[TidBITS has received numerous requests for reviews of the new Iomega Zip drive; given the considerable interest, we'll probably offer additional articles in future issues of TidBITS. -Geoff]
Iomega has released a new removable-media technology that brings expandable storage into almost everyone's price range. The Zip drive costs only $199 mail order, and its 100 MB cartridges cost about $20 each; half the cost of the least expensive SyQuest and Bernoulli drives, and one-quarter to one-half the cost of media for those units.
The OOBE ("out of the box experience") with the Zip drive gives a promising first impression. It's small (about the size of an external floppy drive), lightweight (about one pound), and an attractive navy blue. The disks are slightly larger than a 3.5" floppy, twice as thick, and fit in a pocket.
A closer look reveals several gotchas. The drive has a non-standard, 25-pin SCSI connection rather than the usual 50-pin; you can only set the drive's SCSI ID to 5 or 6; the power adapter - which weighs considerably more than the drive - blocks access to adjacent outlets on a power strip; and the drive has no power switch - if the drive is plugged in, it's on. This can be dangerous in SCSI devices; if you use a Zip drive, be sure to make all SCSI connections before plugging it in. The Zip drive does have switchable termination, so you can put it anywhere in the SCSI chain with the right cables, but due to the 25-pin connector and limited SCSI ID choices, if you have several SCSI devices, you may have to spend some time switching cables and IDs around before the Zip drive will work as a member of your overall system.
You must install a driver before Zip cartridges will mount, but Iomega includes a "Guest" application that temporarily loads the Zip driver into RAM, enabling you to mount cartridges without running the installer and rebooting. Iomega's Tools program helps with formatting, checking, write protecting, and read/write protecting the cartridges. The write protection can only be changed via the software (there's no write-protect tab on the disks), so if you lock a disk you can't unlock it without the Tools application. Also, if you read/write protect a disk and forget the password, you're out of luck.
Using the drive is a pleasant experience - it runs fairly quietly with negligible spin up and spin down times. Although it's not as fast as a hard drive, the Zip drive definitely runs faster than a floppy disk or CD-ROM. In my unscientific testing, I estimate its read and write speeds are 75 percent those of my hard drive. Iomega claims a 29 millisecond average seek time, and 60 MB/minute sustained throughput.
I find the speed fast enough that I comfortably use the Zip cartridges as unlimited hard disk storage expansion for less frequently used applications and documents. For example, a Zip cartridge works well for storing all those files that come on CD-ROMs that you are supposed to copy to your hard disk for faster performance. Most of these files are only a couple megabytes in size, but as your CD collection grows, your hard disk shrinks. Now you can copy those files to a 100 MB Zip cartridge, and insert the cartridge as needed.
Backup becomes a breeze. Instead of swapping in and out a hundred floppy disks, you can back up a normal-sized hard disk to two or three Zips, and Iomega even bundles a simple backup program with the Zip drive. As an added bonus for me, the Zip drive is portable enough to use for moving large files between home and office.
The Zip drive has a one year warranty, and the media carry a lifetime warranty. If you can get past the SCSI limitations, it may be the bargain answer to your backup, archive, and hard disk expansion needs. But remember: this is a new implementation of technology, and only time will tell of its long term reliability.
Iomega Corporation -- 800/697-8833 -- 801/778-3000
801/778-3748 (fax) -- <firstname.lastname@example.org>