Some people may tell you that speed doesn't matter when it comes to tape drives. If you use the drive for desktop backup, you can simply start the process when you leave for the day, and by the time you arrive at work the next morning the backup is complete. While this makes perfect sense, there's a point where a drive is so slow even all night isn't enough time to complete a backup. With its sluggish connection, Seagate's TapeStor Travan Portable USB 20 pushes the limit. However, if you don't have dozens of gigabytes of data and USB is your only connection option, the TapeStor Travan is worth considering. Although Travan is an older and lower capacity technology, it's affordable, and its cartridges are widely available.
Set To Setup
The TapeStor Travan is easy to set up. Tape drives don't show up on your desktop, so you can only read or write to them using software. The TapeStor Travan ships with Retrospect Desktop Backup 4.3, the standard in backup software. Retrospect is relatively easy to use and includes an adequate PDF user's manual. Strangely, Retrospect recognizes the TapeStor Travan as a SCSI drive instead of a USB drive, but this didn't interfere with operation.
The case is smaller than the average tape drive, but calling it a portable drive may be overstating. Because the TapeStor Travan isn't USB-powered, you must always carry the external power brick and plug it into an outlet.
The drive writes to 10GB native capacity cartridges, which cost about $24 each. It reads 4GB native cartridges, but not the older TR-3 or TR-2 cartridges. Travan is a well-established technology, which is an important advantage with a backup drive -- three years from now, you want to be able to buy media for your drive. Or, if your current drive dies, you'll need to find another drive of the same format to read your old tapes.
Data Like Molasses
USB's maximum data rate is 1.5MB per second. That's fine for a keyboard or mouse, but it can be a problem if you need to move large files.
The TapeStor Travan doesn't offer hardware compression. Although hardware compression is generally faster than software compression, in this case it doesn't matter: the bottleneck is simply moving over to the USB connection. For this reason, compressing the data in the computer before you copy it to the tape is the best solution, since it cuts down on the amount of data you'll have to transfer. We were able to shave 15 percent off of our backup time by turning on software compression. (Image and audio files are often compressed already, so those files won't benefit from compression.) The trade-off, however, is the burden on your CPU. You'll still be able to use your computer, but images will render slowly and video will stutter.
If you seem to fill up disk space the same way Barbie eats up closet space, be wary of the TapeStor Travan. It takes about ten hours to back up 20GB of data. However, after the initial backup, Retrospect allows you to perform incremental back ups. In other words, you only copy the files that have changed, so your evening backup might take only a few minutes.
The TapeStor Travan works only with Mac OS 9. Seagate is working with Dantz on a Mac OS X version of Retrospect.
Macworld's Buying Advice
If you have a computer with external SCSI or FireWire you're much better off with a tape drive that has a faster interface. (See " FireWire Tape Drives " and " Tape Drives for Backup.") However, at only $405, the Seagate TapeStor Travan is as affordable as tape drives come, offering respectable capacity and tried-and-true technology.