2002 System: Backup to the Future

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2002 Publishing/Graphics system

Tom Arah copes with a crash and rewards himself with a new DVI and DVD-R based publishing and graphics system.

It happens to the best of us. A couple of weeks ago and for the first time I suffered the blue screen of death - the real repeating blue screen of death on boot-up that means that your hard-disk hasn't been recognized and isn't going to be. In the past this would have been the signal to reach for the system back-up. Not this time though as, after fifteen or so years of religiously backing up my drive to various solutions - floppy, SyQuest, tape, Jaz, imagedrive - none of which were ever called upon, I'd given up.

This wasn't an unfortunate miscalculation but a deliberate decision. To begin with, I've never taken to the system backup options on offer. For most of them the only way to cope with massive disk sizes is through media straddling which I've always instinctively disliked. The usual alternative is a serial format like tape which can provide the capacity but which I dislike even more. It's not just the inconvenience, it's more psychological - if the backup data isn't self-contained and instantly accessible it seems to lack internal integrity and I just don't feel comfortable with it. I guess I'm looking for just two things: everything, now.

Apart from my dissatisfaction with the solutions available, the real reason I've given up on system backups is that they no longer feel necessary or even desirable for me as a standalone user. In the past applications tended to be idiosyncratic and getting your system up and running exactly the way you wanted was a complex and time-consuming operation. These days setup for standalone users is straightforward and the problems are more likely to come over time from half un-installed applications and the like. In other words, if forced to face a blank hard disk, the last thing I'd want to do is to restore my current set-up.

While a fresh set-up might be straightforward, it still takes time and you can be sure that your system will go down when you can least afford it. My real fallback then is another system with all my most important applications up and running. Recently I've got into the pattern of buying a desktop system one year then a similarly specced notebook the next partly with this scenario in mind. Rather than a system backup then I've gone down the route of a backup system, and I'm pleased to say that this helped me to carry on working almost uninterrupted.

Of course a working set-up is only part of the equation and not even the most important: you can always get a new system but your data is irreplaceable. Backing up your data is absolutely essential especially for those involved in design work with its project-based nature. Fortunately here there is the perfect archiving medium - CD-R (CD-Recordable). With its 650Mb and, these days, 700Mb storage capacity and its fast burn-proof writing and even faster random access, CD-R really does deliver on the "everything now" principle. In fact it goes further. What makes CD-R so special as a data backup system is its universality as these days every computer comes with the ability to read the format. In other words CD-R provides "everything-now-anywhere", a factor I particularly appreciated when forced to rely on my notebook.

In fact CD-R has even more going for it. To begin with, of course there's the format's unique tie-in with audio. In the design context, more important is the way that CD-R's non-erasable nature doesn't only mean that your data is safe, it leads to a dedicated archiving approach: multisession. Each time you write to CD a new track or session is added with its own file system. As well as links to any new files, the file system can point to previously recorded data which keeps the data live without the need to rewrite it. Alternatively, if the file system doesn't link to previously written files, this has the effect of "deleting" them.

Multisession turns CD-R into the ideal archiving format.

What this means in practice is that, when you choose to add data, the CD-R's most recent session's file system is imported ready for you to modify, delete and add to. This is perfect for building up rolling archives either of separate projects - say adding regular publications to a client's archive - or of ongoing projects - say of a web site. Even better, if you ever need to, a program like WinOnCD, lets you select and access previous sessions so that even your changed and deleted data is archived and safe.

Multisession CD-R is perfect for archiving data but the need to load up dedicated authoring software, the waste of space and time involved in session writing (13Mb for each session's file system after the first's 22Mb) and its lack of true file deletion can be seen as drawbacks. The obvious solution is the dedicated CD-RW format which enables on-the-fly file writing and erasing - in effect the CD-RW can be treated like a large capacity floppy. This makes CD-RW ideal for backing up unfinished projects as you work on them, another fact I fully appreciated when my system went down. CD-RW is undoubtedly technically superior, but its disks are more expensive and slower to write and don't offer multisession's rolling archive advantages. If I had to choose just one of the two formats, multisession CD-R is far more important - while I have used (and re-used) a grand total of two CD-RWs, I have written hundreds of CD-Rs.

Between my CD-Rs and CD-RWs both my long-term and ongoing data were taken care of and I was able to continue work largely unaffected. Even better, as it's now getting on for two years since I bought my last system, this was the perfect opportunity and excuse to upgrade. What I was looking for in particular was a graphics and publishing workstation that was ready to fully embrace video. Opening the latest PC Pro I found the perfect candidate in the recommended Evesham Axis 2100+NK with its Athlon XP 2100+ processor, 80Mb hard disk, 32x/10x/40x Samsung CD-R/RW, in-built Firewire and Radeon 8500 64Mb graphics card.

Based on the PC Pro review I went for an Evesham Axis system.

There were two features in the review that especially caught my eye. The first was that the system included the LG Flatron 782LE TFT LCD display. I've always been sceptical about LCD monitors in the past on the basis that they've always seemed appallingly expensive, their colour handling is questionable and what you gain in desk space you lose in screen size. This unit though offers a reasonable 17" inch screen, a DVI (digital visual interface) input and a good reputation at an excellent price and, on the basis that I already have a perfectly good 19" CRT (cathode ray tube) monitor on hand, I decided to investigate.

The second was that the review system could be upgraded to a Panasonic DVD-R/RAM or to a Pioneer DVD-R/RW. Having said earlier that CD-R is the perfect archiving system, it's clearly hitting its ceiling. 700Mb might be a lot for the average design project, but for archives that's soon filled and, when working with video, single files can easily be several gigabytes in size. The obvious solution is recording to DVD which these days provides 4.7Gb of storage (roughly equivalent to 7 CDs) and, if not quite the universality of CD, at least the unbeatable advantage that its media can be read on most modern systems (and crucially my notebook in case the worst happens again). Best of all, in the same way as CD provides dedicated audio capabilities as the icing on its cake, DVD offers dedicated video capabilities.

So which one to choose? One of the major reasons DVD recording has taken so long to become established - the DVD-R specification was formalized in 1997! - is the war between competing formats such as DVD-RW and DVD+RW. In the rather rushed circumstances I wasn't in the position to decide which was the better long-term bet and, based on my experience of CD-RW - more expensive, slower, less compatible - didn't really care. What I was looking for was a good archive format and DVD-R clearly fills this role as it is the CD-R equivalent standard supported by all vendors. As the Panasonic was cheaper, I went for this.

To make sure that the system was up to graphics and video processing, I then upgraded the RAM to 1Gb and the hard disk to 120Gb. I was particularly pleased to find out that the disk storage would be provided as two 60Gb drives partly because it provides yet another option for ongoing backup, but mainly because Photoshop makes such a point of keeping its scratch disk separate from the boot drive while video applications much prefer having a dedicated drive for their file storage. Overall this new system had twice the processing speed and RAM of my last, three times the local storage and seven times the archival storage. And all this for just under £2000 inc VAT and a speedy delivery.

So how did the system perform in practice? First impressions were very positive based first on the LG Flatron display. I had expected the 17" screen to be a bit of a come-down after my CRT but of course it's not so much the physical dimension that matters as the screen real estate and the LG's fixed resolution of 1280x1024 is reasonable for today's multi-panel Dreamweaver MX-style environments (and the same as most 18" LCDs). I was also pleased to find that on the fixed resolution LCD the low 65Mhz refresh rate was still more than enough to keep the display rock-solid. Best of all was the effect of the DVI interface. It's common-sense that it's better to keep the display signal digital all-through, but I was amazed at what a difference this made especially in terms of the brighter whites and the absolute sharpness.

To test the system's general performance I loaded a beta of the latest Premiere 6.5 and again I was blown away. I've never really taken to intensive video editing because of the sheer processing time involved. Whenever you wanted to investigate the effect of an edit you had to render the preview which often took ages - and then you might not like it! Hardly an inspiration for creative editing. Now when I hit Enter, no matter how many effects I've applied, the preview appears instantly. Of course this real time preview isn't just down to the new system - it's Premiere 6.5's main selling point. However the quality of the preview depends on your system and I was stunned at just how good this was. Previously real time video editing like this required dedicated boards that, on their own, cost more than my whole system!

With Premiere 6.5 multiple effects can be previewed in real time.

The second big-selling point of Premiere 6.5 is that it has embraced all things DVD. Naturally I was particularly looking forward to putting this into practice but, although the beta included the ability to encode to the necessary high-compression MPEG-2 format, it didn't include the DVD writing ability. In fact Adobe has chosen not to provide this itself and has instead come to an agreement to bundle Sonic's DVDit!. I'll have to wait to see this in action, but generally I'm suspicious of Adobe's bundling of third-party solutions, such as FrameMaker's WebWorks, as not only is there no guarantee that these will integrate perfectly, but it's actually in the developer's interest to provide not-quite-good-enough functionality so that you are forced to upgrade.

While I wasn't able to produce my own video-based DVD-R quite yet, I was able to explore the format's archiving capability. To begin with this seemed very straightforward and I was able to write to the drive just like a CD-R. Writing a 2GB video file to the disk took around half an hour which was much as you'd expect based on the Panasonic drive's single speed 1350KB/sec. And I have to admit that I did get quite a thrill from once again being able to pack all my digital photos on a single disk.

Writing to DVD-R looks as simple as writing to CD-R.

With easy Firewire input, plenty of storage, real-time editing, DVD-backup and the promise of DVD-video output to come, there's no question that systems like this bring video right into the design mainstream. But what about static graphics? This is still the designer's bread and butter and I was keen to see what Photoshop would make of its new home.

Loading up Adobe Gamma to calibrate the monitor shows just what a difference DVI makes and how far LCDs have come. The colour management and responsiveness is impressive and the resulting colours seem much brighter and more vivid than on the CRT. When I loaded a new set of digital camera photos to enhance, however I began hitting problems. The first is a strong granularity to the images, an unwanted by-product of the fixed liquid crystal technology.

A much bigger problem is the viewing angle. This is much better than it was and you'll regularly see claims for 170 degree viewing. Unfortunately these quoted figures are for when contrast drops to 10%! This is why, when you show a slideshow of your images, everyone has to crane their necks to get a half acceptable image. Even for the straight-on, single user though it's a huge setback. Here the main difficulty is the vertical angle which seems even more sensitive. Essentially if you raise your head the image brightens, lower it and the image darkens! While the colour reproduction on the DVI LCD is superior it just isn't constant and consistent enough to be accurate for professional photo-editing.

The next problem was more bizarre - for some reason Photoshop seemed very sluggish. In fact when I dug out my benchmark from one of my many CDs I found that it was actually running more slowly than on my old 900Mhz / 512MB / single disk system! This was ridiculous. I suspected the hard disk performance to be the cause and downloaded the very handy PerformanceTest 3.5 (evaluation available from www.passmark.com, full version $18) to test it. This confirmed my fears with an average disk read speed of just 20.68Mb/sec compared to the program's generic Athlon 1800 benchmark of 57.34. In other words for some reason my hard disk was running at less than half the expected speed!

PerformanceTest 3.5 revealed serious hard disk speed issues.

Worse was to come. When I wanted to add my photos to my DVD archive, WinOnCD simply refused. At first I thought I must have inadvertently finalized the disk, but checking the help I came across the following: "Due to hardware limitations, multisession is not currently supported for DVD". No multisession support! Yes I like having my photos and clients' work on their own disks, but I don't want to have to pay £4 for a new disk and waste half an hour each time I want to add a new set of photos or a new project - and that's assuming that I still have the originals on the hard disk ready to burn again.

I'm still in a bit of a state of shock over this. And to begin with I also felt embarrassed that I'd made such a mistake. I knew DVD-R took a sequential approach to recording so wouldn't allow erasing, but I'd just assumed that it would offer multisession like CD-R. And, thinking about it, the format's lack of multisession support would certainly explain why DVD-rewriting is such a hot issue. Soon though I began to feel angry. Who could possibly come up with a large capacity format that can only be written to once! After all, data doesn't come in 4.7G chunks. More to the point how could they advertise it as "DVD-R"? There's a perfectly good term for this: "WORM" - write-once-read-many. Maybe "DVD-WORM" wouldn't sell quite as many units but then it wouldn't deserve to.

Now I've calmed down a bit, but I'm still confused. Looking on the Web, it seems that the DVD-R specification does support multisession or at least can support it. On the Pioneer site it says that the DVD-R format does allow for incremental or "multi-border" writing but that, as hardware compatibility is an issue, software currently doesn't exist to take advantage of it. And looking back on it, the WinOnCD help does only say that it doesn't "currently" support multisession for DVD. Maybe there is hope after all, at least for the future.

For the moment though I have to say that I have a serious feeling of anti-climax. And déjà vu. After my initial excitement I'm now sitting staring at my old CRT screen and writing to CD on a system that's no faster than my last! Of course that's just my personal experience and I might even have settled for it when the blue screen hit. More importantly it's only a temporary state and things will certainly improve - the Evesham engineer is on his way and I'm looking forward to really getting to grips with DVD-burning.

One thing's for sure though - I won't repeat the mistake of thinking that system set-up is ever straightforward.

Tom Arah

September 2002


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