Iomega’s Zip Drive

A place for your stuff

Getting stuff on and off your Windows NT system is no small concern. Small businesses, especially graphics design firms, can't afford fancy output devices, so such firms have to run down to the service bureau with the files. For help, check out the popular new Iomega Zip cartridge drive. It works well under NT, once you install the right drivers.

A Place for My Stuff
In the Early Cretaceous era of personal computing, I attended the University of California at San Diego. During the Blaise of glory that was the UCSD Pascal project, we carried data around on 8" floppies in shocking-pink Dysan disk boxes. These floppies first held 241KB, then 1.2MB, each. We worked on a variety of computers, all long since obsolete, and felt superior to the Apple II community with its dinky 5.25" floppies.

Ironically, since then, the standard for portable data-storage has grown only 20%, to 1.44MB, while everything else in the computer industry expanded in orders of magnitude. True, the physical size of the disk has shrunk to 3.5", and taste has relegated the shocking-pink disk box to toxic-waste dumps. But no single unit of read/write storage has even vaguely threatened the floppy for universality.

Finally, that monopoly appears to be breaking up. Now NT 3.51 Service Pack 4 is 10MB; Netscape plugins are 2MB each; and by adding one graphic, you can create a WordPro document that overflows one floppy. We need a new way to transport files, and if any random-access, read/write medium has a chance to rival the floppy, the 100MB Iomega Zip disk is it.

This versatile storage medium has the low end of the removable market to itself, now that SyQuest has withdrawn the 135MB SyJet. On the horizon are a few new removables, notably the DL120 drive, which will read and write regular 1.44MB 3.5" floppies and its 120MB cartridges. But so far, the DL120 is shipping only with Compaqs.

The Zip is becoming ubiquitous: It's shipping as an internal drive in HP desktops, Kinko's puts it on all in-store rental computers, and every graphics output business has at least one. A friend jokes that he has all the 3.5" disks he'll ever need, and he wants America Online to send out Zips. They're universal the way SyQuest 44MB drives never quite were.

Iomega now makes two Zips, SCSI and parallel. The much-awaited IDE version hasn't shipped. Non-Intel NT users will have to use the SCSI version (no plans for parallel drivers so far). The SCSI drive transfers data two to three times faster than the parallel version, but of course, your system has to have a SCSI controller.

If you choose a SCSI Zip, I strongly recommend letting NT's Disk Administrator see your Zip disks before you use them. Computer artist David Em had problems with his SCSI Zip dropping files. The problems disappeared after he learned just to let NT see the files. Don't reformat them, and especially don't reformat them as NT File System (NTFS), unless you use them only on NT.

The disadvantage of the parallel drive is that you can't move files to a Mac or Unix system. Of course, at $200 for either SCSI or parallel, the Zip drive is so cheap you can buy one of each. To move a huge file to a Mac--say for output to a high-end image setter--the Zip beats dialup transfer, and with modern system software, Macs can see DOS Zip disks directly. The Zip comes with guest software for DOS and Windows, which makes attaching to a customer's PC a two-minute operation, and no reboot is necessary.

A side note: The Zip represents a very large portion of Iomega's new business, yet I'm happy to report the company didn't abandon previous products such as Bernoulli drives. The Zip readmes say the same NT drivers work on many Iomega products without modification, so large corporations that have invested in this technology can continue to use it.

Getting Parallel to Work
NT parallel support for the Zip isn't in the box. In fact, not a word about NT is in the skimpy manual or the readmes. You have to download support from the Web or one of several Zip sites you'll find. I tried version 1.2 of the NT drivers on a single-processor Intergraph Pentium Pro 200 running NT 3.51, and a dual processor Pentium 133 Diamond Flower (DFI) running NT 4.0 beta 2. Except for a few glitches under 4.0, all went well. Most people in the NT Usenet newsgroups concur with my findings.

Once unpacked, the parallel-port NT drivers install themselves as a SCSI adapter called PPANT3. I suspect future versions of NT will use the generic name, Disk Adapter, not SCSI Adapter, because all disk controller drivers, including IDE, get installed here.

On reboot, with the drive attached, the Zip works just like any removable-media drive. Well, almost. On the DFI under NT 4.0 beta 2, if a cartridge is in the disk drive, NT gets so fascinated by it that NT forgets to boot. The only solution is to reset the system and manually eject the cartridge. Then the Zip mini control panel installs, and the disk works fine.

The parallel drivers also come with a program that lets you test a ZIP cartridge, reformat it, eject it, lock it so it can't be ejected, change its volume name, etc. NT does these tasks through Disk Administrator, but many system administrators sensibly disable access to it.

Worthwhile Tuning
Parallel ports have a history even longer than 8" disks have. Parallel ports were first called Centronics ports because that company designed them as a faster way to talk to printers. Then IBM made the parallel port an overwhelming de facto standard by putting it on the PC. The standard PC parallel port has five bidirectional pins for signaling when the printer's buffer is full, paper is empty, and the like. Some clever lads at Traveling Software and Rupp Brothers discovered that two parallel ports can use these 5 bits to chat very fast. Thus these lads begat data transfer over LapLink cables.

Next, Trantor, now a division of Adaptec, discovered that the parallel port was fast enough to support slower SCSI devices. This company introduced parallel-to-SCSI adapters, which were great for connecting a CD-ROM or other low-speed devices to a system.

Later, HP wanted its printers to signal when they were low on toner or paper, or jammed. HP's Bi-Tronics parallel port standard first became the Enhanced Parallel Port (EPP) and then the Enhanced Communications Port (ECP). EPPs and ECPs make the 8 data bits on the parallel port bidirectional; ECP adds direct memory access (DMA) support to the mix for even faster data transfer.

Today, you can set most new PC parallel ports as Normal, ECP, or EPP in the BIOS. Although NT (including 4.0) doesn't recognize them as anything but a standard parallel port, the Zip comes with software that ups the transfer rate for ECP and EPP, presumably diddling the hardware setup behind NT's back.

This approach is well worth trying. I tested transfer speed on the DFI from within Disk Explorer, moving a 10.2MB directory by dragging and dropping it to the Zip icon. Before the port test, the parallel Zip took one minute, 28 seconds to transfer this directory. The BIOS was already set for ECP on this port. After the test program, copying took one minute, seven seconds--quite respectable.

Interestingly, after I set the BIOS to EPP and reran the port test, the time for transferring the same 10MB directory went down to 33 seconds--18MB a minute! I tested that result three times before I believed it. I expected ECP with its DMA transfers to be fastest. Obviously, your mileage may vary.

In testing, I measured the transfer times until Disk Explorer was ready for a new command, but of course, that's a bit inaccurate. NT has built-in disk buffering, and the data light on the Zip was still flashing for a few seconds after Disk Explorer was ready for a new command. For safety, to ensure that the last bit of data has been written, I recommend the software eject command, not just pushing the button on the Zip. This method works on NT 3.51; on the DFI, the system thinks it's ejected the cartridge, but you then have to push the button. Ahh, beta software...

Once you install the Zip software, it'll look for the drive on restart. If the drive's not there, the software will report an error in the system log (Administrative Tools group, Event Viewer). To prevent a report of this error, change this Registry entry to 0: hkey_local_machine\system\currentcontrolset\services\ppa3nt\errorcontrol. Of course, if you change this entry, you won't know (except by experimentation) when the driver has truly failed.

Up Next
I have a few comments on NT security and want to talk about modem port-sharing software for people who don't want to put a phone line at every desk. And NT 4.0 has plenty of new wrinkles I can discuss. Until then, I'll be out looking for a bright pink Dysan box to replace the one the EPA condemned.

ZIP Drive
Iomega * 800-697-8833
Price: $199
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