When a new PC comes standard with a 12-, 18- or 36-gigabyte hard drive, its backup requirements overflow the usual 8-gigabyte tape.

OnStream Inc. has used Philips Electronics' "advanced digital recording" technology in easy-to-use tape-backup software and hardware that combine tape backup with cartridge technology similar to that in Zip drives from Iomega Corp.

The capacity is 15 gigabytes uncompressed or 30 gigabytes at a compression ratio of 2 to 1, enough for almost any desktop PC user.

Advanced digital recording lets the drive write and read eight tracks of data simultaneously, which is supposed to increase the transfer rate to and from the tape, as well as improve data integrity.

The star of the package is the install-it-and-forget-it backup feature. Most backup software requires the user to either schedule backups or start them manually. That's always a good idea, but what about a particular file that you want to back up immediately without all the rigamarole? The OnStream software lets you access the tape through a drive icon and letter within the "My Computer" window, then just drag and drop the file for immediate backup.

OnStream can automatically back up new or changed files daily. One of the nicest features is the Echo Catalog, which tracks all files saved to tape cartridges and knows which cartridge a specific file is on. Because the catalog is kept on the hard drive, there's no need to go hunting through backups to find things.

The Echo Catalog can also keep track of files saved to other removable media, such as floppy diskettes.

I installed the test unit, an internal IDE drive, on a 300-MHz Pentium II system with 64 megs of RAM and Microsoft Windows 98. It was a breeze to install the drive in a free 5.25-inch bay. The installation software helpfully examined the machine and recommended how to set the jumpers on the drive.

I backed up the hard drive several times over a few days, and I dragged and dropped individual files and folders for backup. The backup rate averaged around 26 megabytes per minute without compression, or about 30 megs per minute with compression enabled. Compared with other tape drives that transfer at rates of 2 to 5 megabytes per second--or 120 to 300 per minute--the OnStream drive was quite slow.

A lot of those faster drives cost $600 to $4,000, however, and the internal OnStream IDE comes in at a low $299; 30-gigabyte cartridges cost only about $39 each. SCSI and external versions are available, as is a $699, 50-gigabyte version. That makes the OnStream a slow but cheap backup solution.

If you need to do large-scale personal backup cheaply and without lots of administrative overhead, and if speed isn't a concern, the OnStream DI30 would make a good choice. For many users, however, it is too slow to make up for its great price advantage. The SCSI version is likely to give a better performance, but at a higher price than my test unit.

Advanced digital recording technology still has some bumps to iron out. As the technology matures, I hope OnStream can get more on track.

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OnStream D130

30GB desktop PC tape backup drive

OnStream Inc.

Longmont, Colo.

Telephone: 1-800-759-4621

Web address: www.onstream.com

Price: $299

Grade: D+

PROS:

+ Extremely easy desktop PC backup

+ Great price per megabyte

CON:

- Transfer rate below par

Real-life requirements: Windows 95 or above, 32MB of RAM, 50MB of free storage, free 5.25-inch bay, IDE controller