New portable storage devices are popping up like daisies after the rain. And Iomega, long a dominant player in the portable-storage market (ever heard of the ?), is seeing the first bloom from its new Peerless drive architecture.

The Iomega Peerless drive comes as a set of mix-and-match components: sealed, 10GB or 20GB magnetic storage cartridges; a drive base unit, which reads the cartridges when you drop them into a slot; and interface modules that connect to the USB or FireWire port of a PC or Mac. The cartridge sits upright in the base, looking like a Palm handheld in its cradle. An LCD on the base displays the throughput when the system is busy, and when you push a button on the base, the cartridge is let go. Each cartridge is the same thickness as a floppy disk (but a bit longer) and weighs a feathery 5.5 ounces.

Take it with you
The Peerless pricing structure seems reasonable, considering the system's capacity and potential speed. A kit with a 10GB cartridge, a USB interface, and a base lists for $359.95; with a 20GB cartridge, it's $399.95. Individual cartridges list at $159.95 for 10GB and $199.95 for 20GB. If all you need is a second interface module, the USB version costs $69.95 and FireWire costs $89.95

In our first look at the Peerless, we saw two shortcomings: First, the device doesn't function as a boot drive, so you can't transport a fully functional work environment with you. And while the Peerless may be removable, its portability has one big limitation: You need the drive to run the cartridge. You can buy a second base and interface for $249.95, but that's not cheap. CNET recently reviewed some completely self-contained portable storage devices. The , for instance, which is about the size and weight of a Peerless cartridge, connects directly to a computer's USB port, draws power via the USB bus so that it doesn't require an AC adapter, and costs $250 for 10GB or $350 for 20GB.

If you don't want to buy bases and interfaces for home and office, at least it's easy to carry the whole Peerless package with you. The assembled base, interface, and cartridge weigh just shy of a pound and aren't much bigger than the cartridge itself. The AC adapter is tiny, but the FireWire Peerless draws power over the bus, so it doesn't need an adapter.

Hands-on with peerless
CNET has not yet performed formal throughput testing on the Peerless drive. But according to the LCD indicator on the drive base, our USB test unit, attached to a fast, Pentium III desktop, delivered about 700 to 800kbps, which is close to Iomega's spec of 1mbps and about half the rated speed for USB version 1.1. The FireWire model is rated at 15mbps, but Iomega has not yet provided CNET with a FireWire test unit. (USB version 2.0, which is slowly making its way into the market and which Iomega intends to support, is rated at 12mbps.)

Installing the Peerless was a snap; the driver installed smoothly, and when we plugged in the USB cable, it was ready to roll. Iomega provides somewhat sparse printed and online documentation, but the system is so simple that there's not much room for confusion. If you do need help, Iomega provides extensive support on its Web site, including direct e-mail to technicians, or you can call support toll-free on weekdays from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. and on Saturdays from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. MT. The warranty lasts one year.

Iomega's software bundle includes Altiris's PC Transplant Pro and Aladdin's ShrinkWrap, utilities that can temporarily overlay your PC's or Mac's configuration on another system of the same type. You also get Iomega's QuikSync backup utility; MusicMatch Jukebox, for playing digital music; MGI's photo-editing PhotoSuite; and MGI Videowave III, for editing digital video.

Bright future
Iomega hopes to expand the Peerless architecture into other areas where mass digital data storage on removable media makes sense. For example, using the system's built-in, chip-based identifier, you can password-protect an individual cartridge. But the identifier is also designed to let digital content providers, such as computer game vendors and movie studios, control use and duplication of their products. Iomega envisions television set-top boxes recording digital streaming media onto Peerless cartridges or video-rental stores downloading games with a three-day lock onto customers' cartridges.

The Peerless is clearly a great solution for fast backup of today's massive hard drives. And the removable cartridges make it easy for you to carry around lots of your own information. But Iomega faces a difficult chicken-and-egg situation before the Peerless can become as universal as the creaky but still-going floppy drive or the CD-ROM drive.