External fire-wire drives review

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Trio of external FireWire drives

The FireWire revolution has brought with it many enhancements to computer based video editing. DV-equipped camcorders are hot property, being much easier to connect to a computer than their predecessors, which carried only analogue outputs and required expensive video capture cards and very deep pockets. In theory, connecting a DV camcorder to a FireWire-savvy computer makes you a potential movie-maker.
But DV footage consumes disk space at a goodly rate - 3.6MByte/sec (over 2GByte for 10 minutes of footage) - and so requires large-capacity hard disk drives. This is a particular problem for editors basing their studio around laptop PCs - Mac or Windows - or indeed desktop computers with no further room for additional hard disk drives, such as Apple iMacs. It's not simple to substitute a larger-capacity drive in portables (or iMacs), so many video editors want to know whether external drives can be used to increase capacity.
When they look into it they soon realise that, although external USB drives are cheaper than their FireWire counterparts, their dismally slow transfer rates (1.5MByte/sec or worse) mean such drives are little use to the video editor. In contrast, FireWire hard drives - using an interface with a theoretical maximum transfer rate of 50MBytes/sec - initially seem an excellent match for space-starved video editors, whose DV demands are well within this theoretical figure. But FireWire drives are not without their own problems - as we've found in previous tests. It's also important to know that no one has yet made an affordable FireWire hard drive that performs anything like as quickly as the theoretical FireWire maximum. Indeed, data rates of 5MByte/sec are not uncommon, and that's a much slower performance than when the same IDE drives, as used in FireWire cases, are fitted inside a Mac or Windows PC and connected directly to the motherboard.
The bottleneck must lie in the bridge between the external IDE drive and the PC's FireWire interface, but we're still trying to find out why it exists, and whether makers are able to resolve it.
What is particularly galling is that most FireWire drive makers still continue quoting the 50MBytes/sec (or the even more impressive-sounding 400Mbit/sec) data rate on their packaging and on promotional literature, including that on web sites.
Whether or not you consider going the FireWire route for video editing depends on your system and specific requirements. If there is room inside your PC to add internal EIDE drives, and you have no need for a removable solution, then EIDE is a cheaper option than FireWire, and one that is pretty much guaranteed to deliver the data-rates required for editing.
If, however, you are using any sort of computer where internal drive expansion is not possible or is impractical, or need to run a drive on more than one computer, then FireWire starts to make sense - especially if the machine has FireWire socketry built in.
Users of Apple iMacs or iBooks who need extra drive space and don't fancy doing a hard-disk transplant will consider FireWire the only practical alternative. And, users of Apple PowerBooks or other fully-spec'd laptops with built-in FireWire may decide that FireWire represents an easier option than a CardBus SCSI adaptor with an external SCSI drive.
Though we've only looked at three FireWire drives here, we think it's been a reasonably representative sample for video editing purposes. The giant-capacity Maxtor is clearly the best of this bunch, in practical terms, and also in terms of value for money. The Western Digital lags some way behind, and the LaCie is completely out of contention for Windows editing systems, and for Mac use without FWB's Hard Disk ToolKit or OS 9.1.

More in the April 2001 issue of Computer Video Magazine

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Reviewed in April's issue:
External FireWire drives
Dazzle Hollywood DV-Bridge
JVC GR DV-2000

In April's news:
Adobe After Effects 5
Panasonic Pro Mini DV
EZDV Grows Up

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