VirtualDrive Pro by FarStone Technology most likely has a limited audience. Those most likely to use VirtualDrive will be PC gamers. Still, the software has enough substance to draw a wider audience. Its CD/DVD burning capability is strong enough to provide a backup solution for the general user, and the RAM drive is very well implemented and could appeal to developers and production engineers of all stripes. The implementation of the software is solid enough and the application is highly usable.
The package offers two main features: a CD/DVD imager called VirtualDrive (which allows users to create images of their game CDs and DVDs and mount and run them as if they were being run from the CD or DVD drive) and a virtual hard disk, which is essentially a RAM disk. VirtualDrive can be used to create images of movies as well, but when I tried to play the mounted movies, my DVD decoder wouldn’t play the movie properly. The RAM drive has some very nice extras that make the offering highly usable even between reboots.
Minor UI glitches and a non-blocking crashing problem on my test machine marred this otherwise solid product. For users that back up to CD or DVD, who want to create backups of all their game disks and use them from a networked or local hard disk, or who have plenty of extra RAM and need a super-fast disk, VirtualDrive Pro is an extremely easy purchase.
Price to Value (4 out of 5)
For those who need it, VirtualDrive Pro is entirely worth the money. The software works as advertised and comes with a lot of extras that make this package easy to buy. The package includes two main products which, if purchased separately, would cost close to $60.
Installation & Setup (3 out of 5)
Setup went smoothly, though it seemed multilayered. The package file I downloaded had to unpack, and then launch setup. The InstallShield setup took a number of preliminary steps before it finally installed the software to my hard disk. Throughout the installation, boxes popped up and disappeared. I wasn’t quite sure what they were or what they did, but the umbrella installer seemed to handle things well except towards the end (see the “What’s Not” section of this portion of the review). The only screen that really needed my attention was one that asked me how many “virtual drives” I wanted. I chose two for testing purposes.
The installer wrote roughly 63 MB to the hard disk and created 754 registry keys. The uninstaller removed 53MB of those files and left most of the registry keys behind. [virtualdrive_install_numberofdrives.JPG]
Towards the end of the installation, the installer produced a cryptic error. Clearing the dialog box allowed the installation to proceed, and the final dialog box of the installer told me that the product installed successfully. I checked the box telling the installer to launch the virtual drive manager, but clicking OK prompted me to restart my system. After the restart, VirtualDrive launched with no problems, so the error didn’t seem to affect the application.
Features: Virtual Hard Disk (5 out of 5)
RAM disks have been around for many years and their general usefulness has proven to be limited. One of the main problems with RAM disks is that they’re temporary and volatile. RAM disks can lead to data loss in the event of a sudden power outage, and managing RAM disks between sessions can be tricky.
VirtualDrive takes some of the edge off of this volatility with three powerful features. First, VirtualDrive RAM disks support the ability to save a RAM disk to the hard drive and remount it in a different session. It’s possible to automate saving the disk at specified intervals.
Second, The RAM disk stays mounted (as do the virtual drives) when VirtualDrive is closed. The drives will also be remounted upon reboot–an excellent feature that makes the virtual drives and RAM disks usable. In order to mount the disks, you have to set VirtualDrive to auto-load the most recent image upon restart.
Third, VirtualDrive can be set to save the image at set intervals, during hibernation, and before restart or shutdown. VirutalDrive will even create a backup of the image before saving. These features make using a RAM disk less risky and allow a RAM disk to be used as a consistent part of the operating system environment.
Product Features (5 out of 5)
VirtualDrive Pro comes with two main products. I will summarize them here and talk about the general features of the software package. I’ll deal with main products separately in other sections of this review. The first main feature, VirtualDrive, is a utility that allows users to essentially create copies of their DVDs and CDs, mount them at will, and use them as if they were physical media. Think of it like a virtual jukebox that will store the disk and “play” it when needed. With VirtualDrive, you can create single-file images of every CD or PC game disk you own, keep them on a server somewhere, and call them up when you need them. The product supports up to 21 drives mounted at any given time. Unmounting and mounting disks is as easy as clicking a single button for each task.
The second product is a RAM drive. This utility creates a disk drive out of system memory that functions like a physical disk. Because it’s made out of RAM, it’s much faster than physical media, but it’s also volatile–if your computer loses power, everything in your RAM drive gets wiped out. RAM drives can be very useful, however, for short-term, non-critical storage when speed is of utmost importance. The RAM drive shows up in Windows Explorer as another disk drive that functions just like any other read-write drive on your system.
Besides the convenience these utilities can provide, VirtualDrive is a good way to keep usable backups of DVDs and CDs. VirtualDrive includes a general CD/DVD burning application that is accessible from the Feature List -> Virtual Drive -> Custom Backup menu selection.
I tested a virtual drive with a game my daughter wanted to use on an old laptop we had given her. The laptop didn’t come with a CD drive and we no longer had the external drive the computer came with. So I attempted to copy the game’s CD contents onto a USB drive and install the game from there. Upon first launch, the game requested the CD. I could not find a way to trick the application into using the USB drive, so I was out of luck. Happily, I was right in the middle of this review and thought that this would be a perfect situation for VirtualDrive.
I installed the application on her computer to see if I could get the game to work. Unfortunately, VirtualDrive did not allow me to create a virtual disk from the USB drive. It too would only create an image from the CD. As a workaround, I created the image on my desktop computer and copied the image to her laptop using my LAN. I mounted the image in VirtualDrive, and voila! The game now launches and plays without issue. This was an ideal scenario for VirtualDrive and it worked perfectly.
Features: Virtual Drive (4 out of 5)
Creating a virtual drive was relatively easy through the Create Virtual CD wizard. I created a VCD image of a popular computer video game that was on CD, and one of a DVD movie (released in 2005). Both went flawlessly using the wizard. The movie, which takes up 6 GB on the DVD, took about 35 minutes to rip on a rather slow machine. I chose to rip it using medium compression, but the utility wasn’t able to compress the files much and I ended up with 6 GG on my hard disk.
VirtualDrive creates VCD images that can only be used through the VirtualDrive software. The application spanned the VCDs across multiple files when I ripped the movie. Only VirtualDrive could read the spanned files. Thus, they can only be mounted through VirtualDrive and not read through some other application. (I tried Windows Media Center, for example, which is supposed to support reading VCD images.) Also, while the movie I ripped mounted fine, it would not play through my media software. I’m fairly confident that this was due to an intentional limit of the DVD decoder I’m using and not any issue with the way the DVD was mounted through the VirtualDrive software. Thus, VirtualDrive cannot be used to support a online media library for music, games and movies, though it could if decoders could support it. This has more to do with the limits of current DRM models than it does with any flaw in VirtualDrive. The concept, however, is powerful, and if media companies would get behind it, the software exists to support full online media libraries. VirtualDrive can be used for music and games, however, and that may be enough for many users. VirtualDrive does have a category called Movies in its image Cabinet, but that has nothing to do with supporting the playing of a ripped movie through media software (though it may be useful for backups).
VirtualDrive supports using a VCD over a LAN or through an Internet connection. Clicking the root cabinet icon or any of the category icons in the cabinet will enable the Internet VCD button. Clicking this button produces a dialog box where you can enter a UNC path or an Internet URL. The item then becomes another VCD that can be mounted as if it were a local file. I tried this feature over my LAN with a game VCD and it worked quite well. Even over a wireless connection, the VCD was usable. To use the feature, the appropriate sharing and permissions settings have to be in place. Also, each computer that wants to read the networked VCD has to have VirutalDrive installed. Still, this appears to be a fine way to set up a central location for games.
Virtual drives can be password protected ,and users can set macros or applications to run when a VCD is launched. VCDs created with VirtualDrive can be converted to ISO images and vice versa. The right-click menu supports the ability to view the contents of a VCD image. This feature will display the original disk contents in a hierarchical tree view, exposing all the files in their original structure. The structure of the original disk can be viewed through Windows Explorer for any mounted virtual disk. VirtualDrive will also allow users to burn a CD or DVD of an image or clone a CD or DVD.
After inserting a disk into one of my physical DVD drives, VirtualDrive did not detect that it had been inserted. There is a refresh button above the content area, which refreshes the VCD Manager tree as well. Clicking the refresh button forced the application to correctly detect the disk.
I encountered one other annoying bug. Upon reboot, the VirtualDrive manager would crash the first time it was launched. Clearing the crash dialog and restarting fixed the problem, but it happened consistently after reboot.
User Interface (4 out of 5)
VirtualDrive’s interface takes some getting used to, but is generally understandable and user-friendly. The virtual drive manager and the cabinet metaphor are helpful ways to categorize drive images, and it was very easy to “insert” and “eject” a virtual disk. Integration with the operating system is solid. I was able to access the RAM disk and the virtual disk from Windows Explorer. To Windows, these virtual drives behave the same as physical disks. Exploring a disk through Windows shows the original file structure of the disk as if I had the original CD or DVD in the drive.
I did find the interface a bit antiquated. The cabinet icons, for example, seem unpolished and lack the clean, high-quality look of many modern applications. I also found some of the UI items unclear. For example, in the VCD Manager, the Internet VCD button is greyed out until a cabinet folder is selected. Once it’s clicked, the UI isn’t clear whether I’m entering settings to connect to an existing VCD on the network (local or Internet) or if I’m setting up an existing VCD or VirtualDrive Pro to make my images available on the Internet. When I first clicked the button, I thought I was doing the latter, but then realized it was the former. Once that was clear, the UI made sense and operated as expected.
The most annoying UI element was the persistent registration screen that pops up every time the VirtualDrive manager is launched. It’s possible to skip registration, but the screen will not go away until the product is registered (I “registered” using bogus information).
The help is underpowered, providing only the most basic of information. Overall, the UI is usable and shouldn’t cause confusion for most users. The biggest issue is getting one’s mind around the paradigm. Once one has a grasp of what the application does and what the various features mean, the UI makes a lot more sense.
Performance (5 out of 5)
I ran some non-scientific tests to demonstrate the speed difference in using a RAM disk alongside a hard disk versus using a hard disk alone. I wrote a small software program that would precisely time two different types of file copy operations. For the first test, I copied five 21 MB files from one folder on my hard disk to another folder (on the same physical drive). I then copied the files from the folder on the hard disk to the RAM drive. The second test copied 300 8K files from one folder to another, and then from hard disk to the RAM drive. I ran each test five times on a 2.2 GHz Celeron with 760 MB of RAM and Windows XP SP2 with all the latest service packs. Here are the results, averaging the time over five runs for each test:
Hard disk folder to hard disk folder
1. Large files: 32 seconds
2. Small files: 1.3 seconds
Hard disk folder to RAM drive
1. Large files: 18 seconds
2. Small files: .7 seconds
Using the RAM drive reduced the time of the file copy operations by about half. This time savings can be very useful for batch processing a large number of files or doing disk-intensive work. Of course, one must have enough extra RAM to hold all the files needed. If you keep the RAM disk mounted all the time, the RAM used for the disk is unavailable for other things.
Features I’d like to see:
- Support the playing of DRM-protected movies.
- Allow a virtual drive to be created from a USB drive.
VirtualDrive Pro is a solid software package that performs well and exceeded my expectations. With the cost of RAM and hard drives falling, putting regularly used, removable media on a hard disk is becoming more and more attractive. VirtualDrive Pro makes this task very manageable. The virtual hard disk feature is one of the better implementations of this feature that I’ve seen and one that I will most likely be using in my own work. I had rejected other RAM disks due to volatility and a lack of session-to-session persistence. VirtualDrive’s version addresses both issues and is worth a look for anyone who has rejected RAM drives in the past.
DVD Shrink, Nero