years, they are still slower than most removable formats. But if you need a format for archiving your own data, optical is hard to beat. The current maximum capacity of the 3.5-inch optical drive is 1.3MB, which is a useful size. Unfortunately, being a new format, it’s not widely used – which is a shame, because it would compete well with Jaz. It’s cheaper than Jaz, at around £15 per disk, but not as fast. Perhaps it’s just as well, because the more competition, the more confusing things get. There are a few manufacturers who produce 1.3GB Optical drives. Fujitsu has its DynaMO drive and La Cie has its 1.3GB MO drive. There are others, but they are mostly the same under the hood. This is because, like hard-drive manufacturers, optical-drive manufacturers are few and far between. There’s only around a dozen companies that make mechanisms for hard-drives or optical drives. Build quality does vary, but both the La Cie and the Fujitsu seem solid and sturdy. Look out for generic boxes, or anything that rattles. The 5.25-inch, 2.6GB drives have recently been superceded by the massive 5.2GB format. The drive we looked at was the Sony, which weighed in at £1,437 – the most expensive drive we tested by far. It’s difficult to understand this price, when the La Cie DVD-RAM drive is a fraction of that. The only real difference to the user is that, with the Sony you are backwards-compatible with older 5.25 optical disks – but not with DVD-RAM. DVD-RAM is capable of reading lots of other formats, but those tend to be pre-recorded, such as audio, DVD-video and CD-ROM. It’s a good way of gaining compatibility with those formats, but before you rush off and buy one to watch DVD-videos, you probably wont be able to. Getting a DVD movie to your computer screen needs both a DVD reader and a hardware decoder. The greatest strength of DVD-RAM is cheap storage for large files – at only £25 for a 5.2GB disk. This works out at just half a penny per megabyte. If you have lots of data that you need to store – with compatibility coming second on the list of priorities – then the DVD-RAM is unbeatable value. Unfortunately, the fact that La Cie is the only manufacturer using DVD-RAM appears to have slowed its universal acceptance. The demise of SyQuest has left the magnetic-based drive market solely to Iomega, but it hasn’t been resting on its laurels. Both the Zip and the Jaz drives have had their capacities increased since their first appearance. The Zip now comes in a 250MB version, and the Jaz is now available only in its 2GB guise. One thing that Iomega has been slow to react to is the advent of USB. The USB Zip is now available, but solutions for Zip 250 and Jaz are still not ready. If you own a Jaz and want to use it with a USB-only Mac, the answer should be here very soon: the Jaz Dongle. This is a SCSI-to-USB adaptor for the Jaz drive, and should be available soon. If you’re the proud owner of a new Power Mac G3 your only option with Jaz, or any other SCSI-based drive, is using a SCSI card. Some of the high-end G3s do include a SCSI card, but there are a number of things you should know about before you use it. SCSI is undoubtedly the fastest way to communicate with your removable drive, but you can unwittingly slow it down. The Jaz 2GB drive uses Ultra SCSI, which is fast, only you must make sure that other devices on the chain don’t interfere with its performance. Scanners, for example, often use a slow version of SCSI, which can cause the SCSI chain to run at the slower speed. When the computer starts up, it checks the speed with which it can talk to each device. If the first device is slow, then other devices further down the chain have to communicate through the slow machine. This leaves all the devices running at the slowest speed. To avoid this, make sure the fastest devices are closest to the computer and the slowest furthest away. If your G3 arrived with no SCSI card, you will need to add one. For the optimum speed for Jaz 2GB you will need the Adaptec 2930 card, which retails at around £99. This provides an Ultra SCSI connection. If you just want to use a scanner and a slower drive you can get away with the £49 Adaptec PowerDomain 2906. This is a Fast SCSI card, which is all you need for Zip and scanners. Choosing the right drive
There’s a drive for most needs, but you need to assess your requirements in order to make the right decision. Here are some typical uses and suitable models. The home user If you own an iMac, you need to use USB. At present, your choices are a floppy drive from Newer Technology or TEAK, the Imation Super Disk, or the ZIP USB. Unless you really need a floppy drive, try to wean yourself off. The Imation holds up to 120MB on its own disks and can use floppies too. The drawback is that the format is not widely used, so don’t count on sharing your information with anybody else. The best solution for the iMac is the Zip USB drive. It’s cheap, widely used and is a handy size. You’ll be able to swap information with many Zip-equipped Mac and PC users. Alternatively, in the next month or two, USB CD-R machines and, hopefully, USB-equipped Jaz will also be available. The SCSI-equipped pro If you’ve a Mac with SCSI, your choices are wider. You can go for any of the optical formats, CD-R, or the Iomega options. For backup – without a need for sharing information – the DVD-RAM drive is hard to beat. It has the highest capacity for the lowest price, and it’s likely to be around for a long time. You should also consider CD-R and CD-RW, which will be covered next month. For exchanging information the Jaz 2GB and the Zip and the Zip 250 are ideal. The Zip 250 offers backwards-compatibility with the original Zip, but the 250 cartridge hasn’t gained enough support to be massively useful for data exchange. The same goes for the Jaz 2GB. Although it has replaced the 1GB Jaz, many people still use the 1GB version – which can’t read 2GB disks. For large-format compatibility, the Jaz 2GB using 1GB disks is unbeatable, and it is also the fastest removable around. As an extra bonus, if you upgrade your Mac to one without SCSI you can remain compatible with the Jaz Dongle, when it becomes available. The USB pro The choices are limited for the USB professional, but the ability to add a SCSI card makes it possible to use all formats of removable drive. The Zip USB drive is fine for small files, but for backup you’ll need to add a SCSI card or wait for other USB options to arrive. Adding a SCSI card may well help you with compatibility with scanners and other legacy peripherals. If you opt for the SCSI card route, your best bet is the PowerDomain 2630 from Adaptec. Then add the Jaz 2GB for fast and compatible storage. If you want storage for backup and archiving look at USB CD-R options or the DVD-RAM drive with the slower and cheaper PowerDomain 2906 SCSI card.
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