DVD-RAM Reconsidered: Version 2.0

| Ted Landau's User Friendly View

Several months ago, I wrote a column describing the advantages of DVD-RAM discs -- the most significant one being that you could add or delete files to them just as you can with a hard drive. The main problem with them was that there were almost no DVD-RAM compatible drives available for the Mac. Happily, FastMac has come to the rescue. They now offer two internal drives -- one standard-size model for Power Macs and Mac Pros and a slim-line version for notebooks and iMacs. An external drive is not yet available, but FastMac says it is on the way.

These drives offer DVD-RAM support without sacrificing any other features you might want. They read and write to single layer DVDs and CDs in all the common formats (+R, +RW, -R and -RW) as well as to dual-layer DVDs. And theyire fast. For example, the standard size model sports a maximum speed of 16x for DVDs and 12x for DVD-RAM discs. And the drives are true SuperDrives, fully compatible with iLifeis iDVD. The cost: $80 for the standard model and $120 for the slim-line.

I had the chance to test out one of these drives in my Power Mac G5 (2.5GHz) running Mac OS X 10.4.7. I am pleased to report that the drive lived up to its hype. Still, there were a few bumps in the road to DVD nirvana.

For internal drives, the first bump in the road is that they need to be installed. You canit just plug one into a FireWire port. So you need to ask yourself whether or not you are up to the task. The answer depends partly on your confidence in your technical skills and partly on which Mac model you have. As a representative from FastMac told me: "The Power Mac G4 is probably the easiest and quickest. It gets a little harder per model after that, ending with the iBook G4 that pretty much requires a complete disassembly." If installing a drive seems too daunting for you, you can always have it installed by a service provider.

In my case, I decided to "do-it-myself" -- a decision that instantly led to the next stumbling block: the FastMac drive came with no documentation at all! It did come with a CD. But the disc only contained a collection of software and firmware -- none of which was needed for my Mac. What I did need was at least a few hints on how to install the drive. There were none.

When I contacted FastMac about this, they told me that the instructions at Appleis Do-It-Yourself Web site would be all that I needed. Indeed, after downloading a PDF manual on how to replace an optical drive on a Power Mac G5, I was able to proceed. Still, FastMac should not expect buyers to have to figure this out on their own.

With the manual in hand, the replacement process began smoothly. The trickiest move required disconnecting a cable ribbon and then reaching in with my hand (to where I could not see) to slide a ribbon through a slot so as to allow the drive to be removed from the Power Mac case. But it worked -- just as Apple said it would! It was at this point that the next snag appeared. Attached to the old drive are four guidepost screws (technically called "standoffs"). They slide into slots inside the G5 that hold the drive in place. The FastMac drive did not ship with its own standoffs, so I needed to remove the ones from the old drive and transfer them to the FastMac drive. The problem was that the standoffs had hex-heads and I did not have any sort of screwdriver or wrench that would fit them. So, I paid a visit to my local hardware store and purchased one of those Swiss-Army-knife-like devices that come with a collection of hex-head drivers. FastMac should have done better here, either including the needed driver and/or having a set of stand-offs included with the drive. On the bright side, after disposing of this last hassle, the rest of the installation was easily completed in a matter of minutes.

Finally, the real test: How well would the drive work? Nearly perfectly, as it turned out. The drive was correctly recognized by the Mac as soon as it booted up. It successfully read from and wrote to all the standard CDs and DVDs I tried, including burning a dual-layer DVD. Next up, I inserted a DVD-RAM disc. It worked as expected, except for two notable glitches:

  • I had previously purchased Panasonic DVD-RAM discs for use with my stand-alone DVD recorder (connected to my home theater system). When I put one of these blank discs in the drive, it mounted successfully (the disc was named MEI_UDF). However, when I tried to copy a file to the disc, it would not work. Instead I got an error message that claimed the disc "cannot be modified." This was not good.

    I thought maybe I needed to reformat the disc in a Mac-compatible format before it would work. So I launched Disk Utility and went to the Erase tab. Unfortunately, the Erase button was dimmed and therefore not selectable.

    Once again, I had to call FastMac for help. They confirmed that I needed to reformat the disk in a Mac format before I could use it, but they did not have an immediate answer as to why I could not get Erase to work. After some experimenting, we discovered that if I inserted a blank disc and went immediately to Disk Utility, I could reformat the disc successfully. For some bizarre reason, trying to copy a file to the blank disc before launching Disk Utility prevented Erase from working. Similarly, I could not erase, under any conditions, a un-reformatted disc that already had content on it; I could mount and read these discs, but not modify them.

    The good news is that, after successfully erasing a blank disc, the DVD-RAM disc performed admirably. I could now copy, move and delete files and folders to/from the disc, just as if it were an external hard drive -- albeit a relatively slow one. Part of the slow down was because the DVD-RAM discs had only a 3x maximum speed, even though the drive itself supports speeds up to 12x. Presumably, with faster 12x discs (which are not yet available in the U.S.), speed will improve considerably.

    Update: As this article was going to press, I discovered that the Erase business was quirkier than I thought. I had a blank untouched disc that would not Erase. I then ejected the disc and reinserted it. The Erase option was then enabled. Donit ask me why.

  • I had held out some faint hope that I would able to play television shows on my Mac, recorded to a DVD-RAM disc from my Panasonic stand-alone recorder. No such luck. The recorded programs, located in a folder called DVD_RTAV, would not work with any software I tried.

Bottom line: Do you really need a drive that supports DVD-RAM? Probably not, but you may well want one. Personally, I have started using DVD-RAM discs, in combination with a backup utility, to backup the most critical files on my drive. Because the same disc can be used repeatedly, without having to erase existing files on the disc, DVD-RAM is ideal for this task.

With its fast burning speeds and support for burning dual-layer discs, you may want this FastMac drive as an upgrade to your old drive, even if you are unsure about using the DVD-RAM feature.

In either case, I highly recommend these FastMac drives. My test model has been working several weeks now without any problems. The few problems I had in the beginning mostly could have been avoided if FastMac made more effort to provide its customers with the needed information, rather than relying on the useris self-discovery. You, having now read this column, already have the scoop on how to circumvent the initial obstacles.

Technical note: Checking disc quality. Over the course of my conversations with FastMac, they alerted me to a useful tidbit: There is a way to check the predicted quality of your CD and DVD media!

As it turns out, the quality of optical media varies a great deal, with significant differences in such things as the frequency of burn failures. However, you cannot determine quality simply by checking the brand name on a box of discs. As explained on this digitalFAQ.com page, what is important is the disc manufacturer (a manufacturer may sell its discs under various brand names). To determine the manufacturer, you need to know the discis media ID.

Unfortunately, this ID is not listed anywhere on the disc label or its packaging. It can be determined, however, by reading some "hidden" code contained on the disc itself. To do this on a Mac, get a utility called DVD Media Inspector. Then compare the obtained code to its quality evaluation on the digitalFAQ.com site. For example, as seen in the figure above, my Memorex DVD-R discs have a code of RITEKF1. DigitalFAQ.com says that this is a "2nd Class Media" (with 1st being best and 4th the worst), described as "decent discs, though not perfect, about an 80-95% success rate."

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