26707 Agoura Rd
Calabasas, CA 91302
FireWire drives have become much more common in video editors’ workspaces over the last few years as bridge chips and hard drives have finally evolved to deliver the high data transfer speeds required to handle video well. Medea’s FireFly solution is a quick way to easily add some capacity to your system in a manner that is exceedingly versatile, yet simple. And it is very attractive, looking somewhat like a space age hard drive toaster.
The system’s versatility means that you can’t just plug-and-play the FireFly. At a minimum, the drives need to be formatted. Installation went smoothly, except for two minor complaints. First, the Windows software drivers were not on the CD. We downloaded the drivers online and chalk the omission up to a first-generation product mistake. Our second complaint is that there is no printed documentation, although the CD that comes with the package has an electronic PDF manual. If you’ll pardon the rant, we feel that PDFs are overused for many reasons, and misused, especially on the Web, primarily because you need to download and install the 16 MB Acrobat PDF reader (Medea did not redistribute it on its CD). A printed manual would be doubly nice here, since configuration is not a complex task, but it is also not one you have probably done very often. Even a four-page quick start guide, such as the one that typically comes with bare hard disk packages, would have helped.
Independent, Stripe or Mirror?
The choice of connection options is one of the most versatile aspects of the FireFly. You can either format the drives independently or use them together in a stripe set (i.e. a RAID 0 array) or a mirror set (i.e. a RAID 1 array). Independent is the most obvious configuration: the two drives operate as external hard disks and the docking station merely holds the drives in place. You don’t even need the docking station, however you will still need the AC/DC power adapter.
Stripe sets (RAID 0) let you use two (or more) drives as if they were one (for Mac OS X or Win XP Pro). Back when 40GB was the largest HDD you could get, striping allowed you to make two separate hard disks appear as one to the computer: instead of two 40GB drives you’d have one 80GB drive. We see less of a need for the convenience of having a single 240GB drive, as opposed to two 120GB drives. Striped sets also have a potential performance advantage over a single drive, since data is flowing to two drives instead of one. One caution: if a single drive crashes in a striped set, you will lose data on both drives.
Mirrored or RAID 1 arrays are used for a different purpose, namely security. A RAID 1 FireFly is only available for Mac OS X at this time. A mirrored array writes the same data to both drives simultaneously, thus there is no performance advantage. This type of redundant array insures that your data is secure and protected: if one drive fails, you already have a backup of the data on the other drive.
The average video editor needs disk space more than just about anything else: in a mirrored array, two 120GB drives only have 120GB of storage space total.
The performance of these drives depends on how they are configured, individually, in a RAID 0 or in a RAID 1. As individual drives, we saw sustained data rates of over 210 Mbps across the entire drive. This exceeds the capture/print-to-tape needs of 25 Mbps for DV by almost a magnitude. A RAID 0 (striped array) should show some performance improvement in some applications, and transferring huge files (such a video) might be one of them. We say "might" since this improvement will only be apparent if there isn’t a bottleneck in the data flow somewhere else. In the case of the FireFly, that bottleneck is going to be the FireWire interface, which is limited to 400 Mbps. In our tests, we hit average sustained data transfer rates of around 230 Mbps, which is only a 20 Mbps increase over a non-striped (individual) disk. As a comparison, a quick test of another computer in our office averaged 425 Mbps on an equivalent internal hard disk and an internal striped array sustained 650 Mbps.
Meows and Quirks
This slick Medea external drive system is definitely a desirable package, but it did have its quirks. Our most important complaint was that we had some finicky FireWire connections between the docking station and the computer. We spent some time troubleshooting this on many ports on a handful of computers around the office, so we are certain that it was the FireFly and nothing else. Once we figured out what was going on, it was a simple matter to wiggle the cable and make sure it was snuggly connected.
Our other serious problem was that the FireFly did not play nicely with other FireWire devices in WinXP. If the FireFly was connected, it wouldn’t detect camcorders and they couldn’t be used. Again, we tried numerous variations of FireWire jacks on a number of computers with the same result. As soon as we disconnected the FireFly, everything worked just fine.
Finally, we have a funny little observation. The drives are whisper quiet when idle and there is only a tiny bit of clatter while data is flowing on and off the drives.
About every ten minutes or so, however, the drives quietly but plaintively meow. Yes, we said "meow." This is probably a drive thermal calibration function and, since it is very quiet, it is funnier than anything else. The meows do get out of sync, so you can expect a meow every five minutes or so with the pair of drives.
I’m So Fly
Extra disk modules are available from Medea for prices that will certainly fluctuate (most likely downward) over time. Medea does have some excellent RAID products for Windows and we use one in our primary edit bay, although we can’t recommend this particular product for Windows users at this time. Still, for Mac users, we liked the rather pricey and very attractive FireFly. It’s clearly one of the most versatile storage devices in captivity.
Charles Fulton is an Associate Editor for Videomaker.
Hardware: FireWire connection
Operating System: Windows 98/Me/2000/XP or Mac OS 9/X
For stripe set (RAID 0): Windows XP Pro or Mac OS X
For mirror set (RAID 1): Mac OS X only
Package Includes: 2 x 120GB FireWire disk modules, docking station, travel stand, FireWire cable, software CD, power adapter
The FireFly is an attractive and flexible external hard disk for Mac computers.