So how do you back up those gargantuan hard disks that are standard in today’s Macs? Read on this week for Adam’s detailed look at an attractive new backup device, Ecrix’s VXA-1 tape drive. Joe Clark’s second installment on accessibility for the disabled concentrates on the products that are available for the Mac. And in the news this week, Apple tweaks the iMac and G4 Cube, releases iTunes 1.1, and quietly consigns iReview to the Trash.
New iMacs Highlight Macworld Expo Tokyo
New iMacs Highlight Macworld Expo Tokyo — At his keynote address at the Macworld Expo in Tokyo, Steve Jobs continued Apple’s move to CD-RW as the media device of choice in new Macs. Apple’s iMac line still includes Indigo and Graphite models, and adds psychedelic Blue Dalmatian and Flower Power designs. Available in a basic 400 MHz model ($900, with CD-ROM drive) and higher-end 500 MHz and 600 MHz models ($1,200 and $1,500 with CD-RW drives), the iMac family is now at the core of Apple’s "digital lifestyle" push. Interestingly, no iMacs currenty offer DVD-ROM drives, though the low-end 450 MHz Power Mac G4 Cube ($1,300) retains one, and they’re available as build-to-order options on Power Mac G4s and G4 Cubes. New G4 Cube models at $1,600 and $2,144 (with 128 and 256 MB of memory, respectively, compared to 64 MB for the base model) sport CD-RW drives, and the high-end unit also packs Nvidia’s GeForce2 MX video controller and a 60 GB hard disk.
Apple announced a $1,000 price cut in its 22-inch flat-panel Cinema Display, now a mere $3,000. Jobs also unveiled Nvidia’s GeForce3 graphics processing unit (GPU), a high-end chip appearing first on the Mac that performs over 800 billion operations per second to render 3D objects; it will be available as a $350 build to order option on Power Mac G4s in April. Almost lost in the shuffle was word that Apple’s top-of-the-line 733 MHz Power Mac G4 minitower, with the CD- and DVD-writing SuperDrive, is now shipping. [MHA]
iTunes 1.1 Adds Support for Third-Party CD-RW Drives
iTunes 1.1 Adds Support for Third-Party CD-RW Drives — Living up to its promise at last month’s Macworld Expo in San Francisco, Apple has rolled out iTunes 1.1, improving stability, adding keyboard controls, and providing support for burning audio CDs using more than two dozen third-party CD-RW drives. iTunes enables users to burn audio CDs based on playlists of MP3 files (or other audio formats supported by iTunes); these audio CDs hold only up to the standard 74 minutes of audio, but they can be used in any standard audio CD player. Although it’s possible to store many hours of music in MP3 format on the 650 MB available on a data CD and play those in computers or specialized CD-MP3 players, iTunes can’t create data CDs. For that you’ll need to use Apple’s Disc Burner (for recent Macs with Apple’s internal CD-RW) or third-party software like Roxio’s Toast or CharisMac’s Discribe (for all other third party CD-R and CD-RW drives). iTunes 1.1 is available for free from Apple as a 3.6 MB download; it requires at least Mac OS 9.0.4 (Mac OS 9.1 for burning CDs). [GD]
I Come to Bury iReview, Not to Praise It
I Come to Bury iReview, Not to Praise It — Apple has quietly turned out the lights on iReview, which it rolled out a little over a year ago with iCards and iTools as part of a Mac-centric Internet strategy (see "I Say, Apple’s iStrategy is iMpressive" in TidBITS-512.) iReview was intended to be a stepping stone for new Internet users by providing reviews of Web sites along with user feedback and commentary. Unfortunately, iReview seems to have fallen into the same trap that doomed other review sites: there are simply too many Web sites to review, and the expense of a top-notch editorial staff on an effort which brings in no direct revenue is hard to justify – especially given the current rounds of belt-tightening in high-tech companies like Apple. Folks looking for Web site recommendations for children and schools might look at Apple’s EdView, which many find useful despite it being out of date in places and lacking long reviews or user feedback. [GD]
Poll Results: How Would You Like Your TidBITS?
Poll Results: How Would You Like Your TidBITS? We’re considering adding options for receiving TidBITS via email, so last week we asked how you’d most prefer to receive TidBITS to gauge interest in alternative formats. Just over 2,400 readers responded, with the overwhelming majority (75 percent) saying they’d prefer to receive TidBITS exactly the way it’s available now, with the complete issue sent as plain text via email. However, 25 percent said they’d prefer another option if it were available: roughly 15 percent wanted complete issues in HTML format, and about 10 percent said they’d prefer instead to receive brief announcements in either HTML or text format. Though we explicitly said we were thinking of adding email subscription options, some people thought were planning to do away with the plain text edition. That’s not the case: we plan to continue publishing issues as plain text email messages so long as there’s interest. We’re not yet sure what form additional subscription options will take, but we now have a better idea how to focus our efforts. Thanks for your input! [GD]
Ecrix’s VXA-1 Tape Drive: Big Fast Backups
Huge hard disks are a boon in today’s world of MP3s and QuickTime movies, but they’ve made reliable backup strategies harder to develop. Back when I bought my first 2.6 GB DAT drive, I’d just added my first 1 GB hard disk to my main Mac, and no other Mac on my network had over 700 MB online. With Retrospect’s intelligent snapshot approach to backup and incremental backups, a couple of tapes would last for months. Now it takes me 8 DAT tapes just to do the first backup, and I can go only about a month before I need to recycle a 13-tape backup set. Worse, because of the swapping necessary to write and verify 8 tapes, it takes four or five days to finish that initial backup, during which time the work I do remains largely unprotected.
So when the folks at Ecrix (pronounced "ecree") offered to send me a review unit of their new VXA-1 tape drive, I jumped at the chance, although I warned them that a serious review of a backup device would take a long time, since the true test of a backup device is how it performs under real world conditions. I’ve now been using a VXA-1 tape drive for about eight months, and I think I understand it well.
Big and Fast — Ecrix makes much of their tape technology and how it supposedly makes the special tapes written by the VXA-1 more reliable and durable than other approaches. Although I’ve had no data loss problems, I can’t comment on the super durability, since I wasn’t about to dip my test tapes in boiling coffee or freezing water. What sets the VXA-1 apart in my eyes is that its tapes hold a lot of data, and it can read and write at blinding speeds.
Ecrix claims that their V17 tapes hold up to 66 GB of data, though that’s with hardware compression. They also claim a 6 MB per second (360 MB per minute) write speed, and that number also takes hardware compression into account. It’s generally more useful to discuss backup devices in terms of native speeds and capacities, which would be 33 GB of data and 3 MB per second (180 MB per minute), not because you won’t do somewhat better with compression, but because you’ll be happier if the drive exceeds your expectations rather than falling short.
For instance, when I paired the SCSI version of the VXA-1 with an Adaptec 29160 SCSI card in my 450 MHz Power Mac G4, Retrospect reported write speeds around 250 MB per minute. That’s well above the 180 MB per minute that you’d see without compression, but far below the 360 MB per minute Ecrix claims. Throughout this article, I’ll use the native speed and capacity, and when comparing the VXA-1 with other tape drives, you should make sure to do the same for an accurate comparison.
Based purely on specs, the VXA-1 may sound like a solid backup device – big, fast, and reliable. That’s essentially my conclusion, but I want to focus first on the negatives, since although the VXA-1 is very good, it’s not perfect, and what I’ve learned may be of use to anyone considering these extremely attractive backup devices.
Speed Caveats — You may be salivating at the idea of backing up 250 MB per minute, but you won’t see speeds like that in most situations.
You must connect the VXA-1 to a fast Mac. I first used it on an old Power Mac 7100, but even backups of the local hard disk proceeded at only about 30 MB per minute. Plus, I had to order a special cable to connect the 68-pin high-density connectors on the VXA-1 to the 25-pin SCSI port on the 7100. Even a less expensive Adaptec 2930 SCSI card in my Power Mac G4 turned in about 200 MB per minute. So if you like to dedicate an older Mac to backup tasks, you might want to reconsider that with a VXA-1. (Ecrix has recently released a FireWire version of the drive that reportedly sports similar performance to the SCSI version in conjunction with a fast SCSI card.)
The VXA-1 itself is seldom the performance bottleneck. If you’re backing up other machines across a network, performance suffers significantly based on the network speed and the speed of the Mac being backed up. The faster Macs on our network, my PowerBook G3 and Tonya’s iBook, reach respective speeds of about 55 MB per minute (transferring over 10 Mbps wired Ethernet) and 40 MB per minute (over our 11 Mbps AirPort wireless network). Our Performa 6400 manages only about 30 MB per minute over Ethernet, and the aged SE/30 hovers around 5 MB per minute. So, although you can’t blame the VXA-1 for slow network backup performance, it’s a fact of life you can fix only by increasing the speed of your network or the Macs being backed up. And realistically, it’s mostly an issue on initial backups, since incremental backups copy much less data per session.
Capacity Caveats — There are also some caveats when considering that 33 GB capacity. First off, Ecrix actually sells tapes in three different capacities. The $30 V6 cartridge has a 12 GB native capacity. The $45 V10 cartridge checks in at 20 GB native, and the $80 V17 cartridges that I’ve been using have the longest tape length, so they provide 33 GB native. The 20 GB V10 is the most economical per gigabyte, by a bit, but I’d happily pay a little more for the V17’s extra capacity.
As I noted before, almost all tape drives claim a 2:1 ratio for their hardware compression. The claim is relatively accurate for standard types of documents, but many of the largest files we work with today (MP3s, QuickTime movies, and JPEG graphics) are already internally compressed. No lossless compression routine such as those used in backup devices or programs like Aladdin’s StuffIt Deluxe can achieve a 2:1 compression ratio on such files, and in the worst case, the files may even grow slightly.
But there’s yet another problem that can suck capacity from your backup tapes. For optimal use of space with any tape drive, you never want the drive to wait for data from the computer. Most tape drives write "pad blocks" while waiting since it’s faster for a drive to write pad blocks rather than stop, rewind, reposition, spin back up to speed, and start writing again. The VXA-1 is different: it does stop the tape motion while waiting for data, but it must still write a "splice point" between the old and new data, and the accumulation of many splice points reduces capacity. So if you’re using a slow Mac or backing up over a network, you’re likely wasting some space.
I ran into a combination of these two issues in spades. Since most of my backups run over 10 Mbps Ethernet, they’re not very speedy, and until I moved the VXA-1 from the Power Mac 7100 to my Power Mac G4, nothing was backing up at much over 25 MB per minute. Worse, about 9 GB of the files on our Performa 6400 file server are MP3s. Needless to say, I was unwittingly wasting considerable tape space and was miffed when my tapes only held about 29 GB. It wasn’t until Ecrix’s tech support explained things that I realized how badly I’d been using the VXA-1.
I’ve come up with two solutions. First, I’m going to stop backing up my MP3s to tape and instead burn them to CD-R, which will provide some level of backup and let me play MP3s in a Philips CD-MP3 player a friend gave us for Christmas. Second, you can use an Ecrix program called VXATool to change some of the configuration settings within the VXA-1. One of these options sets the drive to favor capacity over speed (supposedly making a V17 tape hold its full 33 GB versus only 20 GB when speed is favored), and I’ve just switched to that mode. It reduced the speed of an initial backup of my Power Mac G4’s hard disk from 250 MB per minute down to 135 MB per minute, but the throughput of subsequent incremental backups and for all my network volumes was unaffected. I haven’t been using it long enough to determine how much more data I’ll really get on each tape. Unfortunately, VXATool is a primitive command-line program; the command to favor capacity is "1 capacity y".
Other Considerations — I was initially quite negative about moving the VXA-1 from the 7100 in the server room to the G4 at my desk because I like having Retrospect’s backup server scripts running constantly and I don’t like listening to unnecessary fans. Retrospect turned out not to be a problem, since it politely launches itself every night at 11 PM (thanks to the Retro.Startup extension), backs up everything on the network, and doesn’t complain when I quit it in the morning after a glance to verify the backups completed successfully. More important, the VXA-1’s fan, although relatively loud, turns on only when necessary, so it’s mostly silent.
The physical design of the VXA-1 is quite large, though reasonably attractive, and it can sit on either its bottom or on its side. Four front panel lights flash in a variety of ways and colors to communicate numerous bits of feedback. Unfortunately, the key to what those lights mean exists only in Ecrix’s PDF-based documentation (even though they include a printed Getting Started card).
I’ve had to interpret the feedback lights twice. The first time it informed me that I needed to clean the drive with the special $35 cleaning tape. The second was more serious – the first unit I received, an early production model, stopped working and announced its troubles via the feedback lights. I tried to troubleshoot it with the aid of Ecrix’s tech support, and when updating its firmware didn’t solve the problem, they promptly replaced it with a current model that’s worked well since, with one exception.
At that point, I was still using the Power Mac 7100, and something caused it to crash while writing to tape. Sophisticated Circuits’ Rebound restarted the Mac, but the VXA-1 remained confused (other crashes haven’t bothered it at all) and claimed it was continuing to write to the tape. I couldn’t stop it or even eject the tape. Ecrix explained that in such a situation, the VXA-1 tries to write the directory of what has been stored on the tape, and it can remember that it wants to do so even if you power it off and back on again. Something prevented it from completing that write, so Ecrix’s tech support rep told me the secret trick for ejecting a tape in such a situation: hold down the front-mounted eject button for 10 to 15 seconds and the VXA-1 will cough it up. Needless to say, you’ll want to erase that tape and start a new backup on it, since its data is not likely to be in a good state.
Buying Advice — Despite these warts, I’m actually more comfortable recommending the VXA-1 now that I’ve lived with it for the last eight months. Ecrix’s tech support has not only been able to help resolve my problems, they’ve explained why they’ve occurred. To me, knowledge of how and why my systems work is important because I’m relying on this drive to act predictably in unpredictable situations.
The cost per gigabyte of the VXA-1’s tapes is extremely good, but the drive itself isn’t as cheap for use on home networks or small offices. Prices range from about $1,000 up to $1,500, depending on whether you want an internal or external drive, FireWire or SCSI, and with or without Retrospect Desktop or Retrospect Server. However, even as Ecrix provides various stripped-down options, they don’t skimp – even the most minimal package includes a $35 cleaning tape and an $80 V17 tape. Plus, you can get any package to test for free for 30 days.
For home and small office use, OnStream’s 25 GB and 15 GB (native capacities) Echo tape drives, which come in USB, FireWire, and SCSI versions, would seem to compete favorably with the VXA-1. Drive costs are significantly lower than the VXA-1 drives, particularly for the slow 15 GB USB drives, but the tape capacities are also lower, the performance is slower, and the cost per gigabyte for the 15 GB tapes is higher than the VXA-1’s 33 GB tapes. I can’t speak to the OnStream drives’ overall reliability or usability.
Plus, if you’re anticipating future growth, Ecrix offers the VXA AutoPak, a 15 tape loader combined with either one or two VXA-1 drives. It’s pricey, but not for what you get, and lets you start small and move up without changing media types.
One slight concern about both the Ecrix and OnStream drives is that neither is yet an industry standard with multiple suppliers for media and mechanisms. That’s a concern if you think that either company might go under, orphaning users who would need new media or replacement mechanisms to recover backed-up data. Since neither technology has reached the status of industry standard, they’re equally vulnerable, and anyone who is truly concerned should either look elsewhere or make contingency plans.
In the end, I’m not only happy with the VXA-1 drive, I’m extremely pleased with how it has compared to my old, slow DAT drive and its teetering stacks of tapes. If your backup strategy is suffering from too-old hardware, take advantage of the 30-day free trial of the VXA-1 and see if it solves your problems as handily as it solved mine.
Accessibility on the Mac: Access Solutions
Last week, I talked about the needs of people with visual, hearing, or mobility impairments when it comes to using a Mac. In a nutshell, the state of accessibility on the Macintosh is in decline and may become worse under Mac OS X before it gets better. Meanwhile, most people with disabilities are currently better served with Windows-based machines than Macs. (See "Accessibility on the Mac: Trouble in Paradise" in TidBITS-568.)
The Good News — First off, all the usual advantages Macs enjoy over Windows – consistent, integrated user interface; easy networking; simplicity in installing and removing applications and system enhancements; and visual elegance – remain notable advantages for many disabled users. And there are some clear-cut superlatives, like built-in speech output (and speech recognition, however limited).
If you need to get a disabled coworker, employee, or friend or relative up and running on a Mac, it’s usually possible. Your options are more limited than with Windows, but for nearly all relevant disabilities, there’s at least something available to reduce or eliminate barriers.
Whether you’re looking for Mac or Windows products, your first stop for information should be the long-standing magazine and Web site Closing the Gap, which offers a large searchable resource directory.
Mobility Impairment — If you need help typing or using the mouse (for example, if you suffer from repetitive strain injury or have multiple sclerosis), you can use Apple’s own accessibility software, which you might have to load onto your Mac via a custom install from a Mac OS CD-ROM. You can also download the files directly from Apple.
Sticky Keys and Mouse Keys are the most useful utilities in the package. With Sticky Keys, you can press modifier keys and letter or number keys in sequence instead of together: Command then Shift then Q, for example. Maddeningly, though, Sticky Keys turns itself off if you actually do manage to press a modifier and another key simultaneously (Command-Z, for example, since they’re usually close together), thereby making you more disabled than you actually are. Mouse Keys lets you move the mouse by pressing keys on the numeric keypad. (There’s a related utility, Mouse Keys for PowerBooks, for machines without numeric keypads.) However, those Apple utilities were always minimal and haven’t been significantly improved in half a decade.
Third-party products might be a better option. Tash, Inc.’s $100 SwitchClick is a big, squat cylinder that substitutes for a mouse. You can use it with the $275 MouseMover software to control mouse functions like click, press and hold, or simply moving the mouse in a given direction.
From RJ Cooper comes the $100 SmartClick, software that substitutes for a mouse using a technique called "dwell selection:" you hover the mouse cursor on an object and make a selection with SmartClick’s on-screen menus, which is then interpreted as the click, double-click, click-and-drag or similar action of a mouse. To make this function work, you need either a mouse or a trackball, a mouse substitute like Tash’s SwitchClick or, even better, a HeadMouse from Origin Systems ($1,890 with USB cable).
With the HeadMouse, you wear a tiny self-adhesive silver dot on your forehead. The HeadMouse hardware, which sits atop your monitor or CPU, sends out twin infrared beams and triangulates the position of the dot on your forehead. Movements of the HeadMouse substitute for the movements of a regular mouse. Putting the HeadMouse and SmartClick together, even a quadriplegic can manipulate the mouse cursor purely through head movements and execute all the usual mouse actions.
For typing, someone with a moderate mobility impairment can use a customized hardware keyboard like the $780 Discover:Kenx (pronounced "Connects") by Don Johnston, Inc. It’s a combination keyboard and mouse. If you need a very large keyboard, Don Johnston offers the $500 Discover:Board.
You can also use an onscreen keyboard – conceptually similar to Apple’s Key Caps desk accessory – along with adaptive hardware, such as the $100 OnScreen by RJ Cooper.
Hearing Impairment — The access requirements of deaf and hard-of-hearing people are quite modest given that, even in an age of Napster, computers are largely silent devices that communicate visually. In fact, computers as they stand now themselves provide a form of communications accessibility, since email and instant messaging don’t require hearing at all.
There are a few places where audio is important. For instance, beep sounds on the Mac can be converted to menubar flashes by turning the alert sound volume to zero in the Sound control panel.
Forms of multimedia remain a perennial obstacle, and since multimedia now is making increasing inroads into the Internet, we’ll wait until a later article to explore the problems and solutions there.
Visual Impairment — Of the disabilities affected by computer use, visual impairment is the most significant. As we have seen with devices varying as widely as the Palm and a range of tablet computers, Internet refrigerators and whatnot, in real-world use a computer is mostly a display. If you can’t see a display, how do you use a computer?
If you have a relatively modest visual impairment, all you may need is screen magnification. The free Apple utility CloseView provides bare-bones magnification, but you get what you pay for. Instead, opt for the $295 InLarge by Alva Access Group, the only screen magnifier of note for Macs. It features 16 magnification levels, three settings for controlling how the magnified portion of the screen moves, the capability to display only the area being magnified, and other options.
Many visually-impaired people find dark text on a brilliant white background unbearable. A very few applications – Web browsers, WordPerfect, Eudora – let you select the foreground and background colours, while the near-ubiquitous Microsoft Word limits you to black-on-white or white-on-blue. The Window Monkey utility lets you assign background colours and patterns to Finder windows.
If you’re blind enough that you can’t really see a monitor, you need something called a screen reader – a program that reads aloud on-screen text, menus, icons, and the like. Unfortunately, there’s only one screen reader for Macintosh, Alva Access Group’s $700 OutSpoken 9.
Screen-reader technology is advanced and competitive on Windows, and the three big-name programs there – Jaws, Window-Eyes, and IBM Home Page Reader – are all able to interpret Web sites (more or less accurately) and also interpret the tricks and features of standard application software.
In contrast, the somewhat outdated OutSpoken for Macintosh does not interpret HTML. According to Lou Grosso of Alva Access Group, OutSpoken 9 "will simply read from left to right the text that is on the screen. Web and HTML access will improve tremendously in OutSpoken X which should be released in late 2001." Moreover, Alva Access Group strongly cautions you not to use OutSpoken with Microsoft software. Of course, there are other software alternatives to Microsoft’s products, but using them limits one’s capability to work on documents in collaborative environments. In the real world, it is regrettably true that anyone who requires a screen reader is better off using Windows, and nearly all blind people do.
OutSpoken remains the only full-featured Mac screen reader comparable to what’s available for Windows, but RJ Cooper offers the $95 KeyRead, a kind of mini-screen reader for blind kids $95. In addition, an old Apple utility that dates back to the AV Macs is still available online, in samizdat form. HearIt lets you select nearly any text in nearly any application and listen to it using Macintosh speech output.
On the Mac platform, people with disabilities have relatively few options when it comes to adaptive technology. There are more barriers to using a Mac than there need to be. Nonetheless, disabled Mac aficionados haven’t been completely left out in the cold. Here’s hoping Apple will acknowledge the strategic (and, increasingly, the legal) importance of actively supporting accessibility in all its forms, improving its own hardware and software and encouraging developers to close the technology gap between the Mac OS and Windows.
[Joe Clark is a former journalist in Toronto who’s followed, written about, and worked in the disability field for two decades. Explore his many online accessibility resources at his Web site.]