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November 27th, 1998
Bill Troop

The Storage Industry
The Good, The Bad, And The Wannabees

HARD DRIVES/New records for speed and capacit

In the fast moving world of 10,000+ rpm hard drives, exciting things are happening. IBM's 9GB Ultrastar 9LZX and 18GB Ultrastar 18ZX are the best contenders of the moment: both have about 20% faster sustained sequential throughput than the current generation of Cheetahs. They are also the first 10,000 rpm drives that are quiet enough to be in the same room with--IBM makes much of its environmental research in this respect. These are the first high-speed drives specifically targeted for personal workstations, as well as for servers. For Photoshop and A/V editing, or for the pure luxury of having a drive that even speeds up word processing tasks, these are today's drives of choice. Although they are available with Fibre Channel interfaces, most users will prefer the Ultra2 SCSI interfaces. We've had excellent luck with the latest Adaptec/Power Domain 2940U2W cards on a variety of Macs and clones. I have been testing IBM Ultra2Wide drives for several months. These drives seem exceptionally reliable, and amazingly quiet considering their high rotation rates. IBM's hard drive division is simply at the top of its form.

IBM also made news with a new 36GB drive. The spin rate at this giant capacity is only 7,200--still exceedingly fast. What's most interesting about this current generation is not just the brute RPM specification, but the wide variety of tweaks IBM has made to improve overall output roughly 20% over previous generation 10,000 rpm drives. Throughput is the important measurement, not RPM. Indeed, we suspect that the new 12,000 RPM drive from Hitachi, just beginning to become available, will not prove to be significantly faster for large blocks of data.

IBM is also making news at the Ultra ATA/66 end of the spectrum: the Deskstar 25GP, 25GB, is not only the largest IDE hard drive ever made, but also the cheapest in cost per megabyte. Initial estimated street price will be around $600, for a cost of around 2.4 cents per megabyte. The Deskstar 25GP is a 5,400 rpm drive. For the same price, IBM also introduced the Deskstar 22GXP, with 22GB capacity and a 7,200 rpm rate. IBM says that these drives should be capable of delivering Ultra SCSI-like transfer rates at IDE prices. Whether this pans out or not depends on many system variables. Apple's engineers have a better chance of making these new drives sing than their counterparts in the Wintel industry--but will they do it?

IBM notes that these new drives are being introduced coincident with the 100th anniversary of the invention of magnetic recording. It's nice to see IBM celebrating this milestone so appropriately. Seagate and Hitachi won't take these breakthroughs lying down, so we may soon see equivalent or better performance from them--for a while. That's what's so great about healthy competition.

HAS ZD LABS GONE CRAZY?

If one thing is more clear than another, it is that removable hard drives -- Jaz, SyQuest, Sparq and any other members of this loathesome tribe -- are the most unreliable computer hardware that has ever been foisted on computer users. Failure rates of 50% in some installations are common. I personally have had dozens of these ugly paperweights, and not a single one has worked reliably for more than a week. Yet ZD's flagship publication, PC Magazine, continues to push these useless products as "excellent values", "fast and capacious", "hard to beat". To top off this long-term excursion into technical fantasy, the April storage feature in PC Magazine claims that Zip drives are a whopping 50% faster on ZD's backup tests than Jaz2 drives! This, according to Ziff, is not an error. ZD Labs insists they can replicate these preposterous findings in their "labs." What happened to the days when these people were bringing out advertiser-enraging information of unquestionable veracity? They're gone. And, interestingly enough, so are ZD's profits. Please, Ziff, we need you! Be what you used to be!

In the meantime, SyQuest is bankrupt, after a valiant effort to produce more reliable removable hard drives than Iomega. They were more reliable--but that wasn't saying much. RIP, SyQuest.

IS IT MO'S TURN YET?

Perhaps the biggest tragedy to befall users oversold on removable hard drives is the poor market response to vastly superior technology: magneto-optical (MO) drives. Make no mistake about it: although MO cartridges are too slow to be considered fast hard disk replacements, they are undoubtedly the most reliable rewritable storage media yet invented. I have long championed the expensive 5.25-inch 1.3GB per side cartridges. Now the diminutive and affordable 3.5-inch 640s have won me over. I've used them for over a year without a single byte lost. The price leader for MO is Fujitsu's sleek DynaMO 640SE. With a street price of $300, this is a bargain. I have also used an excellent but more expensive unit from Maxoptix. The Maxoptix has a fan, which the ultra-slim DynaMO does not. This can be advantageous in situations (which should be exceedingly rare) where the disk will be spinning continuously. If you value your data, MO offers the archival reliability of CD-R, plus speed approaching a moderately fast hard disk. Yet, this technology, though overwhelmingly popular in Japan, has never really made it big in the US. What's the matter with us? Do we enjoy losing data, or what?

THE BEST AUDIO RECORDING EXPERIENCE I'VE EVER HAD

Copying audio CDs is the world's most popular use for CD-R recorders. Because of the possible ethical issues involved in doing this with copyrighted material (i.e., almost any audio you would want to copy), journalists have tended to keep quiet about this activity over the years. But the silence is getting progressively more broken. So it's time to talk about some of the problems you can encounter when recording audio CDs. There are many. One reason they have not been fixed in most drives is that the magazines are either unwilling or not competent to talk about the problems.

Let's start with audio extraction--getting the audio tracks onto your hard disk. Typically, you read the audio off the fastest CD-ROM you can find. But CD-ROMs aren't all created equal in their ability to extract audio--which isn't the same thing as reading computer data. There are high-speed 16 and 24X Matsushita drives that extract audio at only 1x. Teacs are better for this purpose: they extract audio at close to their rated speed. Audio engineers prefer Plextor's best-of-breed 36x SCSI-only UltraPlex.

There's another problem: reading damaged or dirty CDs. Many CD-ROMs will just give up if the source CD has the smallest defect, or produce unbearable clicks on the recording. Again, I've found Teacs are better than most, but the honors again go to Plextor, which makes solving this problem one of its specialties.

OK. Now you want to record. This isn't straightforward either. There's quality and there's quality. Recorders can differ drastically, and many will not let you produce tracks with zero-second gaps. In addition, not all recorders perform equally well with all blank media. Plextor's 4x12 PlexWriter (no rewrite capability on this model) has attracted a fanatical following among high-end audio engineers. Yamaha is also known to make excellent CD-Rs, but the Plextor is in a class of its own. I've recently cut hundreds of audio CDs on this machine, and have found it performs vastly better than any other CD-R I have used. The PlexWriter is also happy with 80-minute CD-R blanks--when you can find them.

Needless to say, I use Adaptec's Toast and Jam software packages: among the most perfect pieces of Mac software ever written. They're simple enough for a child to use, yet have the capability and performance a professional demands. And they're two of the most bug-free programs I've ever used on any platform at any time. There are no Windows versions of these programs. These aren't just Mac-first programs; these are Mac-only programs. We all owe Adaptec thanks for continuing to support and update these classics. The newly released Jam 2.5 (free to owners of Jam 2.1) is, in my early testing, absolutely a must-have. Markus Fest, the programmer behind Toast and Jam, is absolutely one of the greatest assets the Mac has ever had.

CD recording can be a pleasure or a trial. At this time, there is nothing generic about it. Everything depends on the quality of your software and hardware.

Just one last word: I always hook up my Mac and CD-R to a UPS (uninterruptible power supply) made by APC. This prevents power glitches or outright failure from ruining a CD recording session. Now that CD-R blanks are so cheap, cost isn't an issue. But the loss of time is. My computing life has been much more secure since I started using these inexpensive but extremely well-made APC boxes.

Send us your comments!!


Bill is an industry consultant who has worked in the computer industry for 12 years. He has written for many publications including MacWeek and PC Magazine. We are very pleased to welcome Bill to the editorial staff of The Mac Observer.



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