January 2001|Taking the new PowerFile C200 CD/DVD jukebox to an Apple dealer is a pleasant surprise. Normally, I don't travel with products, but this 200-disc system is tailored for the Mac world—an area we haven't covered a lot in terms of Mac-compatible network products and their usage on Mac-oriented networks. So I wanted to get the impressions of real-life users along with my own impressions, so I could then explore the Mac resurgence more in the future. If first impressions count for anything, the C200 should draw rave reviews among storage-starved Mac types: I almost sold two of them just sitting at a dealer's for a few hours.
The C200 is a new product from a new company, PowerFile (www.powerfile.com), located in Silicon Valley and known in its earlier days as Escient. There's no question that this is a Mac peripheral to start with. Although it will run with any FireWire-equipped system (PCs included), it has the characteristic translucent, plastic facia à la Apple's latest line of iMacs and G4s (this time in a contemporary light blue).
The jukebox is small, measuring a mere 16" x 19" x 9" and weighing in at a featherweight 20 lb. It will hold 200 discs when full. It has three FireWire connectors in the back (for daisy-chaining additional peripherals) which should provide plenty of expandability. The front of the unit includes an LCD screen and five navigation keys: Load, Eject, Menu, and two arrow keys.
Unfortunately, the screen doesn't offer much in the way of management other than showing you the currently mounted discs. It would be nice if it had some on-board diagnostics to test the system like the Pioneer jukebox.
The unit comes with two internal DVD-ROM readers. They can access CD-ROM and DVD-ROM—either Apple (HFS) or PC (ISO-9660) format—as well as CD-DA and XA, Video CD, PhotoCD, Multisession, CD-R and CD-RW, DVD-R, and pressed DVD-Video. It does not handle DVD-RAM or any other flavor of rewritable DVD disc at this time. It also doesn't do recording, which might be a future upgrade, perhaps when those DVD writers come down in price.
Hardware-wise, the jukebox does require a FireWire connection, so PC users will probably need to get an IEEE-1394 card installed. On the Mac side, all G4s can handle the C200, but only the blue and white G3s do, or beige G3s with add-on IEEE-1394 cards installed. In addition, the FireWire driver needs to be version 2.4 or higher to run the C200. A big yellow sheet is included with the system to warn you about this so you shouldn't miss it.
Along with its handy Mac compatibility, with FireWire also comes all the bandwidth you could ever want—400Mbps, so you can have two streams running from two discs in the jukebox simultaneously. For Mac users, this means two video streams. For PC users, it will mean downloading to play back video content. For network users, your bottleneck will then be network bandwidth, not the peripheral connector as might be the case with other technologies.
On the operating system side, you'll need the Mac OS 9.x or Windows 98, 98SE, ME, or Windows 2000 workstation to run the unit. It doesn't run with NT 4, either as a host or as a client.
load 'em up
The unit loads like many Macs do, from a trayless port in the front. You do need to keep the disc label to the right, but otherwise this procedure is foolproof. Discs are stored on a circular carousel with bidirectional capability. The drives are inside the ring, one facing forward, the other addressing itself to the stern of the unit. There's a picker which grasps a disc by the edge to move it into a drive or out of it, which made me think of one of the old coin banks with a hand that would reach out and grab the coin.
PowerFile has thoughtfully included a bulk-loading option with the C200. This means that the unit will take a disc, load it into a slot, and then reach for another disc to load. This makes loading a few dozen discs into the box much simpler than making repeated load requests for a single disc.
We installed the PowerFile management software on the Mac cube just fine. However, it did not discover the attached jukebox immediately. Instead, it repeatedly gave us an error dialog. This instructed us to check to see if the cable was attached (it was) or to see if we were a client looking for a C200 server (which we weren't, we were the host). We thought that the provided FireWire cable might be bad, so we looked for a known good cable to test with. While we were looking, the C200's disc catalog finally popped up.
Our best guess is that we need to be more patient. Apparently there are quite a few checks that the software goes through before it will display the catalog. So not seeing the jukebox initially might only be a question of waiting two minutes for it to work.
Once the workstation finds the jukebox, the MediaFinder becomes the primary screen for accessing and managing discs. While MediaFinder isn't elaborate (PowerFile offers Canto's Cumulus 5 software for real digital asset management), it is perfectly adequate for everyday tasks. Drag a title to an available drive and the jukebox mounts the disc. It then displays the disc's icon on the Mac desktop for accessing content.
Performance was also adequate for a two-drive system. We measured an average of 12 seconds to seek and load a disc into a drive. For a new disc inserted through the mail slot, the time was 22 seconds to load, catalog, and have content ready for access. The drives supported a steady MPEG-2 stream to the Mac Cube, so should handle data fairly quickly as well.
But performance numbers aren't the only criteria for measuring value. As one of the onlookers said, "This system is simply amazing! We have got to have one." The fact is, Mac acolytes with a need for shared storage simply haven't had an option like this in the past, neither one tailored to the physical configurations of the latest Mac systems (i.e., FireWire) or low pricing suited to small workgroup environments. We are impressed with the system's capacity and with the ability of the Mac to read this third-party drive just fine.
quirks of the C200
The C200 we tested appeared to have a marginal power supply. Although the unit functioned normally, the on-board LCD readout screen would flicker noticeably whenever the carousel was activated. This would indicate a heavy drain on the power supply.
Another quirk we found was the lack of a "Cancel" button. If you ask the unit to synchronize the discs, it will proceed to mount every disc in the library as part of the process. Unfortunately, there's no apparent way to abort this process (other than perhaps killing the software process or rebooting the jukebox). Our test with just 20 CD/DVD-ROMs would take seven to eight minutes simply to run through the complete catalog. We might then expect a fully loaded box to take almost an hour to recatalog.
So why not simply avoid synchronization, you ask? Well, besides the innate advantages of synchronization for optimum operation (after the time-consuming remount) this option happens to be right next to the Unload Disc option in the drop-down menu, so it is quite easy to hit the Synchronize button accidentally as opposed to the Unload option.
This same lengthy cataloging operation can also occur if you do a bulk unload operation by highlighting two or more discs in the catalog and hitting Apple-Y. If you neglect to pull the disc from the slot within 10 seconds, the C200 will assume that you want to load the disc. It then aborts the unload process, initiates the load process for this disc, then recatalogs the contents. So just remember to be quick to grab those discs as they spit out.
A final quirk came when we had to move the jukebox to a shelf. Since the discs are held in their slots only by gravity, several of them popped out as we tilted the unit in raising it. This meant opening the box and removing the loose discs. Unless you're in the mood for a painstaking 200-disc game of Concentration, it's unlikely all those discs will end up replaced in exactly the slots they slipped out of when you inadvertently tilted them loose. When this happened in testing, it left the jukebox software confused, since it expected to find those discs in their appropriate slots. Reinserting them gave each a new entry, but left the older "phantom" entries in the database. We eventually got rid of them by asking the software to "unload" them. After the system ran through each phantom entry, it began to remove them from the list.
All in all, we'd definitely recommend being extremely careful in moving a loaded C200. Better to unload all discs before moving than fuss with recataloging.
While the competing Cygnet id100 offers broader platform support (including Windows 95, NT3.51/4.0, Unix, and NetWare), it offers only half the disc capacity of the C200 and at twice the price. For best-bang-for-the-buck, then, the PowerFile C200 wins hands down as the low-cost leader in today's jukebox industry. For resellers looking for a high-density storage offering, or users looking to keep increasing amounts of CD-ROM or DVD data at least near-line, acquiring the C200 is a no-brainer decision. And if Mac and FireWire are your system and interface of choice—and a likely combination, these days—it's in a juke joint all its own.
Despite some minor quirks, there's a lot to like about this jukebox. Art departments, design studios, audiophiles, and the rest of us with growing numbers of CD-R discs need a fine harbor for all the data. The C200 is the lust-after peripheral of the year for CD/DVD sharing—both for Mac and PC users.