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Driving in the fast lane

Micropolis A/V drive

Seriously big hard disk


If you're thinking about getting into direct-to-disk recording or desktop video, then you'll also have to think about getting a whopping big hard drive. Ian Waugh finds that they don't come much bigger (or faster) than the Micropolis Microdisk AV hard disk


A hard drive is a hard drive, right? Unfortunately not. Like computers, there are many different hard drives, with different capacities and specs. When they first appeared, they cost as much as the computer they connected to, and it was unthinkable that anyone would ever need more than the 10Mb of storage capacity they offered.

How times change. The price of hard drives has plummeted, and continues to spiral downwards - and as for storage, most computer suppliers now recommend a minimum of 250Mb. It's not just to part you from a few extra Gregories - many of today's applications need large amounts of disk space, and 250Mb is a very sensible minimum size.

Normal applications - that is, those involving wordprocessing, spreadsheets and even MIDI sequencing - don't make heavy demands on a disk drive. The faster the drive, the quicker the program will load, but if you have to wait a few extra milliseconds while it sorts out an internal message, it's no big deal.

But for applications which require the transfer of data from a disk in real-time, such as direct-to-disk recording or video, any interruption in the data flow can result in glitches, causing the video or audio to stutter, skip frames or break up.

Standard hard drives are designed to transfer data in short bursts which leave short gaps in the data stream, so although data transfer may be fast it is not always continuous. You may have seen videos where this happens - even running a QuickTime or Video for Windows movie can be jerky, never mind trying to play a large-screen video or an eight-track digital audio recording. Advances in audio and video technology demand a new breed of hard drive.

Drive to succeed



The Adaptec Configuration Utility helps you configure the SCSI card for your PC.

Enter the Micropolis Microdisk AV drives. Micropolis has been manufacturing hard drives for donkey's years, and developed the AV series to provide a high, consistent data throughput. They do this in a number of ways. For the technically-minded they use fast SCSI 2 technology incorporating read-ahead, and write-behind caching. They minimise housekeeping functions which are liable to interrupt standard drives at any time, and they use a buffer to absorb any other delays which may occur. They also use advanced thermal calibration which ensures that the worst-case data access is only 30ms. A standard drive can take up to one second.

But specs can be misleading. Most drives quote a data transfer rate (DTR) but this is usually that which occurs during its peak activity. They may also quote a minimum DTR. A quick browse through a few hard disk ads showed that the minimum and maximum DTR for SCSI drives tend to range from 2.75-5.5Mb/sec. If you have an older drive or an IDE drive, you could expect the rates to be half that. However, few drives will quote a maximum uninterrupted DTR, as they aren't designed for that sort of operation.

The AV drives quote maximum and minimum DTRs of 4.3 and 3.0Mb/sec, with a maximum uninterrupted DTR of 2.9Mb/sec. They're not only fast, but their uninterrupted DTR is high. It's this factor more than the others which make the drives particularly suitable for audio and visual recording.

Other than that, the drives work just like any other. You'll probably notice an increase in speed if you use one alongside an existing drive. The AV on my machine ran almost three times faster than the IDE drive.

The AV drives have another trick up their sleeve - they're stackable. Anyone can buy several SCSI disk drives and plonk them on top of each other, but the AV drives have a modular design and use special subsystem cases, which enable you to build a mini hard drive tower holding up to nine disks.

The subsystems comprise various case parts, covers, SCSI connectors and so on, and you simply buy those you need according to the number of disks you want to stack. Most users may be happy with a single 1Gb drive, but Microdisks are designed for pro use and studios will welcome the ability to link several together.

When not storing your recordings, the Microdisk makes a serviceable multi-storey car park for your Hornby train set


Rugged individualists



Each drive in the system contains its own power supply and cooling fan (which is quite quiet). The front panel of each subsystem is easily removed and the drive itself can then be pulled out - it even has its own handle. This is another major plus for the heavier end of the industry, as it effectively makes the disks removable media. Not, of course, that you're likely to want to back up your data onto them, but it does make the data they contain easily transportable, say from one studio to another. It's far easier than backing up the data simply in order to move it to a new location.

The Adaptec Master 1542 card includes a software SCSI Tutor guide.

Unlike most hard drives, the Microdisks come in a sort of DIY flatpack but they are easy enough to assemble. And they look rather better than an MFI wardrobe, too (What doesn't? - Ed). The SCSI connectors are at the back of the case, and if you are stacking more than one drive, you simply daisychain the connectors.

There are no adjustable controls or settings on the drive, just a couple of LEDs on the front to let you know it's on and it's busy doing its stuff.

Ready for the future



Finally, Micropolis backs the AV drives with a five-year warranty. Some other hard disk manufacturers do so too, but you'll still find many who only offer a one or two year guarantee.

The AV drives have already made a substantial impact in the A/V market, and companies such as Yamaha and Harman (distributors of Steinberg) are recommending them for use with their direct-to-disk systems. The drives are also ideally suited for use in networks, should there be any LAN managers reading this.

The Windows utilities which come with the Adaptec Master 1542 card.

Because of the subsystem casing, the external drives seem relatively expensive, but the internal versions are particularly well-priced. In fact the RRP of the internal drives are on a par with other SCSI drives of similar capacity. As with any computer equipment, you can probably save a few quid if you shop around.

Do you need an AV drive? Well, with desktop video fast becoming one of computing's growth areas, it surely can't be long before games, home-based and multimedia applications are demanding AV performance, just as a CD ROM drive, SVGA and a fast 486 are now becoming the norm.

In any event, if you're serious about hard disk recording or want to get into desktop video, it just doesn't make sense to compromise the performance of your system. You could opt for a fast standard drive, but it wouldn't be optimised for A/V use, and that's the important thing to remember. The review drive performed faultlessly, and I have no hesitation in recommending the AV drives, particularly to anyone involved in hard disk recording or video editing.

The essentials...

Price inc VAT: 1Gb internal £705 (£1110.50 inc subsystem), 1.7Gb internal £1010.50 (£1400 inc sub system)

More from: Micropolis Ltd, (Contact Details)

Adapting to Adaptec

The Microdisk AV is a SCSI drive and will plug directly into an Apple Mac or an Atari Falcon (the Falcon will think it's its birthday). To plug it into a PC you'll need a SCSI card.

If you're lucky, you'll install the card, plug in the hard disk, configure the drivers, format the disk and it will all work perfectly. However, as is usually the case with PCs, you're more likely to have to fiddle around with various settings, although this will depend on what else you have in your machine. This isn't the time to go into the finer points of PC card installation, just be aware that plugging something into a PC is not as straightforward as plugging it into a Mac.

There are several SCSI cards on the market, and the Microdisk manual lists those which are compatible. Adaptec cards have become something of an industry standard and we used the SCSI Master 1542 card. The accompanying software includes lots of utilities for setting up devices with support for DOS and Windows and there are programs for playing audio CDs, backing up to a SCSI tape device and showing photo CDs.

Installation is well documented in three manuals, and if everything doesn't work straight off you'll have to sit down and read them. Not a criticism of the card at all, rather the PC's antiquated architecture.

The 1542 is a superb SCSI package and highly recommended.

If you like an easy life (in which case you should have got a Mac), check out Adaptec's new Simple SCSI (£235). This is claimed to be the first SCSI card that's plug-and-play, which means it should install more or less automatically. It's so new it didn't make it into the Microdisk compatibility list although I'd be extremely surprised if it wasn't.

More from Adaptec on (Contact Details).


Well connected - SCSI and IDE

Hard disks need to communicate with the computer they are connected to and there are several different systems designed to do this.

On PCs, the most common is IDE (Integrated Drive Electronics), in which most of the 'intelligence' for controlling the drive is on the drive itself. The disk controller in the PC, therefore, can be fairly simple which results in a lower overall cost. Until recently, the largest IDE drive was about 500Mb but several companies, including Micropolis, have produced 1Gb drives. These, however, are not AV drives.

The current IDE specification only allows two IDE drives to be connected to the one system, although a new standard called Enhanced IDE will allow up to four drives to be connected and it will support larger capacity drives.

SCSI (Small Computer Systems Interface) is a more universal connection standard. It's the default system on the Mac and the Atari Falcon. It allows up to seven devices to be connected including CD ROMs, tape backup devices, scanners and so on.

To connect a SCSI device to a PC you'll need a SCSI card, and a good one could set you back up to £200. However, once the basic SCSI system is installed, connecting SCSI devices is basically just a question of plugging them in. Each device is numbered and the SCSI system itself works out which messages go where. In use, it's just about as transparent a system as is currently available.

SCSI drives tend to be faster than IDE drives, and they can be larger than 1Gb, although some operating systems may have to be specially configured to support extremely large drives.

There are several SCSI enhancements in the wind, the most well-known one is probably SCSI 2 (the standard on the Falcon) which offers enhanced performance. There's also Fast SCSI and Wide SCSI which support faster data transfer rates and SCSI 3 is around the corner. However, these facilities must be supported not only by the connected device but also by the SCSI controller card.



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Talk radio

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Power by design


The Mix - Copyright: Music Maker Publications (UK), Future Publishing.

 

The Mix - Dec 1994

Donated by: Colin Potter

Coverdisc: Mike Gorman

Control Room

Gear in this article:

Disk Drive > Micropolis > Microdisk AV

Review by Ian Waugh

Previous article in this issue:

> Talk radio

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> Power by design


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