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Review: LaCie 4.7GB FireWire DVD-RAM Drive
Posted Jan 1, 2001 Print Version     Page 1of 1
  

LaCie's latest DVD-RAM offering has upped the ante to 4.7GB of single-sided storage as well as incorporated FireWire connectivity and ease. The drive is bundled with one piece of Maxell 4.7GB Type II media and Software Architects' DVD-RAM TuneUp software for formatting media and to optimize drive performance. The drive delivered between a third and a fifth of its claimed write speed, perhaps more an issue with the technology than anything else. It performed consistently in terms of the variety of formats read and their promised read speeds.

January 2001|Speed isn't everything. But then again neither is size. This shouldn't come as much of a surprise: I mean, the mechanical and marketing minds over at Dodge wouldn't make both the Viper and the Caravan if that weren't the case. It's all about the end-use and the individual's priority list: Do I need to get there fast? Look cool? Save gas? Fit four kids and a dog? Or, does the sheer novelty of being able to drive over a two-foot stone wall overwhelm the Dodge Power Wagon's speed limitations—it tops out around 60mph—and make it the perfect choice? It does handle a one-ton payload, after all.

The thing about DVD-RAM is that it is just plain slow. Once you've raced the 12X CD-R autobahn, DVD-RAM feels like settling down for a Sunday afternoon cruise with grandpa. Is it a fair comparison? No. But then again, anyone who has ever driven a Porsche knows the difference between it and my Subaru, no engineering degree required.

We use DVD-RAM in the Online office, so I'm familiar with its inherent speed limitations as well as the virtues of its capacity. We also use DLT (for backup), CD-R (for archival and large-file distribution), FTP (file transfer protocol) sites, and just about any new technology we can get our hands on that will make publishing magazines a more efficient process. Yes, DVD-RAM has its place, but with T1 lines, DSL, and cable modems making options like FTP available to solve massive data-file transfer dilemmas, I question how long some users will wait to copy even gigabyte-sized data—at least in strictly desktop environments. Makes me wonder what Compaq and Apple—and any other system integrators who've married a portion of their fortunes to DVD-RAM—know that I don't.

But what really leaves me scratching my head is that LaCie (www.lacie.com), first to market with a Mac-compatible DVD-RAM drive, says it can't keep its latest DVD-RAM offering in stock. The new drive has upped the ante to 4.7GB and incorporated a FireWire connection. Since the appeal of DVD-RAM falls into the bigger-is-better category, this seems to be all in due course.

That said, no need to rush to judgment here. If one thing can be said for DVD-RAM, it's that it gives you plenty of time for deliberate, methodical assessment. To test LaCie's latest 4.7GB FireWire DVD-RAM drive ($759), I set up what should have been both a reliable and flattering benchmark: a straight-up comparison between it and LaCie's previous-generation 2.6GB SCSI drive, both installed on a PowerMac 350mHz G3.

finding the way
On any journey, a good roadmap can't be beat. Though I'm inclined not to read user's manuals (or maps) until I'm lost, it is comforting to have them around. Thus, I applaud LaCie's choice to include an actual print version of its manual. Too bad LaCie's bundle-mate, Software Architects, only chooses to provide a PDF version of its 75-page manual, as the software is (theoretically at least) essential to optimizing the drive's performance.

I plugged in the DVD-RAM drive and installed the provided Software Architects' DVD-RAM TuneUp application, which lets you format the DVD media and installs extensions that improve the drive's performance, and by all appearances was ready to go. Unfortunately, the software wasn't, as it failed to recognize the drive. After I inserted blank media, the Mac OS automatic media format window opened in front of the TuneUp window, refusing to allow me to do anything other than format the media. As I'd never used TuneUp before, I was not aware that I'd taken a wrong turn in allowing the OS to do the formatting. However, at this point, I was more concerned with the fact that TuneUp itself didn't see the drive, and as a result, didn't offer me any media formatting options either.

A quick check of the system profiler revealed that I did have some mysterious device connected to my FireWire port, but it didn't provide any further information. However, as the DVD-RAM volume appeared on the Mac desktop, I forged ahead.

Despite the ease of drag-and-drop, file transfer itself just kept on plodding, and plodding. Transferring a 750.9MB file using the 2.6 GB SCSI drive to FujiFilm double-sided 5.2GB media took an agonizing 28.5 minutes. The same test on the FireWire drive actually took slightly longer, 31.5 minutes. (Consider that 700MB CD-R burns take about seven minutes on a 12X CD recorder.) I repeated the process using a smaller, 259.7MB file and got similar results. Now these are some hefty file sizes, but this adds up to a .439MB/sec data transfer rate in the case of the SCSI drive and .457MB/sec in the case of the 4.7GB FireWire drive (less than 3X in CD terms!). The spec sheet claims a 1.38 MB/sec data transfer rate. This jarring disparity warranted a call to LaCie's Oregon-based help line to see if my math was right. After spending 13 minutes on hold—just think, I could have torn off a 340MB write to DVD-RAM in that time—a tech supporter named Andrew was there to address my concerns. Unfortunately, my math was right, and Andrew assured me that I was receiving fairly standard results. Why the difference from the specs? Well, he was quick to answer, they don't account for error correction and the like. Why, I asked, is DVD-RAM so slow? Andrew says that the Panasonic (Matsushita) mechanism just doesn't allow for the kind of speed CD-R users are accustomed to. Guess he's had to answer this question before.

Too bad the folks who wrote the spec sheet didn't anticipate all this and save him the time.

In a publishing environment such as ours, we routinely provide printers with files of this bigger-than-a-CD size; a single issue can total 5 to 6GB of data. Thus, the appeal of a disc that will hold 5.2GB of data is crystal clear. The fact that to completely fill that double-sided disc someone must physically turn the disc over makes the appeal of single-sided 4.7GB media clear as well. However, as the process of actually filling 4.7GB of space on a DVD-RAM disc will take almost three hours (and this isn't factoring in any sort of human delay), there is no doubt that time-is-of-the-essence apps need not look to DVD-RAM to fill their needs. Of course, filling more than six CD-Rs doesn't sound like a good option either, despite the burn speed.

For my next round of tests, I switched the drive to a FireWire PowerBook G3 with a 400mHz processor and a whopping 1GB of memory. I again had a bit of trouble getting the computer to recognize the drive, but a quick (only eight minutes on hold this time) call to Andrew sorted that out. It seems the DVD-RAM tune-up disc didn't put its extensions where they belonged, and a quick reinstall did the trick.

On the PowerBook, copying a 100.7MB PhotoShop file took 3 minutes, 59 seconds, and a 245.4MB TIFF file took 8:57. Thus it showed no appreciable improvement in performance from tests on the desktop G3, delivering .421MB/sec on the smaller file and a .473MB/sec transfer rate on the TIFF. These speeds were still painfully slow. A call to someone a little higher up the technical support food chain, LaCie's Rob Coudray, reinforced that the claimed speeds don't account for error correction and disc verification, but that the speeds were even slower than he'd experienced. Thus, I broke the seal on a brand-new G3 and Rob and I walked through the process from the beginning.

This time, when the Mac OS presented its mandatory format-the-media-now window, Rob expressed his concern. I should never, he said, format the media that way because performance would undoubtedly suffer. As I had no option but to format or eject the disc, I formatted, but this time DVD-RAM TuneUp did spy the drive on bus 0. (The Mac System Profiler, by the way, still only saw a mysterious FireWire device on bus -1.) After having let the Mac OS do its formatting routine, and clicking on the 0 (though there is nothing in the interface that says this step is required), I was then able to configure the media as Macintosh HFS extended, which Rob said would also improve speed somewhat.

This round of tests, however, did not deliver improved speed. In fact, a 185.5MB file took 11 minutes, 50 seconds to write and a 42.5MB file clocked in at 2:41—in each case, delivering a measly .26MB/sec data transfer rate. This is about equal to 1.7X CD-R burn-speed. Welcome back to 1994. Perhaps it is just the fact that DVD-RAM is a newer technology, or that the name FireWire somehow suggests blazing performance, but the drive delivered one-fifth of the already-slow spec-speed, which strikes me as unbearably slow.

This round of testing did, however, take me to a place hitherto untrammeled in my media formatting experiences. After inserting a disc the Mac OS had already formatted, and awaiting DVD-RAM TuneUp's recognition of the drive, I encountered an error message that caused me to stop dead in my tracks.

Hailing itself as a "no sense" error, the dialog went on to inform me that it was "not really an error," and was something I should "never see." With ingenuousness appropriate, perhaps, to an error of the "no sense" variety, it graciously offered me the option of clicking "OK."

Incredulous, I emailed the screen capture to Rob Coudray at LaCie. He responded in kind, wondering if perhaps a colleague of mine had played a trick on me. Then he urged me to email the message to Software Architects. They replied, "Congratulations! You just found something that we all just learned about a short time ago." Lucky me. According to Lee Prewitt, Software Architects' Director of Engineering, this error occurs during formatting when using DVD-RAM TuneUp 2.2.2 because of a problem between the Oxford FireWire chipset and the Hitachi GF-2000 DVD-RAM drive used by LaCie. This is "fixed," he told me, in TuneUp 2.2.3. In the later version, the software automatically formats with certification because of "limitations with the Oxford chipset." Oxford is apparently working with LaCie on a fix. The good news is that the high-level format command works fine and unless the user needs to do a low-level format, it should not be a problem.

the mess and the media
Of course, besides its cutting-edge, Mac-friendly FireWire interface, the other new thing about this LaCie drive is that it supports single-sided 4.7GB media, optimizing it for back-up applications such as Dantz Development's Retrospect software. It doesn't matter that much in terms of productivity if it takes three hours to back up your server, but it does matter if you want to run the program at night, have more than 2.6GB to store, and don't have someone in the office at 9:00pm to flip over double-sided media.

There is a wee roadblock, however—at least in November 2000, during the review cycle of the drive—actually obtaining 4.7GB DVD-RAM media. The drive ships with one piece of Maxell 4.7GB single-sided Type II media. However, I did a quick check of my "usual sources" to find additional media and turned up nothing. I hit CNET and found that a few other vendors, including Panasonic, Compaq, and Hi-VAL, do brand or make the media (and FujiFilm has plans to release 4.7GB media early this year), but all sites claimed a minimum two-week delay. On my first visit to Outpost I found nothing, but a week later I checked back in and was pleased to find that it had TDK 4.7GB DVD-RAM media. However, when my package arrived—despite the fact that the invoice said it was DVD-RAM—the box actually contained TDK's 4.7GB DVD-R media. I guess consumers aren't the only ones confused by the multitude of DVD formats. (A call to TDK confirmed that it plans to have 4.7GB DVD-RAM media available sometime early this year.) I used the bundled Maxell Media and found that I could cram a full 4.2GB onto a disc, no problem. That is, no problem other than the tedious hour it would take if the drive were performing at the specified speed, not to mention the life-sapping three hours I devoted to the process. This is a long time when you have work to do. And has anyone ever suggested a use for DVD-RAM in recreational computing?

does size matter enough?
To its credit, the LaCie drive does perform as advertised in some respects: it reads DVD-ROM, DVD-R, CD-ROM, CD-R, Video-CD, and CD-RW media, and writes to single-sided, 2.6GB DVD-RAM media ($30), double-sided, 5.2GB media ($40), or single-sided, 4.7GB media ($30). In testing, the drive wrote all types of DVD-RAM and read all of the above, with the exception of the sole VideoCD I had on hand. Though you can play DVD movies on the drive, to do so you'll need an MPEG board to decompress the encoded video.

It would seem that, other than network storage, DVD-RAM's ability to hold two hours of MPEG-2 video makes it suited to many amateur and prosumer video authoring needs if it were integrated into an authoring setup. For example, its capacity and removability make it well-suited to video and other media asset storage, which are important aspects of title development. All you'd need is authoring software, a powerful Mac with an MPEG board, and a DVD-RAM drive in order to record fairly high-quality video. The only problem would be in playback. You can't play DVD-RAM discs in any DVD player or most DVD-ROM drives, though the most recent DVD-ROM drives from Toshiba, Hitachi, and Matsushita claim read compatibility with DVD-RAM discs. Hitachi, for one, has developed the GD-5000, which will do the trick. And of course you can write a DVD-Video disc image of 4.2GB or less to DVD-RAM; it's just a file transfer. But don't expect to play it in anything that connects to your TV—except maybe (no guarantees) the DVD-RAM-based consumer video recorders that may enter the fringes of your consciousness in the next year or two.

There is no denying that a forest fire rescue crew might prefer the Power Wagon's ability to climb walls to other transport devices' Indy-speeds. Just as obvious, based on LaCie's purported sales, some end-users are willing to forgo speed for size when it comes to portable files and the biggest-out-there removable storage capacity. However, with options cropping up as often as road work during rush hour, DVD-RAM, be it LaCie's bundle or anyone else's, might not be the ideal choice for the desktop user wanting to get where he's going as fast as possible. However, with no significant increase in speed on the horizon, DVD-RAM might well be nothing more than a jumbo-sized-stop-gap solution in the realm of removable storage.

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