There's a new name in removable storage -- the Peerless drive from Iomega, the company that brought us Zip and Jaz drives. With this desktop device, Iomega aims to address a chief complaint about removable media, its limited capacity.
A Peerless drive can store up to 20 gigabytes on each removable cartridge, compared with 2 gigabytes per Jaz disk, 250 megabytes in the higher-capacity version of Zip and 650 MB for a CD-RW.
Peerless is an elegant piece of hardware with two components, a base unit and the removable drive cartridge. The base unit, designed to stand upright on a desk, features a large blue light that flashes to indicate drive activity and a small LCD readout with a cute, pointless speedometer for the data transfer rate and a pie-chart icon showing the amount of free space on that cartridge.
The drive cartridge itself, about the size of a handheld organizer, slips into the top of the base station. The cartridge is actually a notebook hard drive encased in a hard plastic shell, and we found it durable enough to survive a drop from desk height onto a wood floor.
Depending on the package you buy, the base unit comes bundled with a single 10-GB or 20-GB cartridge, or none at all. The street price ranges from $320 to $360 for the 10-GB starter package to $350 to $400 for the 20-GB package. The base station alone costs around $240. Additional cartridges aren't particularly cheap either, with 20-gig units going for $170 to $200 and a 10-gig cartridge priced at about $150.
Those prices work out to $8.50 to $10 per gigabyte of storage. By way of comparison, CD-RW media costs about $2 per gigabyte, Jaz cartridges cost $32 per gigabyte, and Zip disks cost about $34 per gig. The Peerless system makes the most financial sense if you buy more than one cartridge; external hard drives, such as the Pockey Drives recently reviewed here, can cost as much as $100 less than a Peerless base-station-and-cartridge combo.
On our Macintosh, the Iomega drive worked right out of the box, without so much as installing the software -- the "Peerless" icon simply appeared on the desktop like any other hard drive. Installation on a Windows 98 PC was nearly as simple, requiring driver software to be installed from the included CD-ROM first.
The unit that we tested uses the popular but not-so-fast USB interface. A FireWire (also known as IEEE-1394) version is available now for Macintosh at the same price as the USB version, and a Windows FireWire version is due in August. The faster connector, standard on Macs but still rare on PCs, transfers data at up to 15 megabytes per second, compared with USB's speed limit of 1 MB per second. In our own testing, we saw about half that speed for reading and writing: Both a PC and Mac copied a 500-MB folder to the Peerless in about 13 minutes. That's certainly fast enough for creating backups, but not for high-bandwidth applications such as editing digital video.
For PC users, Peerless requires Windows 98, Me or 2000. On the Macintosh platform, the drive needs Mac OS 8.6 through 9.1. Although the drive does not officially support Mac OS X yet, we were indeed able to use them together.
Today, the Peerless drive is simply a computer peripheral. For the future, Iomega has visions of Peerless drives built into an array of consumer electronics: digital video recorders, digital audio jukeboxes, even your car's dashboard. At this week's PC Expo trade show, Iomega showed a concept car that used a Peerless drive to send three different video streams simultaneously to three television screens. It's too early to tell if Peerless will evolve into anything more than another hard drive for your computer, but the technology to take it further is certainly there.
In the meantime, the Peerless drive isn't the cheapest removable storage peripheral available, but it does hold a ton of information, is easy to use and -- as a bonus -- is rather cute.