Iomega goes back to the drawing board to redesign the Zip drive

If you’ve been shopping for a portable storage drive lately, you’ve probably noticed there isn’t much of a selection. You can purchase an Imation 120MB SuperDisk drive, or you can buy an Iomega Jaz drive or Zip drive. Because of its solid products, clever marketing campaigns, and the untimely bankruptcy of its biggest competitor (SyQuest), Iomega has emerged as the biggest name in the removable storage game.

Not that Iomega's market dominance is a bad thing—with a few exceptions, Iomega products consistently rank as the best of breed. On top of that, the company's venerable Zip product line is among the most widely used forms of removable media, aside from the 3.5" disk.

But times have changed, and the 100MB Zip drive we all marveled at 4 years ago when it shipped now seems anorexic next to the 650MB capacity of CD-Rs and the monstrous 2GB capacity of Jaz 2 disks. To that end, Iomega went back to the drawing board to redesign the Zip drive. The company came back with the Zip 250. The new drive stores 250MB, more than twice the capacity of the original Zip drive, and conveniently reads and writes to existing 100MB Zip disks.

Looking more like a blue version of the Jaz 2GB drive, the Zip 250 ships in either a SCSI or parallel port configuration, rather than using an auto-detect cable a la Iomega's ZipPlus drive. For this review, I evaluated the SCSI version, which offers greater performance at the expense of easy portability.

Installing the drive was fairly simple, consisting of plugging in a SCSI card, connecting the cable to the drive, and finding an adapter to connect the cable to my SCSI card. Yup, the Zip 250 still uses a slow 25-pin SCSI-1 interface, rather than the more standard 50-pin SCSI-2 connector. Sure, Iomega markets the SCSI version to Mac users who have a SCSI interface built in, but including a 25 to 50-pin adapter wouldn’t significantly increase the price of the drive (all Jaz drives come with a 50 to 25-pin adapter).

The Zip 250's performance is fast. You won’t mistake it for a hard disk, and you’ll definitely feel the hurt if you load a large application such as Microsoft Access from a Zip 250 disk. However, the SCSI version of the drive leaves all other removable drives (with the exception of Iomega’s Jaz series) in the dust, including the new USB Zip drive (see the sidebar, "USB Meets NT"). Under a typical load, the Zip 250 can read and write to 250MB disks at an average rate of 1MB per second, making SneakerNet file transfers less painful.

Best of all, the new 250MB Zip disks frequently sell for less than what you’d pay for the equivalent amount of space in 100MB Zip disks. Like the Gig-A-Pack of 100MB Zip disks, Iomega sells a six-pack of Zip 250 disks. By doing a bit of creative online shopping, you can find the six-pack for as low as $74.95. The Gig-A-Pack lists for a few dollars less, but doing the math shows that you get an extra 500MB for just a few bucks more.

So what’s wrong with the Zip 250? At last count, Iomega had sold more than 20 million Zip drives, and I’ll bet users are still using most of them. Unfortunately, these 20 million Zip drives can’t use the shiny new 250MB disks. This incompatibility is offset by the Zip 250 drive’s inherent backward compatibility with 100MB Zip disks. However, you’ll take a performance hit of up to 50 percent when you read or write to the older 100MB Zip disks.

Despite being much faster than the original Zip drives, the Zip 250 isn’t a speed demon, and you’ll quickly outgrow the 250MB of capacity that each disk offers. With that caveat in mind, it’s probably not worth upgrading existing Zip drives. However, if you’re just stepping into the removable storage pool, the Zip 250 is an excellent buy. With a Zip 250, you gain compatibility with the millions of Zip disks on the market today. If you’re looking for a way to off-load downloaded files and trade data with colleagues who aren’t connected to your network, the Zip 250 is probably the product for you.

Zip 250MB Drive
Contact: Iomega * 801-332-1000
Web: http://www.iomega.com
Price: $169.95 for PC Zip internal; $199.95 for Zip external
System Requirements:
SCSI Zip Drive: 486 processor or better, Windows NT 4.0 or Windows 9x, Zip Zoom or Jaz Jet SCSI card (or 25-pin ASPI-compatible SCSI card), Cable converter for 50-pin SCSI adapters, 8MB of RAM, 30MB hard disk space recommended, 2X CD-ROM drive
Parallel Zip Drive: 486 processor or better, Windows NT 4.0 or Windows 9x, 8MB of RAM, 30MB hard disk space recommended, 2X CD-ROM drive