Aiwa Bolt
It's noisy, but it does what it claims
If you read American computer magazines, it's hard to miss Aiwa's ads for its new Bolt tape drive. Inch-tall capitalized letters in a heavy typeface fairly boom, "10 GIGS. 149 BUCKS." (American bucks, of course.) The first time I saw it, it nearly knocked me out of my chair.

All of Aiwa's Bolt material--ads, press kits, Web site--leap out at you in the same manner. If there were a televised Bolt ad campaign, it would probably feature Star Trek's Worf snarling, "It's big. It's bad. It's BOLT." in his basso profundo.

Amazingly, the external, ECP parallel-port Bolt's outward appearance reflects its hype. It sports a solid metal casing and has a nice heft of almost 3 kg (about 6 lb.) that I haven't felt in a piece of consumer electronic equipment in a long time. This may well be the first tape drive that can also be used for weight training.

Also in the Bolt box is a slim instruction manual, a 6.6 GB Travan tape (curious, since the Bolt advertising so boldly proclaims its 10 GB capacity), and Veritas's trusty Backup Exec software.

The drive was easy to install. I only had to plug it into the parallel port and install the software. It was quick and painless, which was good because the manual, which is disappointingly incomplete in places, would not have been much help. (In the section "Inserting and Removing Tapes," for example, try to find out how to remove a tape.)

A minor digression here: the included tape, despite the Aiwa ATP-106 part number, is actually a standard Travan tape--a TR-3, to be exact. In fact, the Bolt can use Travan TR-2 and TR-3 tapes, though they're rated at 3.2 GB per tape. However, in order to get 6.6 GB out of a tape, you first have to reformat it using the Bolt's proprietary format.

While formatting the tape (a seven-hour task), I discovered that the Bolt's designers might have taken its heavy-duty design aesthetic a little too far. It looks and feels nice, and the resounding click when I put the tape in the slot was satisfying, but during operation the drive was almost maddeningly noisy. The fan alone drowned out the sound of my PC's fan, and after a while the spindles' whirring, which I could hear from 10 m (25 ft.) away, gave me a headache.

Still, the sound didn't impinge on performance. The external Bolt drive is said to have a maximum backup speed of 25 MB per minute under the best of circumstances: that is, there is no file compression or other tasks distracting the CPU. After firing up Backup Exec, I immediately backed up my hard drive's entire data partition: 1.7 GB made up of over 10,000 files. The whole thing took an hour and 48 minutes, which works out to about 15.74 MB per minute. I had left the compression on as most people would, but since most of my data files use compressed file formats, I only got a 1.01:1 compression ratio. While the Bolt wasn't a speed demon by random-access media standards (I could have burned the same amount of data onto three CD-Rs in less time), it was certainly quick for a parallel-port tape drive. I also had verification switched off, but later tests confirmed that verifying doubles the total backup time. Restoring the data was a bit quicker, running at about 20 MB per minute.

The usual argument for and against tape backups applies here. The slow backup speed, compared to random-access devices, is balanced by the low media cost (about 0.6 cents per megabyte). However, the Bolt takes the sting out of the speed issue, and the low cost of the drive coupled with the ease of installation sweetens the deal. With Aiwa's entry into the market, the world of tape backups just got easier and cheaper.

Originally printed in The Computer Paper (August 1997)
Eight people - eight lives - one universal groove