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 limitationsit tops out around 60mphand
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.
4.7GB FireWire DVD-RAM Drive
| synopsis: 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.
22985 N.W. Evergreen Parkway
Hillsboro, OR 97124
503/844-4500; Fax 503/844-4593
Software Architects, Inc.
19102 North Creek Parkway #101
Bothell, WA 98011-8005
425/487-0122; Fax 425/487-0467
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
dataat least in strictly desktop environments. Makes
me wonder what Compaq and Appleand any other system
integrators who've married a portion of their fortunes to
DVD-RAMknow that I don't.
But what really leaves me scratching my head is that LaCie,
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
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, 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
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
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
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 holdjust think, I could have
torn off a 340MB write to DVD-RAM in that timea 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
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 2:41in 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, howeverat least in November
2000, during the review cycle of the driveactually
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
arriveddespite the fact that the invoice said it was
DVD-RAMthe 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 TVexcept
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
Other Companies Mentioned in This Article
Fuji Photo Film U.S.A. Inc.
555 Taxter Road, Elmsford, NY 10523; 914/789-8100; Fax 914/789-8100
Hitachi America, Ltd.
2000 Sierra Point Parkway, Brisbane, CA 94005-1835; 650/589-8300;
Fax 650/244-7647; http://www.hitachi.com
Maxell Corporation of America
22-08 Route 208, Fair Lawn, NJ 07410; 201/703-5968; Fax
Panasonic Document Imaging Company
Two Panasonic Way 7D-9, Secaucus, NJ 07030; 800/742-8086;
TDK Electronics Corporation
901 Franklin Avenue, Garden City, NY 11530l; 516/535-2600;