When you want it ALL: Bering’s Totem drive

©1988 Lawrence I. Charters

San Diego Macintosh User Group Resources, January 1988, pp. 6-7

At some point in every Mac owner’s life, the computer starts whispering, “I want more disk space.” You try to ignore this for a time – do you really want to claim a larger investment in your Mac than you have in your car? – but the whisper gets louder, and more specific: “I Want A Hard Disk.” Then, on a dark day in 1987, Apple announced MultiFinder and HyperCard, and Macs everywhere began shouting, “I Want Much, Much More! And I want it NOW!”

For the uninitiated, MultiFinder and HyperCard are subtle, insidious plots by Apple to create a huge demand for memory upgrades and large-capacity disk drives. While the Bering Totem drive can’t do anything about the need for more memory, it is perfectly designed for providing virtually unlimited storage. Unlike a hard disk drive, the Totem uses removable 20 megabyte cartridges. When a regular hard disk gets full, the only way to gain more storage space is to kill something off or buy another drive. With the Totem, the solution is faster, and cheaper: insert another cartridge.

Deciding on a Totem drive took, literally, years of research. For most of the past four years I lived in Japan, and Japan is not a good place to buy a hard disk – if you have to buy it in dollars. When a glass of Coke in a casual restaurant costs $7.00, little things such as paying the rent and buying groceries seem far more important than spending $3500 or more on a 20 megabyte drive. On the other hand, writing away for brochures and filling out “bingo cards” in Mac magazines was cheap, and the more I read, the more I became interested in the Totem.

Shortly after moving back to the U.S., I purchased the Totem Model 1220R, a dual-cartridge SCSI drive designed specifically for the Macintosh. Since each cartridge has a 20 megabyte capacity, this model offers 40 megabytes of on-line storage. If you fill it up (and I was surprised how easy this is to do), just replace a full cartridge with a fresh one and, within a few seconds, you have another 20 megabytes of storage space to play with.

Icon of Totem Bernoulli drive
Figure 1 (and only): Asking for Get Info while a Totem cartridge is highlighted reveals the strengths of removable storage. This particular cartridge contains nothing but HyperCard files, and is almost full after just two months. Unlike a regular drive, however, the Totem still has unlimited room for growth: just insert another cartridge, and 20 more megabytes are immediately available. This is a scanned image of the original illustration.


Other Advantages

Nice as it is, this isn’t the only advantage offered by the Totem, and may not even be the most important. The Totem, you see, is virtually “crash proof.” Conventional hard disks use metal platters, spinning at high speed, to store information. Random vibration or a bump to the table holding the drive can cause the disk head to collide with the spinning platter, gouging a valley in the surface and, incidentally, obliterating any information recorded there. By comparison, the Totem uses “Bernoulli disks,” made with a flexible film (similar to the stuff inside a regular Mac diskette) which rides on a cushion of air over an air foil. When the disk drive is jarred or vibrated, the air pocket around the foil collapses, causing the disk to fall away from the disk head, without any damage to the information.

Bernoulli cartridges are also tough. Many businesses and government agencies routinely mail the cartridges across the country and around the world, confident they’ll be in good shape at their destination. In fact, I’ve only heard of one case where a cartridge could not be read after being mailed, and it should be a Lesson To Us All: don’t let the mail truck run over your cartridges. Particularly if the truck has studded snow tires.

Almost everyone has heard at least one horror story about some poor soul who didn’t back up their hard disk, and Lost Everything In The Crash. With a Totem, backing up the disk drive is no problem at all: just pretend the cartridges are big floppies, and drag one icon on top of the other. Within a couple minutes, the backup will be complete and, unlike some hard disk backup systems, the backup cartridge is immediately usable. You can even move the write-protect tab on the cartridge to lock the disk from accidental erasure or modification.

Finder of the Month

Aside from the practical aspects, there are some other, outright exotic advantages to a Totem drive. By now, you’ve probably heard rumors that many programs don’t run well under MultiFinder, or under System 6.0, or when Mars and Venus are both in conflict with Jupiter. With a Totem, there is a simple way to have your cake and test the new, improved version, too: install MultiFinder on one cartridge, and see what works and what doesn’t Meanwhile, keep your old, tried and tested Finder system on another cartridge, and use it for those tasks which cannot tolerate possible incompatibilities.

Totem drives are also ideal for situations where several people use the same Macintosh. At home, you can have “his” and “hers” cartridges, “his” filled with various arcade games and similar “power” applications, and “hers” loaded with frilly little toys like Microsoft Word, Excel, PageMaker, and 4th Dimension. In the office, different users can maintain their own sets of data and applications on different cartridges, free from any worry that the Art Department might erase Accounts Receivable.

The Dark Side

As you’ve probably guessed, I’m a real fan of the Totem. And the fan is one of the Totem’s weaknesses.

If you want a nice, quiet office, the Totem is not the best choice. In terms of volume, it isn’t any noisier than a Mac II, and is definitely quieter than, say, a jetliner taking off in your back yard. Because the Bernoulli system must have a fan (to maintain the air flow across the air foil), there isn’t anything you can do about the fan noise except get used to it.

Bering’s documentation for the To-tem won’t win any awards, either. As a guess, the writer learned English through a cut-rate mail-order correspondence course, and flunked. Some of the instructions for initializing cartridges are outright wrong, and the illustrations show details which are obvious, rather than details which are crucial. To make matters worse, the manual is ugly: it looks like it was typed on a typewriter, and lacks all the spiffy desktop-publishing details Mac owners have come to expect A promised replacement manual has yet to arrive.

Service and support seems to vary with the problem. I purchased a Dove SCSI interface for my Mac 512KE, assured by Dove that it would work with anything. “Anything” apparently did not include the Totem, since my newly-modified Mac failed to even recognize the Totem existed. Dove eventually admitted that their interface was not “exactly” the same as the one in the Mac Plus, and suggested various modifications to their interface, none of which worked. Meanwhile, Bering im-plied it was Dove’s problem, pointing out the Totem ads claimed compatibility only with the Mac Plus.

Next, I tried connecting the Totem to a Mac II, with mixed results. At fIrst, the only way to use the Totem was to boot up from a floppy disk, then “jump start” the Totem by launching an application from a cartridge. Additionally, any time I tried to switch cartridges, or shutdown the Mac II, the computer would hang up.

Bering responded to these problems very quickly, and Katie Yao, chief systems programmer for the Totem software, called me personally to ask detailed questions and offer suggestions. Within three weeks, a new ROM for the drive and a diskette containing new system software appeared on my doorstep, and the Mac II has been happy ever since. Eventually, even the Mac 512KE managed to make use of the Totem, but this is mostly a tribute to the superb service offered by Contemporary Software in La Jolla (an excellent all-Mac store), and not to any great effort on the part of Dove or Bering.

At first glance, a Totem doesn’t look like a great value. List price on a single-cartridge drive (20 megabytes total) is around $1200, and a double-cartridge drive (40 megabytes total) is about $2300. When you can buy a conventional 20 megabyte hard disk for $700 or so, the Totem seems expensive.

On the other hand, a 20 megabyte cartridge is only $80 – and where else can you get an extra 20 megabytes for that price? There are very few vendors for Bering, so call them up on their toll-free line (in California, 1-800-533-DISK, 1-800-BERING 1 outside California) and try to talk them into a discount for selling direct.

Several friends and enemies have asked how the Totem compares to the Jasmine MegaDrive, a 10 megabyte cartridge drive selling for $999, and the Peripheral Land Infinity II, another 10 megabyte cartridge drive selling for $1095. On a cost per megabyte scale, the Totem is clearly cheaper, since you can have double the storage for roughly the same price, and four times the storage for about twice the price.

Judging performance is harder. Both the MegaDrive and the Infinity II have a claimed access time of around 65-70 ms (milliseconds), while the Totem is about twice as fast at 37 ms. Subjectively, a Totem on a Mac II seems about as fast as Apple’s 80 megabyte internal drive for the Mac II – and that is fast.

More direct comparisons between the Totem, the MegaDrive and the Infinity II will have to wait. It’s like this: while I know several people who have MegaDrives and Infinities, they all report their drives are presently out of commission.

(Note: The desktop picture shows the author’s daughter. The icon in the Get Info box, as well as the icon at the edge of the screen, closely resembles the look of the Totem box: an almost square box half as high as it is wide, with two cartridge slots stacked one above the other.)

Lawrence Charters has been using computers since the days of the Radio Shack Model I, and has written articles for several computer magazines. He presently works for the U.S. government teaching people how to use non-Macintosh computers. If you’ d like to pay him to use a Mac, he’d be overjoyed.


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