New devices raise need for capacity

March 13, 2000|By Mike Himowitz

Digital technology is revolutionizing the way we deal with pictures and music. Our computers have become repositories of family photo albums and CD collections. Computer processing power makes it possible to manipulate images and sounds in ways that were unimaginable a decade ago.

But one little issue remains -- digital images and sounds require the movement and storage of huge amounts of data. A three-minute song recorded in the popular MP3 format requires 3 megabytes of storage. An uncompressed, high-quality photograph can eat up two or three times that much space.

While PC hard drive capacity has increased remarkably over the past few years, our ability to move information in and out of our computers -- and store it safely somewhere else for backup purposes -- is just beginning to catch up.

Take the matter of backup and archiving. It's almost impossible to back up the full contents of today's monster hard drives on any single device. Floppy disks, which are still standard on most PCs, store only 1.4 megabytes of information -- less than half of what's needed for one MP3 file. Trying to back up an 8- or 10-gigabyte drive on floppies is a bit like trying to empty a swimming pool with a shot glass.

As a result, most users ignore backup altogether. Or, they've switched to higher-capacity removable media. These drives don't have enough storage to back up a hard disk, or even a fraction of one, but they provide enough room for the stuff you can't afford to lose -- your correspondence, financial records, photos and music. Unless you have a high-speed network connection, they're also the only way to move huge amounts of information from one computer to another.

For years, the high-capacity market was ruled by Iomega's Zip drive, which stores 100 megabytes of information on disks that cost about $10 to $15. More-advanced models can hold 250 megabytes. The main problem with the Zip is that it's not compatible with other media. A Zip drive can read only Zip disks, and other drives can't read Zips. Still, the Zip was easy to install and use and became something close to a standard in the industry.

About two years ago, a competitor to the Zip appeared, known as the SuperDisk drive. It stores 120 megabytes of data on a disk that looks like a regular floppy but has a much higher capacity and costs $10 to $15. Aside from a slightly higher capacity in the base model, the SuperDisk drive has one advantage over the Zip: It can read and write regular floppies. That means you can still use cheap floppy disks to back up and move small files. More important, the SuperDisk drive can be used to start your computer if your hard disk crashes -- provided that you've heeded Windows' warnings and made an emergency boot disk.

To give this technology a workout, I hooked up an external Imation SuperDisk drive to my PC and was impressed by the results. The sleek, white unit is about the size of a paperback book and uses the Universal Serial Bus (USB) port on newer PCs and Macs.

There are no details to report. I plugged the drive's power cord into an outlet, hooked a data cable to a port on my USB hub, installed the software from a CD and rebooted my computer. When I checked Windows Explorer, I had a new drive, and that was it. I like this kind of technology.

Imation says the SuperDisk drive is 22 times faster than a floppy, and this turned out to be accurate. In my tests, it processed 20 megabytes a minute, which will make quick work of most storage chores.

The company makes the drive in a variety of flavors, including external models that connect to USB, parallel or laptop PCMCIA ports for about $150, and internal models that can replace your existing floppy for about $100.

Drives that use SuperDisks aren't as common as Zip drives, which means they're not as good for shipping data to others. But for personal backup and storage, they're just fine. For information, surf to www.imation.com.

Digital photographers face another challenge -- getting their photos into their computers. Until recently, most digital cameras used the PC's serial port, which is unbearably slow for transferring large files. Newer cameras use the USB port, which is better, but still relies on the camera's software to transfer the photos. So, if I lend you my camera, you can take pictures with it, but you can't retrieve the photos unless you go through a full software installation.

Enter the CameraMate Digital FilmReader from MicroTech International. This nifty little $85 gadget hooks up to your USB or parallel port and "reads" both CompactFlash and SmartMedia memory cards, which are used by most digital cameras -- and many digital music players. Once you've connected it to the USB port and installed the software, it creates two drives on your system -- one for each type of memory card.

I ran into one problem with the installation. The unit won't work with a powered USB hub -- you have to plug it directly into the computer's USB port. If your PC has two USB ports (the standard these days), this isn't a problem, but if it has only one, you won't be able use any other USB device.

That said, the reader performed like a champ. Using it as a regular disk drive, I was able to transfer the entire contents of an 8-megabyte memory card to my hard drive in a couple of seconds. Better yet, I could use my photo-editing software to preview the shots before I transferred them. It had no trouble with memory cards from several different cameras. Once again, this is good, useful technology. For information, surf to www.microtechint.com.

Mike Himowitz can be reached at mike.himowitz@baltsun.com.

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