Hold Everything

Your Mac's hard drive may be a regular behemoth compared to what you had even a few years ago, but then again, your files have gotten bigger too. Your archive of Adobe Photoshop projects, video from your DV camcorder, and your collection of favorite MP3s can eat up gigabytes of space, creating hardships for even the most monstrous of drives.

Until recently, if you wanted to back up large amounts of data–or if you needed an easy way to transfer very big files (to a service bureau for printing, for example)–your only options were technologies such as tape, Iomega's Jaz, CD-Recordable (CD-R), or CD-Rewritable (CD-RW) drives. But times are changing, and there's a new way to store your data that could one day make those old standbys seem as outdated as polyester leisure suits.

Meet DVD-RAM, a rewritable DVD format. A DVD-RAM disc holds more data than a 2GB Jaz cartridge, and the hardware is easier to use than CD-R and CD-RW drives. DVD-RAM products have crept into the market in recent months (see the sidebar, "Here to Stay?" ), and Macworld Lab tested six of the newest DVD-RAM drives to see if this technology is really an affordable and fast answer to your storage woes.

The Basics

What DVD-RAM isn't is as important as what it is. DVD-RAM stands for Digital Versatile Disc Random Access Memory. The name refers to the RAM-like way a DVD-RAM drive saves your data onto discs, but true RAM lives in your computer and parcels out memory to Microsoft Word, Photoshop, and other programs.

And a DVD-RAM disc isn't the kind of DVD you can rent from your neighborhood video store and watch in your new set-top DVD player or on your iMac DV. DVD-Video, which holds movies, has received a lot of attention lately because of its supreme durability and capacity, but because DVD-Video is read-only, there's no way to harness this power for your storage needs. That's where DVD-RAM enters the picture. DVD-RAM is the first recordable and rewritable DVD format to hit the consumer market.

Director's Chair

Keep in mind that just as DVD-RAM isn't DVD-Video, it can't be used to create DVD-Video. This means you can't use your new DVD-RAM drive to start the mass production of your own home-movie discs. The DVDs you use to watch movies must contain data compressed in a format called MPEG-2, which organizes and optimizes video files for playback. (This compression process requires special hardware and software that can cost more than $10,000 and that are not currently compatible with DVD-RAM.) For the moment, DVD-RAM has one talent: storing information–lots and lots of it.

DVD-What?

Despite its confusing name, the technology behind DVD-RAM is fairly straightforward. In fact, if you've been using a CD-R or CD-RW drive to burn backup discs or make your own music CDs, you won't find the mechanics of DVD-RAM that foreign.

Both types of drive use a high-power laser to burn data, in the form of 1s and 0s, onto spinning discs. DVD-RAM media look different from CDs–they are encased in a protective plastic cartridge, similar to those used in older CD-ROM drives before tray-loading models appeared. Despite this difference, the discs themselves are the same size as CDs.

The Big Deal

On top of DVD-RAM discs' greater storage capacity, the drives can copy files using the Finder and change and delete individual files without rewriting an entire disc.

And if that isn't enough to grab your attention, consider this: Apple sees enough potential in the technology that it has replaced the DVD-ROM drives on its high-end G4s with DVD-RAM drives.

Packin' It In

When it comes to storage devices, size definitely matters. By using a narrower laser to record data, DVD-RAM drives are able to store significantly more data than CD-RW drives, packing as much as 2.6GB onto a single-sided disc. A typical CD can hold 650MB, and the highest-capacity discs can squeeze in only 700MB. What's more, you can flip some DVD-RAM discs over and record on both sides, bringing the final tally up to a whopping 5.2GB per double-sided disc. In case you don't have your calculator handy, that's the equivalent of 8 CDs or just about 21 250MB Zip disks. (2.6GB DVD-RAM discs cost about $30, and 5.2GB discs cost about $50, compared with close to $15 for a 250MB Zip disk and around $100 for a 2GB Jaz disk.)

Around and Around

The DVD-RAM format also stores data much more efficiently than its rewritable CD counterpart. CD-RW drives write data in a continuous spiral, which means the drive has to start from the beginning and rewrite the entire disc each time you put something new on it. That's a lot of unnecessary work if you simply want to delete or add a few JPEG image files from your vacation or back up some Word files. DVD-RAM drives, on the other hand, allow you to write new information to a disc just as you would to your hard drive. They're able to do this because the discs are segmented into 2K blocks, called sectors , that serve as markers between chunks of data. Using these markers, a drive can quickly skip to sections of the disc that need to be altered and write over the information in those blocks without disturbing the rest of the disc.

And because a DVD-RAM volume appears on your desktop, like a Jaz or Zip disk does, transferring items is as simple as dragging and dropping them onto the disc icon. CD-R and CD-RW drives require special software such as Adaptec's (800/442-7274, http://www.adaptec.com) DirectCD, which is bundled with most drives and which allows Finder copies but creates only UDF (Universal Disc Format, a newer cross-platform standard) discs. Otherwise, you must use a program such as Adaptec's Toast (also bundled with drives or available separately as Toast 4 Deluxe for $99) to record data onto a disc.

The Goods

If you plan to buy a new G4, you might want to let Apple take care of the DVD-RAM–selection process for you. The drives are standard on the high-end Power Mac G4/500 and are available as a $300 option on other G4 Macs. We got subpar performance with Apple's driver, but the drive is very compatible and Apple DVD Player allows you to play DVD movies with it. If you already have your Mac, however, you can choose between an internal and external version.

Making a Connection

Of the six drives we tested, five were external devices that use a SCSI-2 connection to hook up to the Mac. The exception was the $495 ProMax Systems Internal DVD-RAM drive. New Macs do not have a SCSI port, so unless you have an older Mac, you'll have to buy and install–if you haven't already–a SCSI card to use these drives. The $549 QPS Que DVD-RAM drive comes with a SCSI card for an extra $30. (For information on buying and installing SCSI cards, see ""Generation Gap"," August 1999.) For those who own a new iMac or who find the idea of opening up a computer and fiddling with its guts a nerve-wracking proposition, FireWire DVD-RAM drives should be shipping by the time you read this.

As with any external device, using a SCSI DVD-RAM drive requires a little extra work. You'll need to make sure your drive talks to your computer correctly. Apple's DVD driver, which tells your Mac how to interact with DVD devices such as DVD-RAM drives, works only with an internal IDE DVD drive–the only one it can see. To compensate, companies are bundling their external drives with Software Architects' (425/487-0122, http://www.softarch.com) $100 DVD-RAM TuneUp software. In addition to providing the necessary drivers, this software lets you format DVD-RAM media in both HFS (Hierarchical File System) and HFS+, the standard Mac disc formats, as well as in UDF. The shipping version of TuneUp currently supports only OS 8.6, but a free OS 9 upgrade was released just prior to press time. You can download it from Software Architects' Web site.

The Test's the Thing

If you're in the market for a removable-media drive, there is more at issue than just capacity–speed and compatibility are at least as important. When you're rushing to get your last-minute design project to the printer, waiting for a slow drive to copy the files onto a disc can be annoying. And if your service bureau can't read the disc, you have the makings of a first-class headache.

Macworld Lab tested six DVD-RAM drives for speed and compatibility. (See the benchmark, dvdrambench for test results.) Despite their various product names, all of the drives contained mechanisms by one of two companies–Hitachi and Matsushita, parent of Panasonic. (For details and ratings, see the table, ""6 DVD-RAM Drives Compared".") To get an of idea how these drives compare with other types of removable-media devices, we also tested Iomega's Jaz 2GB drive and Yamaha's 4 x 2 x 6 CD-RW drive (using Adaptec's Toast 4 Deluxe).

The Need for Speed

There are two main ways to transfer files onto a DVD-RAM disc. You can use the Finder to drag and drop selected files onto the drive icon, just as you would with a Jaz or Zip drive. But if you're planning to use the drive for backup, you'll probably also use Dantz Development's (800/225-4880, http://www.dantz.com) Retrospect, which optimizes and facilitates this process by bypassing the Finder altogether. We compared speeds for both types of file transfer: using the Finder to copy a 20MB Photoshop file and using Retrospect 4.2 for a 424MB data backup.

Retrospective

Four of the drives–APS Tech's $500 APS DVD-RAM External SCSI, LaCie's $579 K525 Case DVD-RAM, Pinnacle Micro's $649 Flex Drive, and QPS's Que DVD-RAM–hustled at around 1.4MB per second when backing up with Retrospect, due to the program's advanced optimization tools. Of the four, the LaCie and APS Tech drives were the fastest, beating out the Pinnacle Micro and QPS drives by mere seconds. Although Iomega's Jaz drive stole the show, copying files at 2.3MB per second, these four DVD-RAM drives were on average 25 percent faster than Yamaha's CD-RW drive, which was writing in 4 x CD-R mode.

Although based on the same Hitachi mechanism as the Pinnacle Micro and QPS drives, the $579 EZQuest Boa DVD-RAM drive transferred files very sluggishly. In fact, it required a full 16 minutes to back up the files that the other drives handled in only 5 minutes. The problem was that the Boa's write cache was disabled, preventing the drive from using its 1MB data buffer and thus slowing down performance. EZQuest is aware of the problem and plans to correct it on new drives.

ProMax's drive, the one internal ATAPI drive in our tests, also lagged considerably when backing up data with Retrospect. The drive took more than twice as long as drives with similar mechanisms to complete a large backup (copying at roughly 0.6MB per second). The culprit is Apple's driver–not the drive. The numbers improved when we switched to the drivers included on Software Architects' TuneUp CD.

Lost and Found

If you don't have a backup program such as Retrospect or if you need to transfer only a few files at a time, you can use the Finder to copy files onto your DVD-RAM drive. There is, however, a serious drawback to using the Finder. The performance of each DVD-RAM drive took a significant hit when we used the Finder to copy a 20MB Photoshop file. In fact, speeds slowed to less than half those of the Retrospect transfers. This is because the Mac OS copies files in 512K blocks instead of the 2K blocks into which DVD-RAM media is formatted, forcing the drive to slow down while the large packets of data are broken into 2K blocks.

Neck and Neck?

The APS Tech, LaCie, and ProMax drives, all based on Matsushita hard-ware, produced virtually identical results in the Finder-based HFS and UDF copy tests. The drives copied the files at around 0.5MB per second. Even with the drop in speed, the Matsushita-based drives were still about 50 percent faster than Yamaha's CD-RW drive, which transferred the data at a paltry 0.2MB per second.

Results were considerably less consistent with the Hitachi-based DVD-RAM drives. When copying 20MB files in UDF format, the Pinnacle Micro and QPS drives outperformed all three Matsushita-based drives by a few seconds. But when copying the same file using HFS, the Pinnacle Micro and QPS drives suffered a huge loss of performance. Both drives took more than twice as long to copy the same Photoshop file in HFS as in UDF. EZQuest's drive was once again the slowest, placing last in both tests.

Playing Nice

If you work in a small office space or have to keep up with several projects at once, you know that hard drives aren't the only things without enough space. The last thing you need is yet another drive sitting around taking up valuable desktop real estate.

If an extra piece of hardware in your already crowded cubicle means the difference between having a place to set your morning bagel and eating off your lap, you will appreciate a DVD-RAM drive's flexibility as an all-in-one optical-media drive. Although they can't write to CD-R or CD-RW discs, the drives can play CD, CD-ROM, CD-R, CD-RW, and DVD-ROM media.

You Can Take It with You

You should be able to read most discs that are sent your way, but unless your colleagues have DVD-RAM drives of their own, you'll probably run into trouble when it comes to sharing your files with the rest of the world. DVD-RAM discs will not play in CD-ROM, CD-R, and CD-RW drives. You can, however, play some DVD-RAM discs in many DVD-ROM drives.

DVD-RAM media come in two flavors: Type I and Type II discs. Type I discs, which are all single-sided, and double-sided Type II discs cannot be removed from their protective cartridges. But single-sided Type II DVD-RAM discs can be removed from their cases and played in third-generation or later DVD-ROM drives. So if your colleagues own iMac DVs, blue-and-white G3s, G4s, 2000 model PowerBooks, or recently purchased DVD-ROM drives, they shouldn't have any problems playing single-sided Type II DVD-RAM discs in their DVD-ROM drives. If you work in a cross-platform environment, your chances for compatibility are less promising. Because DVD-ROM drives have been a PC staple for longer, more older–and incompatible–drives are out there.

Home Movies

Watching DVD movies on your external DVD-RAM drive is another tricky proposition. DVD playback requires special hardware and software that decode the MPEG-2 data on DVD-Video discs. Theoretically, if you use a computer such as a G4 that already supports DVD playback, you should be able to use those same drivers with your external DVD-RAM drive. Unfortunately, this isn't the case. Because Apple DVD Player will read only from the machine's first internal IDE drive, the DVD drivers will not recognize SCSI devices. As a result, external drives require additional decoders such as Wired's (408/855-9350, http://www.wiredinc.com) $219 Wired 4DVD MPEG-2 card, which comes bundled with the APS drive for an additional $190. But the software isn't up to the challenge of DVD-RAM just yet–none of our attempts to play movies on external DVD-RAM drives with the MPEG-2 card were successful. Even on a computer with built-in hardware, Wired's player produced the same lack of results.

Macworld's Buying Advice

DVD-RAM is by no means the fastest removable-media technology on the block. But if you need lots of removable storage or want to back up your data onto durable and relatively inexpensive media, a DVD-RAM drive could be a wise investment. Of the Matsushita devices we tested, APS Tech's DVD-RAM drive and LaCie's K525 Case DVD-RAM drive performed almost identically across the board. APS Tech's drive is $79 less than LaCie's and is therefore our Editors' Choice.

If the ability to continue playing movies on your DVD-equipped Mac is more important to you than really speedy backups, a better choice may be replacing your DVD-ROM drive with an internal DVD-RAM drive, such as ProMax's Internal DVD-RAM drive. This is the only surefire third-party option if you hope to watch DVD movies on your computer via your DVD-RAM drive.

Many of the inconsistencies and problems we found during our testing serve as reminders that DVD-RAM is still very much a new technology–but one you will undoubtedly be hearing more about in the next year. Evolution will eventually have its way with the old, incompatible DVD-ROM drives–making file sharing less of an issue–and new software will fill in some of the gaps currently marring DVD-RAM's reputation.

rating: 4.0 mice. APS DVD-RAM External SCSI
This drive has a large data buffer and good overall quality, and it's priced $79 less than LaCie's nearly identical drive.
Company: APS Tech (800/395-5871, http://www.apstech.com).
List price: $500.

May 2000 page: 86

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