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The Iomega Zip Drive- by Chris Wenham

Iomega has long been known for providing large-capacity removable media solutions, a famous example being the Bernoulli series of drives. But in the last year Iomega has Jazzed up their image and brought out a line of modern, snazzy and one might even say sexy looking peripherals that appeal to the home and small business user for a variety of reasons. The Zip drive is one of these.

The Zip drive is Iomega's suggestion to replace the lagging and sorely inadequate 1.44meg 3.5" floppy drives we've become so familiar with. The external model we reviewed has a deep blue/indigo case, curved and sportily designed, built to lay horizontally or propped up on its side. It's available in a version that plugs into the Parallel Port in the back of your computer (with a printer pass-through), or in a SCSI model that offers greater throughput for computers equipped with a SCSI port. We reviewed the Parallel Port version that, despite its slower throughput, offers much wider portability.

OS/2 Support

It's unfortunate that such a great puerperal seems to ignore OS/2 users and only grudgingly recognize them when forced to. The drive ships with DOS, Windows and Mac drivers but OS/2 drivers must either be ordered separately for $9.95 or, fortunately, downloaded free from the Internet or Iomega's BBS or WWW site.

Installation is also somewhat awkward, requiring you to figure out the difference between ADD and OAD drivers. ADD drivers are OS/2's own format and you'll see several such drivers in your CONFIG.SYS like "BASEDEV=IBM1FLPY.ADD" for floppy drives, and "BASEDEV=IBM1S506.ADD" for most IDE hard drives. OAD are what Iomega calls "Open Architecture Drivers."

All you really need to know is this: If you have the SCSI version of the Zip drive you need the ADD drivers, if you have the Parallel Port version you need the OAD ones. Both are shipped in the same file or on the same disks you download/order from Iomega.

Documentation for these drivers come in self-displaying .EXE programs. There are no ASCII text files you can load into your favorite editor, although the browser program does allow you to print out the manuals and jump to certain topics with a pop-up menu. These manuals are written on the technical side and insist on describing the difference between OAD and ADD drivers at the top of each file, so cryptically in fact that most won't be any the wiser even after reading them three or four times through.

The actually process though, after you've figured it out, is easy enough for anyone to be able to do it. The drivers install with the "Install Device Drivers" program in OS/2's System Setup folder and only require you to run a onetime utility that scans for the Zip drive and assigns a letter to it.

The installation program will place a new drive object in your 'Drives' folder. You can make a shadow of this on your desktop. Right clicking on this drive object will reveal a few extras in the popup menu (GIF, 6K), most notably 'Eject disk' and 'Lock disk'. They do exactly what they say! In a Macintosh-style maneuver, the Zip drive will whir and spit out the Zip disk after clicking 'eject', and 'Lock' will prevent the disk from being removed either by the 'Eject' command or by pressing the Eject button on the front of the unit itself. (You must 'Unlock' the disk using a simple command line utility to Eject it.)

Benefits

The clearest benefits of the Zip drive are storage capacity, speed and portability. Zip drives are becoming popular so you may find that you can exchange disks with your clients, friends and workers. The external Zip drives themselves, especially the Parallel Port versions, are extremely portable too. Unplug the drive from the back of your computer, carry it and its power supply (which is just a regular wall adaptor) to another computer, plug it in and run the 'Guest' program (which works on DOS and Windows) from the installation floppy, and you have full read/write access to the Zip drive without having to do a full install of the drivers. This way it takes about 5 minutes to temporarily install the whole Zip drive on another computer and use all of its advantages. We used it to back up the entire contents of a 50 megabyte hard drive in a little less than half an hour, including install time.

We also discovered that the Zip drive can be shared between two or more computers by using a simple, cheap cable switching box. These boxes are normally used to share a printer between computers when you don't want a full-blown LAN. By connecting the Zip drive and your computers to this box you can 'hot swap' the drive on the fly without rebooting either machine. We tried this method to move large files and directories from one of our home office computers to the other.

The speed of a Zip drive depends on the version you purchase. SCSI Zip drives can get up to 60 megabytes per minute of throughput, Parallel Port versions get only 20. Access time on both versions is about 29 milliseconds, about the same as entry-level hard drives were 5 years ago but still much faster than regular floppy drives. Speeds like this make it quite feasible to use a Zip drive to store documents on, plus games or programs that don't perform much disk access. When benchmarked with IOStone (iostone.zip on hobbes) the parallel port version of the Zip drive scored 2230. In comparison, an HPFS formatted hard drive with 10ms access time can usually reach 40,000 iostones or more (higher is better).

Media is cheap too, a 100 megabyte Zip disk runs about US$15 to US$20 each at the time of this writing and are also available in 3-packs and 10-packs (Iomega calls these "Gig-o-packs"). These prices make it quite reasonable to have one disk for each client or project you're working on. As I do subcontracting work for a web development company I can bring entire web sites in on one Zip disk instead of multiple 1.4 meg disks. If you're running low on hard disk space you can unload infrequently used programs and files onto a Zip disk and free up some room.

Since Iomega was essentially reinventing the floppy they took the opportunity to add some features that should have been there from the beginning. Write protection is no longer achieved by physically sliding a tab on the disk, it's software based. You can give a disk read and write protection with a password, making it ideal for storing sensitive documents. Disks can also be temporarily unprotected, so you can write to them normally but they become protected again as soon as the disk is ejected.

HPFS Formatted Disks

OS/2 users will be especially interested to know that you can format a Zip disk with the HPFS (High Performance) file system. However there are some caveats you should be aware of. HPFS is designed to be used on fixed disks and does not normally support removable media. To use HPFS on a Zip disk you must first Lock the disk, then format it with OS/2's Format program and the /FS:HPFS switch. As soon as Iomega's driver detects that a Zip disk is HPFS formatted it locks the disk and it remains locked during the entire OS/2 session. The eject button on the unit is disabled while the disk is locked. The only way to change the disk is to shut down the system and reboot.

FAT formatted disks can be freely swapped during an OS/2 session with only one problem, apparently FixPak 17 'broke' the ability for OS/2 to store Extended Attributes (EA's) larger than 1k for files saved to the Zip disk.

Merlin Compatibility

We tested the Zip drive with Merlin Beta and it performed flawlessly. The problem with storing EA's still seems to be there, although some people have been having mixed success.

Conclusions

The Zip drive is a very nice compliment for the home and business OS/2 installations, especially if you wish to port work files back and forth. The OS/2 drivers also have the unique ability to assign a drive letter to the Parallel Zip even when the device is not physically connected at boot up, making shared Zip-drive solutions easy and painless. It's the perfect removable storage solution for those who's needs are moderate.
 * Iomega Zip Drive
by Iomega
MSRP: US$199

$20-$15 for each 100mb removable Zip disk.


Chris Wenham is a Team OS/2er in Binghamton, NY with a catchy-titled company -- Wenham's Web Works. He has written comedy, sci-fi, HTML, Pascal, C++ and now writes software reviews.

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