FireWire Tape Drives

If you know how it feels to lose data, you know how important and worthwhile it is to perform backups. And if you've been lucky enough so far to never suffer preventable data loss, just the thought of losing hard work forever is inspiration enough to invest in some form of backup.

Tape was the original backup medium. Although not as convenient as removable disks, tape is less sensitive to the effects of the environment, and it is high capacity. Today's FireWire tape drives display none of the unpleasantness of SCSI, nor do they forfeit any performance compared to their SCSI-based siblings. We reviewed three FireWire tape drives: the Ecrix VXA-1 FireWire Drive, the Imation Travan FireWire Tape Drive, and the OnStream Echo 30 External FireWire Tape Drive.

What good is a tape drive with 2GB native capacity when the latest base model iMac comes with a 7GB drive? The three drives we tested offer between 10GB and 33GB native capacity, and up to twice that with compression enabled -- depending, of course, how compressible the data being backed up is. For example, text files are more compressible than JPEG files or encrypted data.

Hot Plug

FireWire, unlike SCSI, provides the user with true Plug-and-Play: FireWire tape drives can be connected and disconnected without worrying about termination, SCSI ID conflicts, or at which end of the SCSI chain certain devices are (or should be). We were able to hook up all three tape drives to the same FireWire chain without conflict, put our test Mac to sleep, and wake it up again without any of the drives getting confused.

All three drives are bundled with the necessary drivers for Dantz Development's Retrospect software, the de facto standard for Macintosh tape backup. The tape drives appear within Retrospect as if they're SCSI drives, even though they're connected via FireWire. Retrospect allows you to perform ad-hoc backups and to schedule backups during off-hours. Retrospect's network backup feature -- at an added cost -- allows backup of multiple PCs and/or Macs over a network to a single tape drive.

The Drives

The drives have only two things in common: each use tape as media and connect via FireWire. The Imation drive is physically smaller than both the OnStream and Ecrix, and its capacity is also lower than the competition (native tape capacity of 10GB; up to 20GB compressed). The Imation performs compression via Retrospect's software. However, the sound of its motor cannot be ignored; the drive is loud when performing rewind and fast forward operations, and the timbre is piercing.

The OnStream drive is physically larger than the Imation drive and offers 15GB native capacity (up to 30GB compressed). Like the Imation, it does not perform compression in the drive -- Retrospect does all the compression in its software before the data is written to the tape. Backup speed is dependent on CPU horsepower if performed via software; hardware-based compression, as is found in the Ecrix drive, usually manages to compress better, allowing more data to be squeezed onto a tape.

The Exrix drive is clearly intended for heavy-duty use and is designed for network backup or frequent single-machine use. It is more physically robust than the other drives, plus its power cord does not incorporate a heavy power box like the Imation and OnStream do. With its hardware-based data compression, the 33GB native tape capacity of the Ecrix's 170m can typically be expanded to 66GB, dependent, as always, on the type(s) of data being backed up.

Fine Tuning

The Ecrix drive can be tuned in several ways. For example, it offers the option to trade some backup speed for additional compression -- according to Ecrix, this can yield up to an additional gigabyte of space on a tape. Plus, in most network backup environments, the tradeoff of space over speed provides benefit without even slowing down the backup process. The Ecrix drive's fan, however, is loud and turns on and off periodically -- even when the drive is not in use. Given that in many environments the drive is constantly on, its lack of a sleep mode during periods of inactivity is inconvenient.

Go Fast

Our testing shows that FireWire tape drives, unlike USB drives, perform as well or better than SCSI drives did on our previous tape drive benchmarks. FireWire brings no performance-related tradeoffs with it. In the case of both the Imation and OnStream drives, we found that having a faster CPU benefits backup speed because it accelerates the process of software compression. Those with slower Macs, such as an iMac or beige G3, will find that their backup performance will probably be slower than with faster models. That said, the Ecrix VXA-1 FireWire drive lays to rest any concerns that backup server administrators might have about FireWire's inferiority compared to SCSI: as the charts show, Ecrix's FireWire drive is just as fast as the SCSI version.

During our testing, the Ecrix was the clear winner in backup speed, completing the backup in less than half the time of OnStream, the next-fastest drive. Plus, the Ecrix hardware compression further accelerated the backup. The OnStream performed well, however, and was 10 to 40 percent faster than the Imation, depending on the test configuration and whether compression was enabled. The Imation drive was the slowest, and it rendered our G4 test Mac unresponsive during several lengthy tasks such as tape erasure or rewinding.

Macworld's Buying advice: If you can afford it, the Ecrix drive is a worthwhile investment. It's built like a tank, its performance and capacity are high, and the company is stable -- dispelling concern that if the vendor were to close shop, the proprietary tapes would become unavailable to users. This last aspect is critical with drives and tape formats that are available only from a single vendor. If you're on a tighter budget, we prefer the OnStream FW30 over the Imation Travan FireWire drive. Both drives cost the same, yet the OnStream offers 50 percent more native capacity per tape, its cost per GB is lower, and it operates without rendering the Mac unresponsive.

Ecrix VXA-1 FireWire Drive
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