capsule review

Tape Drives for Backup

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If you've never lost data through some form of mishap -- hard drive crash, accidental erasure, or any number of other calamities -- you might not appreciate the value of backups quite as much as the rest of us. While you may count yourself lucky now, keep in mind that data loss isn't something that happens only to other people: it will likely happen to you, too.

We tested five tape drives to see which best meets today's backup needs.

DAT Pro Case

The best measure to determine how often to back up your data and how much of it to back up is also the simplest: how much of your work can you afford to lose, and how long would it take to recreate it? Think about losing a full day's worth of work and you'll get the idea. A corollary to this is also monetary cost: you want your backups to be reliable. A backup tape drive is one peripheral where cost-cutting may not be in your best interest.

A backup system needs to be as convenient as possible; if it's a hassle, you won't be inclined to use it. Fortunately, Retrospect, the easy-to-use standard for Mac backup, is bundled with every drive we tested.

Three of the tested drives use SCSI as their connection to the Mac. The APS HyperDAT III Pro uses 4mm DAT tapes to provide up to 12GB of native storage and up to 24GB with data compression enabled. The APS drive performs the compression itself, rather than relying on Retrospect to do it. The only downside to compressing in the drive rather than the Mac concerns data security: Retrospect's encryption features should not be used with hardware compression since encrypted data cannot be compressed.

As the table shows, the HyperDAT III Pro is a good all-round performer, and its DDS-3 technology has proven itself in the field over several years. In addition, this drive has a low media cost, coming in at $1.91 per uncompressed gigabyte, allowing you to keep plenty of tapes on hand.

The other DAT drive we tested, Fantom's FireWire DVDS-DAT, has proprietary digital video features that make it potentially interesting for media production, but as a backup drive it leaves much to be desired. Despite its FireWire interface it does not have superlative speed, and since it only supports the DDS-2 DAT format, its tapes are limited to 4GB of uncompressed data. In today's world of 10GB standard hard drives in iMac DVs, this simply isn't enough. Finally, the drive is the second most expensive one we tested.

Founded in 1988, OnStream is a relative newcomer to the backup business. We tested two of its Echo series, consumer-oriented drives: the USB30 and the SC30e. The less expensive USB30 was -- unsurprisingly -- by far the slowest of the drives tested. If you only plan on using the drive for overnight backups and speed isn't a big concern, the USB30 has merit due to its low cost. We liked the SCSI-based Echo (SC30e) for its speed, but at its price -- which is $100 more than the same drive sold for the PC -- the lack of hardware data compression is incongruous. OnStream's 15GB (uncompressed) tapes aren't cheap at $45 each; in fact, OnStream's media cost (measured in dollars per gigabyte) is the highest of all drives tested.

VXA drive
Ecrix is another newcomer; it was founded in 1996 and shipped its first drive in early 1999. The first impression one gets from the Ecrix drive is that the enclosure is a solid piece of hardware. In addition to being available in multiple colors, the VXA-1 is also the most formidable drive we tested, with the greatest capacity (up to 33GB uncompressed) and best performance. While it carries the highest price, it also aced our benchmarks and shows that ample thought has gone into the overall product. For example, the enclosure's cooling fan only turns on when the temperature sensor in the drive decides the tape is getting too warm; the drive is quiet otherwise. The Ecrix is also communicative through the LEDs on its front panel -- however, a quick read through the manual is necessary to decipher what's being said.

The APS HyperDAT III Pro is the contemporary DAT backup camp's representative. DDS-3 is the third-generation of DAT backup formats, and both drives and media are manufactured by multiple companies. While slower than the OnStream SCSI drive, the HyperDAT does have hardware-based compression and benefits from low media cost. Given the maturity of DAT backup technology, this drive is the conservative choice.

At press time, both OnStream and Ecrix had announced plans for FireWire-based versions of their drives, which should obviate the need for a SCSI card to provide adequate performance.

Tape Drives

Best results in bold. Retrospect
Compression Off Compression On
OnStream USB30 20:49 17:24
OnStream SC30e 8:36 9:14
APS HyperDAT III Pro - Ultra SCSI 10:59 9:20
Fantom Drive Firewire DVDS-DAT 12:34 10:27
Ecrix VXA-1 SCSI-2 3:36 5:09

Test scores are in minutes:seconds. We tested each drive in a Power Macintosh G3/400MHz with Mac OS 9, 128MB of RAM , a default system disk cache of 4MB, and Virtual Memory enabled. A 700MB file folder was used for Retrospect 4.3 backup. --Macworld Lab testing supervised by Ulyssis Bravo

At a Glance
  • Pros

    • Overall design shows attention to detail
    • High capacity
    • High performance


    • New technology
    • Relatively expensive
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