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High-Tech Times Article 020

Mass-Storage Devices

With 22 computer systems in my shop, I think I have at least one of every mass-storage device (i.e., hard-drives) made in the past 10 years. Of course, some are better than others, and some of the newest technologies are downright confusing, but how are you to judge?

Let me start off with SyQuest. If you’ve tried to get technical support from them, you should know that they filed for bankruptcy last year, and all of their assets and technology have been purchased by Iomega. Iomega has said that they will not support the SyQuest product line, including warranty and service work or customer service. That may leave a few of you high and dry, but you can still contact what’s left of SyQuest at 510‑226‑4955.

Iomega, despite some technical problems, continues to manufacture the best removable mass-storage devices on the market. I am a happy user of their Zip and Jaz drives, and recommend any of their SCSI-based products to anyone who needs fast, reliable, and essentially infinite amounts of data storage.

The newest - and potentially most confusing - storage devices are the Digital Versatile Discs, or DVDs. Today’s DVDs come in four flavors: DVD-R, DVD-RW, DVD+RW, and DVD-RAM, all of which are grouped under the term “DVD-ROM.” The rest of this column will look at the various types of DVD drives, and what you can expect from them.

DVD-R is a recordable format from Pioneer, which has been shipping since last year. With a storage capacity of 3.95 GB on each of its sides and a list price of around $17,000, DVD-R is targeted at specialized applications like interactive multimedia and television movies with a half-dozen language audio tracks. The next generation of DVD-R drives is expected in the next few months, but the estimated $5,000 is still far too steep for ordinary applications.

What, then, are the advantages of DVD-R? The primary selling point is that the same software techniques are used to burn DVD-R as CD-Rs, and most software companies have plans to market DVD-R mastering software as soon as the price-point drops to where more than the currently-installed 1,200 units are sold.

DVD-RW from Pioneer and DVD+RW from Sony, Philips, and Hewlett Packard have been announced, but have yet to ship any devices. Both formats will have 4.7 GB capacity per side, but are not read- or write-compatible with any of the other DVD formats.

DVD-RAM drives have been shipping from Panasonic, Hitachi, and Toshiba since late 1998, and over 7,400,000 have been sold to date. One of the beauties of DVD-RAM is that they can read your legacy CD-ROM, CD-R, and CD-RW discs, all DVD formats, and include write capability of 2.6 GB per side. This storage capacity is expected to increase to 4.7 GB/side by the end of 1999, and should be user-upgradable.

DVD-RAM drives are also quite aggressively priced. They were introduced at $800, and current street prices are in the $500 range; this makes them only slightly higher than high-end CD-recorders, and half the price of magneto-optical (MO) drives.

The Optical Storage Technology Association (OSTA) is working on a technical  specification that will enable all DVD drives to be able to real all available (i.e., shipping) DVD formats. Felix Nemirovsky, chairman of OSTA’s Writable DVD Subcommittee, describes their goal simply: “We want to make it so that you can take a DVD disc from any source, put in a drive, and be assured that it will read correctly.”

I recently had the opportunity to test three different DVD-RAM drives on a mid-range Pentium 200 MMX system with 96 MB RAM running Windows 95 OSR 2.5, and an Adaptec 2940U SCSI controller card. Each came with a cartridge that held the advertised 5.2 GB on two sides (each costs around $35). The Creative Labs PC/DVD-RAM kit ($500) and Hi-Val’s DVDRAM-4 kits ($650), one with Panasonic’s LF-D101 and the second with Toshiba’s SD-W1101 drive mechanism, all ran on SCSI-2.  Creative Labs refused to tell me which drive mechanism they used, but it sure acted a lot like the Panasonic.

The Panasonic drive (and the Creative Labs) was by far the fastest at reading non-DVD media, and my rather informal tests had them performing at about a 20X CD-ROM level. The Toshiba drive was considerably slower, in the 11-12X range. All three drives wrote DVD-RAM data at nearly the same rate, with 200 MB copied in almost exactly 12 minutes. I did not see any speed degradation even in writing the last few hundred megabytes when I filled one side with 2.6 GB.

Although I was using the drives strictly for data storage, most of you won’t get off quite so cheaply, as you’ll want to play back video movies on your machines. If your CPU is running at 300 MHZ or less, you’ll need an MPEG-2 hardware decoder (faster CPUs should be able to decode on the fly without slowing your system down by too much). You’ll pay $700 for Creative Labs’ Dxr2 MPEG-2 decoder card, while Hi-Val offers its $735 RealMagic Hollywood Plus 98 A3/A4 board. Of course you can use these decoders for other multimedia tasks, but they do add significantly to your budget.

Another interesting note is that DVD-RAM drives appear as two separate drives to the operating system: one normal DVD-ROM drive and a second removable-cartridge drive. You use the appropriate drive depending on which medium you have inserted. What should have been a major advantage for the Hi-Val Toshiba drive is its ability to function as two logical drives without using the software drivers that the other DVD-RAM drives require; this enables you to simply use Windows Explorer to drag-&-drop files to the cartridge. However, this slowed my SCSI system to a real crawl, and I don’t recommend it. Toshiba promises firmware and driver upgrades to solve this problem.

To summarize, I think that DVDs are the wave of the future. They’re as easy to use as a CD-Recordable, as fast as most CD-ROM drives, and provide excellent storage capacity at a reasonable price. Stay with DVD-RAM drives, as they’re much more likely to be around for a few years.

Have questions? Please e-mail me at <>, and you may see your answer in my next column. See you next month.