Olympus SYS.230
Everything a magneto-optical drive should be
A friend of mine once described the state of the removable-media marketplace quite succinctly: "When you want to bring your work to an output bureau, their first question is, 'Do you have a SyQuest?' If your answer is no, their second question is, 'Do you have a clue?'"

This conversation took place a few months before the release of Iomega's Zip drive, a diminutive removable media drive that blew the doors of the market open. Despite the fact that it was slower and had a lower capacity than other drives, and was incompatible with everything else, its main attractions--lower cost, portability, and ease of installation--made it an instant success.

Since then, many companies have entered the fray, with a myriad of technologies, formats, and capacities. Within the Zip drive's niche, most of the furor has been focused on the Zip itself and SyQuest's response, the EZ-135 (and their later EZFlyer), which use magnetic technology to mimic floppy and hard disks, respectively.

Strangely enough, there has been little hype over another interesting removable storage technology that was here long before the Zip and EZ drives: magneto-optical (MO) drives. MO drives are available for 5.25-inch or 3.5-inch disks; the Olympus SYS.230 is the latter.

MO disks are interesting creatures: as the name implies, they are a hybrid of magnetic and optical technologies. This is also true of the appearance; from the exterior, a 3.5-inch 230 MB or 650 MB MO disk looks almost exactly like a 3.5-inch floppy diskette (though it's twice as thick), right down to the write-protect switch on the side. And, like other magnetic media, these disks are rewritable. When you slide the silver cover back, however, the disk itself looks like a blue-silver CD with tiny rectangles along the surface.

MO disks are considered to be more durable and longer lasting than the magnetic technology used by floppy and hard disks, or even the optical technology used by CDs and DVDs. They are even impervious to magnetic fields and sudden shocks (like dropping them). Finally, unlike the SyQuest or Iomega disks, MO disks are standardized; a disk from one drive will work in a drive made by another manufacturer. MO drives are also backward-compatible to a degree; i.e., the newer 650 MB drives will still read data from 230 MB and 128 MB disks (and also write to 230 MB disks).

There are a number of MO drives on the market, and the Olympus SYS.230 is one of the more elegantly designed ones. The sleek black case is only slightly larger than a VHS videocassette, and comes with a stand for mounting it sideways. Installation on a Macintosh or a SCSI-equipped PC running Windows 95 is straightforward enough: set the ID, plug the drive into the SCSI chain, and away you go. (For an extra cost, the drive can also have a parallel-port connection, which transfers data a bit slower but increases portability among PCs.)

Data transfers at a reasonable speed, but hard disks are still the speed demons here; a 6.83 MB file transferred to the SYS.230 in 25 seconds, whereas transferring it to a SyQuest EZ-135 took all of seven seconds.

Were we to go by specs alone, the SYS.230 would beat the Zip drive hands down. It's just as portable and for a few extra dollars you can have the best of both worlds with a drive that handles both parallel for compatibility and SCSI for speed. The disks are smaller, hold more than twice as much, are more durable, and cheaper ($15 to $20 for a 230 MB MO disk, compared to $20 to $25 for a 100 MB Zip disk).

Unfortunately, specs alone do not a success make. A search of eight computer stores in the Montreal area failed to turn up any MO disks kept in stock, but did produce plenty of Zip and SyQuest disks. So if you need one in a hurry, forget it. Second is the price: the unit retails for about $450, compared to the Zip's $250, although the cost of the media (MO media is approximately three times cheaper per megabyte) makes up for it.

The last hurdle is that the Zip has a market presence MO manufacturers can only dream of. Despite MO's technical superiority and the fact that it's been around for a lot longer, the Zip drive simply has too firm a grip on the market. While I doubt the MO market--especially as represented by well-designed devices such as the SYS.230--will fade away, the reality is that it will probably remain in a strong third place at best, which is a shame.

If you don't mind special ordering your media and you don't need to share your disks too often with other people, then the Olympus SYS.230 is a good choice.

Originally printed in The Computer Paper (August 1997)
All prices quoted in Canadian dollars.