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The ORB Drive -- Is it Worth the Wait?
by Steve Becker


Some Background Info

I've been using Magneto-Optical (MO) drives for several years -- I've found them to be extremely reliable for both backing up and transferring data, and the optical disks are inexpensive when compared to the cost of most other media. In fact, the only downside I've found to using these drives is that MO drives that have over a 650 MB capacity are expensive, and MO drives are slow when compared to most other drives.

Zip drives (even with their new 250 MB capacity) are too small to meet my needs, and their reliability is questionable -- especially a concern when you want a highly reliable medium for backing up/archiving your data.

Jazz drives have up to a 2 GB capacity, but they and their media are expensive and have also have a questionable reliability record.

With the demise of Syquest (and tape drives notwithstanding), there has been a void in the area of large capacity, reliable, fast, and inexpensive removable devices for both backing up and transferring data on the Mac.

The ORB drive uses new, Magneto-Resistive technology which claims to be faster, more reliable (it requires far fewer moving parts), and much less expensive than anything else currently on the market. Also, Magneto-Resistive technology allows for greater data density on a disk, which means a 2.2GB (about 2 GB after formatting) ORB disk is about the same physical size as the much smaller capacity Zip disk.

Consistent with the claimed benefits of this new technology, Castlewood Systems (the manufacturer of the ORB drive) has been promising a Mac-compatible version that would be fast, have a large capacity, be more reliable than other removable media drives, and be relatively inexpensive.

First Impressions

The drive itself is quite attractive, having a deep black color and a sleek design with nicely contoured and finished surfaces. While the drive is quite light (it weighs just over one pound) it has a very solid feel to it.

The SCSI ID selector slide switch (there are four numbers to choose from) is conveniently placed on the right side of the drive and -- foolishly -- Castewood failed to place a marker on the slide switch. This means you must count detent stops to determine which SCSI ID the switch is set for.

A quick look at the manual (Mac and PC users share the same manual) showed it to be nicely organized but not well written (more about this later).

Getting Things Connected

Connecting the ORB proved to be quite straightforward (once I ignored the ambiguous and the incorrect instructions that are in the manual). While the Mac version of the external SCSI ORB includes one SCSI cable, I did find it necessary to purchase a second cable to attach the ORB's 50-pin HD connector to my SCSI chain.

The early ORB drives include a CD with only the ORB driver on it since a set of special utilities for the ORB have not yet been released. (Castlewood plans to have them available on their web site sometime during the next several weeks.)

A nice feature of the drive is that it has automatic, built-in active termination -- if it's the last device in your SCSI chain, the ORB's terminator is active; otherwise, it will remain inactive.

One "feature" I don't like is the lack of an on/off switch. On the plus side, the external power supply is not nearly as large as the power supply for the standard Zip drive.

The Results

So, does the ORB live up to its advance publicity? Preliminary testing indicates that it does!

While a cartridge is slow to mount with the 1.0.1 version of the driver that is supplied with the ORB, once mounted the performance is brisk (and fairly quiet, except for a clicking sound while data is being written to the ORB's disk). In fact, from the soft whir of the drive when it spins up to the smooth operation of the drive's pneumatic door, the ORB has a quality "feel" to it.

*I tested the ORB with my G3 233 MHz PowerBook (OS 8.1) and here are the results:

Copying a large file to the ORB disk:          1.1 MB/sec

Copying the same file back to the PowerBook:  1.2 MB/sec

Duplicating a large file:                     1 MB/sec

Copying many small files to the ORB disk:      130 KB/sec

Duplicating many small files on the ORB disk:   100 KB/sec

*This testing was done with Speed Doubler 8.1 installed and copy verification enabled.

As a basis of comparison, my PowerBook's internal drive duplicates the same large file at a rate of 1.3 MB/sec and the same small files at about 155 KB/sec.

Copying the same large file to an external Zip drive was accomplished at about 400 KB/sec, while copying the same small files to the Zip was done at about 60 KB/sec.

Back To The Manual

The manual appears to have been written by someone who is only familiar with the PC. Unfortunately, PC terms are substituted for Mac terms and PC references are intermingled with the instructions for the Mac. While an experienced Mac user will be able to figure things out, this will generate unnecessary confusion for some Mac users.

I went over some of the manual's instructions with an engineer at Castlewood and he apologized for the errors and promised to have them corrected as soon as possible.

For now, here are his recommendations:

1. Always install the Mac driver for the ORB.

2. If possible, don't use the eject button to remove the mounted ORB disk.

3. Contrary to the instructions in the manual, it is usually safe to use the ORB drive in a SCSI chain that also contains a printer, scanner, or most other SCSI devices.

4. It's best to use the correct cable rather than attach a SCSI adapter to your cable.

Something To Be Excited About

To put all of this into perspective, one 2GB capacity Jazz drive with one extra cartridge costs more than two ORB drives, each of which costs $199.95 and includes one free cartridge! It gets better -- while each additional 2 GB Jazz disk costs around $100, each additional ORB disk will cost around $30.

Since the ORB is (or soon will be) also available as an internal SCSI drive, an EIDE drive, a USB drive, and a FireWire drive, the ORB should be very convenient for transferring data between different systems at one site and for transferring data between systems at different locations.

The ORB requires system 7.5.5 or later, and because the ORB supports the HFS+ format it will be possible to efficiently utilize the capacity of its disks even when an ORB disk contains many small files.

The ORB comes with a one year warranty and includes toll-free tech support. I made a couple of test calls to their support number, and the representatives I spoke with were friendly and helpful, though I believe they are not yet up to speed on the Mac.

While only time will tell whether the ORB drive lives up to its claims for superior mechanical reliability, and more time will be required to determine the reliability/compatibility of its software, initial indications are that this is a breakthrough technology at a breakthrough price!
© 1999 by Steve Becker

Some Additional Information

As noted above, I tested the ORB on a G3 PowerBook that has OS 8.1 installed on it and the ORB performed very nicely. After having posted the review, I attempted to use the ORB on a PowerComputing machine that has OS 7.6.1 installed on it.

Here is some additional information I found while trying to get the ORB to work with this system -- I hope it will prove to be useful to you.

1. While the supplied 1.0.1 version of the ORB extension worked fine on the PowerBook, it would not consistently work on the computer that has OS 7.6.1 on it; most of the time attempting to mount the ORB disk would result in a system freeze.

2. When enabling either the Silverlining Lite v. 2.2.2 Control Panel or the FWB Tools v. 2.5 extension -- they should not both be enabled at the same time -- on the PowerBook, the ORB extension coexisted peacefully with them. Both of these extensions conflicted with the ORB extension when trying to mount a cartridge on the PowerComputing system.

3. Both the Silverlining Lite and FWB extensions have an option to prevent them from trying to mount a device at a specified SCSI address. Unfortunately, this doesn't resolve the problem with the ORB extension refusing to mount the ORB cartridge. In fact, the ORB extension does not work properly even when Silverlining Lite and FWB Tools are disabled.

4. The new Silverlining 6.1 Pro doesn't officially support the ORB drive, but an update that will support the ORB drive is under development.

5.FWB 3.0.2 doesn't currently officially support the ORB drive either, but an update that will support the ORB drive is under development. FWB also says an update for version 2.5x of FWB Tools is under development and that it will support the ORB drive.

6. Castlewood Systems acknowledges the ORB extension has problems on some 7.x systems and with OS 8.6 (some users have had success with OS 8.6, though). As you would expect, Castlewood is actively trying to resolve these issues.

7. Even for systems where the ORB extension works properly, there is a delay in the ORB disk appearing on the Desktop. This delay is caused by a diagnostic routine that is run by the ORB to check both the SCSI chain and the drive.

The workaround that works best for me is to use Silverlining Lite for mounting other devices on my SCSI chain, setting Silverlining Lite to ignore the SCSI address used by my ORB drive, and disabling the ORB extension. This prevents a freeze when inserting an ORB cartridge, though the ORB disk will still not immediately mount properly on my Desktop. However, restarting the computer will result in the ORB disk appearing on the Desktop.

Inserting the ORB cartridge into the ORB drive prior to booting your computer should also work. Once mounted, you should be able to eject your ORB disk and then reinsert it when needed. However, if you restart your computer before reinserting your ORB disk, you'll probably need to use the previous workaround to get the cartridge to mount.

For Updated Info on the ORB
click here

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