Cheap And Easy Storage Space

My home and office computers both have 540-megabyte hard drives, an unimaginable size just a few years ago. Compression software allows me to squeeze a billion bytes on each. Still, I am critically short of storage space--without giving any room to disk-gobbling multimedia games. Even with gigabyte hard drives costing less than $500, the proliferation of huge programs, pictures, sounds, and video clips emphasizes the first law of computing: You can never have enough disk space.

The way to deal with this iron law is to move some of those megafiles onto removable disks. Traditionally, removable mass storage has been too slow or too expensive to be practical for most users. But at long last, inexpensive removable storage devices allow you to move less-used files off your hard drive and still have them handy for use in seconds.

FILE HAULER. While slower than conventional hard drives, removable disks are many times faster than floppies or even CD-ROMs and are speedy enough to store and run programs. They are also handy for backing up data in case your hard disk crashes and for transferring large files between your desktop and laptop.

The Zip drive from Iomega Corp. (800 697-8833) is the first of this breed. The external drive, with a street price of just under $200, comes in an attractive dark blue plastic case about the size of a typical modem. The hard-shell disks are four inches square and a quarter- inch thick, a bit bigger than a 31/2-inch floppy. The 100 MB disks retail for under $20, and a 10-disk "giga-pack" is available for as little as $149. The Zip drive includes some nice design touches, including rubber feet that let you set it up horizontally or vertically and a window that allows you to read the label of a disk in the drive.

The Zip comes in two flavors. One version connects to a PC through its parallel printer port. The other version can be used with all Macintoshes or any PC equipped with a SCSI (pronounced "scuzzy") interface. If you don't already have the SCSI interface (call the place where you bought your computer if you're not sure), Iomega offers a $50 interface card. I found the card much easier to install than most. Generally, SCSI is the way to go. The connection is more reliable and moves data more than twice as quickly. Both versions come with some useful software, especially a cataloging utility that keeps track of which files you've put on what disk.

COMPETITION COMING. What's more, you're about to get a second choice, the EZ135 Drive from SyQuest Technology Inc. (800 245-2278). The EZ135, whose $200 drive and $20 disks match the Zip in price, will store an extra 35 MB on each disk. Unfortunately, the rival drives use different technology and incompatible disks, and each company claims that its product is better than the other. While the EZ135 is not yet available for testing, my experience with an older, more expensive SyQuest 270 suggests that the EZ135 may be faster than the Zip, but probably not enough to matter to most users. It also comes in two versions. An internal unit that fits in a floppy drive bay on the front of your PC will be available in early June, while a Mac/PC external SCSI version will arrive in late summer. By yearend, a third contender, being developed by Compaq, 3M, and Matsushita, may also hit the streets.

You'll find a Zip or EZ drive good for more than adding storage space. The drive makes it much easier to create and use backup copies of your critical files in case your computer crashes. The new disks can also be handy for transferring from one computer to another any files too big to fit on a 1.44 MB floppy.

No matter how big internal disk drives get, it seems that software will always grow at an even faster rate. Removable drives finally help you keep pace.