Reviews

Hardware review: LaCie 500 GB external hard drive

Updated 11/3/08: I’ve seen renewed traffic to this post, and wanted to let you know that at this point the drive retails for $99. I think that price point is a little high given that 1TB drives have become affordable, and bare 1TB drives only cost $110-130. This means that if you’re looking for an external 500 GB drive, it should cost you somewhere between $79-89. Keep in mind that the manufacturer has to strike a balance between the cost of the drive and the cost of the enclosure, and while 500GB drives are bargains now, it will soon become impractical to manufacture them at the large scale needed for low price points, because the 1TB drives will become the new commodity hard drive. My message is, get them while you can, or spring for the 1TB external drives. The original review continues below.

This unassuming little black drive is a great product and a great buy at only $120 for 500 GB. It seems that LaCie has discontinued it. Buy.com, where I purchased two of them, no longer has it in stock. Amazon still has it, thankfully. Read below to see why I like it.

500 GB LaCie USB hard drive

The price is right for all that space. C’mon, 500 GB for $120? Sign me up! On top of all that, it’s whisper quiet! My big complaint with a previous 500 GB LaCie drive that I owned was the noise it made. Boy, was it loud! Not this drive. It’s so quiet, I can’t even hear it, unless it’s being actively accessed, and even then, it’s pretty quiet.

What’s also REALLY nice about it is that it doesn’t have a power brick. You know what I’m talking about, right? It’s that big, heavy annoying power adapter that sits in the middle, between the part you plug in the outlet and the part that plugs into the drive. Not on this drive! I love that! It only has a simple, unassuming cable, and that does wonders when it comes to cable management and keeping the underside of my desk neat. These are all the cables you’ll need with the drive.

500 GB LaCie USB hard drive with cables

Here’s what the back of it looks like. Again, no annoying and loud cooling vents, just the adapter and USB ports.

500 GB LaCie USB hard drive (back view)

I love the simple, unassuming, but very efficient design. Instead of a cooling fan, the drive cools via a grille built into its bottom.

500 GB LaCie USB hard drive (bottom view)

The only other drive that compares to it in terms of how little noise it makes is the LaCie 250 GB external hard drive, which I also own. But I don’t think this drive can be found on the market any more, and besides, why go for 250 GB when you can get 500 GB for $120?

250 GB LaCie external hard drive

If you want a great little drive to store your files, jump for the LaCie 500 GB USB drive before it’s gone. It’s hard to get 500 GB drives by themselves at this price point nowadays, much less already packaged up in a neat little enclosure and with cables. I’m not sorry at all I bought two of them, and I might get one more in the very near future — if there’ll be any left on the market after the Christmas season, that is.

Standard
Reviews

How houses get built in the DC area

I thought that when I lived in Florida, the construction there was shoddy. I was wrong. At least there they used concrete pillars and floors for the houses, and the building code was so strict everything was anchored properly, especially after Hurricane Andrew. When I moved to the DC area, I thought construction would be better here, since it’s a temperate climate and the houses should be built to last and hold up to the weather. I was wrong. Construction here is horribly shoddy.

I have never been so shocked at the cheap and flimsy “workmanship” I see every time I pass some house or building under construction. It never ceases to amaze me what passes code in these parts, and I’ve lived here since 2003. It’s downright thievery, I tell you. I’ll show you some photos below to help you see what I mean. I call it thievery because you’d think housing would be dirt cheap given the materials and level of effort that goes into the construction, but it isn’t. It’s terribly expensive, to the point that people making below what would be called upper middle class in other parts of the country can’t afford to live inside the Beltway, much less outside it. They have to go find housing either in bad neighborhoods, or way out in the boonies, in order to get anything affordable.

It’s not right. It makes my blood boil. Honestly, I can’t believe what goes on. It’s the same construction everywhere, from the (relatively) cheaper townhomes and single family homes right up to the McMansions that have sprung up on River Rd, Georgetown Pike and other richer places. The only thing that changes is the size and price of each monstrosity, but they’re all just as flimsy.

Do you want to see what I mean? Take a look at these photos. They’re from a house currently under construction in my area.

House under construction

Some unwitting soul is going to pay several hundred thousands of dollars for this piece of crap, and he won’t know what a lemon he’s getting. It’s all 2×4 construction. There’s nothing solid and concrete there except the foundation, and I’m not sure how thick that is, either. It’s all either cheap, soft wood or plywood, including the upper floor. Not only that, but the beams aren’t straight, and the joints aren’t secured properly.

House under construction

It’s basically a big plywood box. I’m not sure what its projected lifetime is, but I can’t imagine it’ll last more than 30 years. It’ll start needing serious repairs even before the mortgage is paid off. Isn’t that terrible?

Do you see that cheap, flimsy Tyvek plastic? That’s the weatherproofing. No, I’m not kidding. That’s it. That’s also the insulation. I doubt they’ll put glass fiber or any other kind of insulation between the drywall and the beams. They might, but I seriously doubt it. I’ve seen the inside of many walls, and they’re usually empty.

House under construction

Can you say cheap? I can. It’s cheap construction! It’s a travesty. Look at that horrible plywood shell. That’s going to be a tower. It’s going to look so nice, clad in fake brick or plastic siding only 1-2 inches thick… It’s also going to be horribly inefficient when it comes to temperature preservation. And if water should happen to leak in through that cheap brick cladding and through that flimsy Tyvek sheet, the plywood will rot away quietly and the owner won’t even know it… Wonderful, isn’t it? Isn’t this piece of crap worth mortgaging your life away?

Should we be ill-fortunate enough to get a hurricane or some tornado in our area, the roof on this thing will probably get torn off, and the entire house might or might not be standing when nature’s done with it.

Look, don’t get me wrong. I understand that America has a long history of 2×4 construction. It’s how the West was won. It’s cheap, affordable, goes up quickly, etc. But this isn’t the West, and it’s not the 1800s. This is the supposedly refined East. We should know better by now. It’s our nation’s capital. And the prices of these plywood boxes aren’t cheap. No, they’re so high most people can’t afford them.

I also understand the builders have to make a profit and the cost of land in this area is expensive. But this is ridiculous! If you’re going to build something that someone will want to call their home, and will pay dearly for it, sinking most of their productive, working years into paying it off, then God help you if you don’t build something worthwhile, something that’ll last. You’ll get what’s coming to you, don’t you worry about that…

What I wonder about is how the people and companies that put up these things can live with themselves. That’s what I want to know. How can they sleep at night knowing someone’s going to pay a fortune for something that’ll start falling apart after the first several years, for something that’s so horribly inefficient when it comes to energy use that they’ll be paying through the nose to cool it in the summer and to heat it in the winter? Don’t tell me about efficient windows! You can get the most expensive windows out there — if the walls themselves can’t conserve the inside temperature, you’ll still be nowhere. There’s such a thing as global warming to worry about. Have you heard of it? Everyone needs to reduce their carbon footprint, and it starts in the home.

Whatever happened to the good, old masonry work? What happened to quality stone construction? Yes, it’s more expensive, but isn’t it worth it? Why can’t you builders put a little more pride in your work? Why can’t you make a concrete skeleton, and use thicker insulation and better materials for the cladding? Is it so hard to do? So you’ll make a little less money. You might have to mark up the price a little. You might have to educate the consumers that know nothing about quality construction. But isn’t it all worth it in the end? Won’t you feel better knowing the house you built will last a long time? Won’t you feel better knowing the people that will buy your house will thank you for your solid construction later? Isn’t it it worth it to build good will instead of ill will?

Standard
Reviews

Hardware review: WD My Book Pro Edition II

Less than a month ago, I reviewed the WD My Book World Edition II, a NAS device from Western Digital, and I promised that I’d also review the My Book Pro Edition II, which I also bought. Here are my thoughts.

Updated 12/13/2007: Before I say anything else, I need to discourage you strongly from buying this drive. There are MANY flawed units of this drive on the market. There are serious problems with cooling, which result in excessive fan noise and even random drive shutdowns while in use. Scroll to the end of the review to read the updates and see what sorts of problems I’ve had with the drive.

Design

The Pro Edition II should be a better and faster external hard drive than the World Edition II when it comes to working with my photo library, since it connects directly to my computer instead of going through the network. Its exterior design is just as good as that of the World Edition II, and the photos enclosed below will show it.

I have to confess that I’m design-obsessed. If something looks good, I’m willing to overlook the fact that it may not work as expected, which is definitely the case with this device. Of course, if it were truly designed well, it wouldn’t have the serious problems that it has, but at least it looks good on my desk… I suppose I could call it a very expensive paperweight. It’s so unfortunate that Western Digital couldn’t deliver with this product. It looks so nice, and does so poorly…

WD My Book Pro Edition II (front)

The drive has three interfaces: USB 2.0, Firewire 400 and Firewire 800. A nice touch is the inclusion of two Firewire 800 ports. This is probably because most computers have only one Firewire 800 port, and the WD engineers wanted to give us the ability to daisy-chain other devices onto the drive. In terms of the RAID settings, it has RAID 0 and RAID 1. I’m using my drive in RAID 1, to get the data redundancy I need when it comes to my photo library.

Serious problems

I’ve read complaints about the drive being loud, and I agree. I’ll say this: when it works fine, it’s quiet. When it has problems, it’s VERY loud. There are persistent cooling issues with the drive, that have been partially solved through firmware updates, but they keep showing up even on later builds. I think the WD engineers still have a LOT of work ahead of them when it comes to this model. See below for more on this.

My workflow involves working mainly with Adobe Lightroom, and doing the following:

  • Importing and viewing RAW files
  • Winnowing
  • Adding meta data
  • Editing images and
  • Exporting them to JPG files for the web or for clients

The drive is usually fine with this, but if I spend more than an hour (and sometimes, even less than an hour in Lightroom), it’ll start to overheat. Then the fan speed will auto-switch to what I call “medium speed”, and the drive will get a little louder. If after a few minutes or so, I’m still not done working, the drive fan will kick into high gear, something that I and others call “hairdryer mode”. After a couple of minutes at that speed, the drive will either return to “medium speed” or shut off completely, leaving me and Lightroom wondering where the photo library went.

I’ve learned to save my work and exit Lightroom when the drive fan goes into “hairdryer mode”, because I can almost certainly expect the drive to shut off. I called WD Support on this, and I applied a firmware fix a few weeks ago, but the cooling problem is still there. By the way, the drive has to stand vertically at all times, or you’ll have even more serious cooling problems.

Getting support

I need to say that WD Support are responsive, but they live in serious denial. They will agree to an RMA, but they insist that these drives are just fine, which is definitely NOT the case. Speaking from personal experience, WD Support is better than the support I’ve gotten from other tech companies like Microsoft and HP. At least they try to be helpful and polite. This was one of the main reasons I stuck with the drive through serious, repeated problems.

As I stated at the start of this post, I continue to have problems with my drive, even after two replacements. I like the design, and I like the fact that it has three interfaces. But I cannot use it long-term, because, let’s face it, it’s an unreliable piece of crap, and it’s very frustrating to use it when it overheats and crashes my computer. I’ve already bought a Drobo (which I love) for my photo library, and I’m going to re-purpose this drive to store some other files.

Working with the drive

In my review of the My Book World Edition II, I mentioned how I’m in a mixed OS environment at home. I have both an iMac and a Windows laptop. It’s necessary for me to be able to read and write to my external devices from both computers. This is in case I do large file transfers, which are obviously a lot faster to do over a USB or Firewire connection than a wireless network. So what I did to solve this problem was to format the My Book Pro Edition II in the Mac file system (HFS+ Journaled). Now I can read and write just fine to it from both machines because I purchased MacDrive, a piece of software that lets you access Mac drives on Windows as if they were NTFS or FAT32 volumes.

WD My Book Pro Edition (back)

Let’s review

I like the drive, and the design, but it has SERIOUS quality control problems and manufacturing defects. Make sure to read through the Updates section below for the latest news on the drive, and remember to spare yourself the agony I’m going through by NOT buying it.

Updates

Updated 10/30/07: It turns out the cooling problems with my drive weren’t normal. After calling WD Support a second time, I was offered an RMA. They sent out a replacement drive to me via 2-day Fedex, free of charge, and let me keep my old drive for a month while I transferred my photos over to the new drive. During that month, I worked exclusively on the new drive, to make sure that it wouldn’t overheat and shut off anymore. While it goes into “hairdryer mode” once in a blue moon, the fan speed always returns to “low speed”, which is barely audible, and the drive never shuts off. Whatever problems existed in the earlier builds of this drive, WD fixed them, and the new drives work just fine. If you’re having cooling problems with your My Book Pro, I encourage you to contact WD Support and see if you can exchange it.

Updated 12/03/07: I’ve just arranged to receive my 2nd replacement drive from WD via RMA. While I like the consistently high level of customer support they provide, I have to point out that there are manufacturing defects that still haven’t been ironed out. While my first drive, the one I purchased from a store, only overheated, and worked okay otherwise, the replacement drive had three problems. It also overheated, although less often than the original drive. Its Firewire 400 connector didn’t work. I tried different cables, to no avail. The computer just didn’t see it while it could see other Firewire drives just fine. Most importantly, it kept crashing my iMac every time I connected it. Not right away, but within minutes or less than an hour, it would crash the system so badly that I’d have to reset it. I’d get the standard Apple screen of death with a message that asked me to reset the computer. When I’d look at the logs, they’d always point to the USB as the problem for the crash, and the only drive I had connected via USB was the My Book Pro. Let’s hope this third drive that WD will send me will finally work properly.

Updated 12/13/07: As stated at the top of this post, DO NOT buy this drive, for the reasons already detailed. I am NOT alone in having problems with this drive. Many Mac users are having the same problems with it, and you can see this by doing a search on the Apple forums for “My Book Western Digital“.

The drive also DOES NOT work as advertised. The specs say it works with USB, Firewire 400 and Firewire 800, but it DOES NOT work with Firewire 400. I have not had the chance to test it with Firewire 800, so I can’t speak about that, but I know for sure that Apple computers cannot see it when connected through Firewire 400. It does work with USB, but it tends to crash Apple computers when connected to them through that protocol. Trust me on that last bit, I’ve checked the error logs every time and confirmed it reliably — it’ll crash my iMac, which runs Leopard (the latest Mac OS X), when connected through USB, while other USB or Firewire drives can connect just fine and have no problems. Have a look at this article of mine for a video of the crashes it causes, and for photos of the damaged drives that WD sends out as replacements.

Western Digital is also NOT doing a good job testing these drives before they send them out. I’m now on my third replacement drive from Western Digital (My Book Pro), and it exhibits the same problems: overheating and NOT working with Firewire 400. Western Digital Support refuses to believe it and continues to stubbornly cling to the idea that the drive works just fine since it can connect through USB. They offered to send me out another replacement drive, and I refused. I’m not going to spend my entire life swapping drives and data until Western Digital decides to get their manufacturing and quality control processes in order.

I also want to mention that the re-certified drives they send out can be scratched, scuffed and smudged. They are NOT cleaned, and Western Digital simply DOES NOT care if they send you a drive in bad aesthetic condition. My re-certified drives arrived in progressively worse condition, to the point where this last replacement drive looks absolutely horrible. It looks like it’s been banged up and dragged on the floor. It’s got oily smudge marks on its sides… basically, it’s a mess.

DO NOT BUY this drive unless you want to run into the problems I’m having right now, and believe me, it’s not fun at all. Western Digital needs to get its act in order on this model, because they’re churning out some real duds.

Updated 7/3/08: I updated my other post about the My Book Pro as well with the following information.

On 4/16/08, I received a replacement drive from Western Digital. It’s a 2TB Studio Edition II drive, which works in USB, Firewire 400/800 and eSATA modes. I’ve been using it since in RAID 0, and it’s been working great. To see how I use it, read this recent post of mine, where I talk about the hardware I use on a daily basis. I also plan to write a detailed review of the drive shortly.

I guess the lesson is that the My Book Pro line had serious faults, and WD got things right with the My Book Studio line. So, if you’re in the market for a drive, DO NOT get a My Book Pro. But DO get a My Book Studio drive. They seem to work alright.

More information

Standard
How To

A quick maintenance operation that will prolong the life of your laptop

I upgraded the RAM in my laptop yesterday, and stumbled onto a really easy maintenance job that will most certainly prolong the life your laptop, and help it run faster, cooler and quieter. It sounds impossible to do all that in one fell swoop, but it’s really easy to do, and it works. I’ll give you a hint: it has to do with your laptop’s cooling.

I realize your laptop is going to be different than mine, so my photos may not help you much when it comes to doing this on your own laptop, but bear with me, the principle is the same, and this simple clean-up job will really help.

What I’m talking about is the laptop’s cooling fan assembly. It’s the fan that cools the processor’s heatsink, and is responsible for keeping the processor below the upper temperature threshold. It’s like your car’s radiator. If it wasn’t working, your car would overheat very fast, wouldn’t it? Same thing here, except your laptop’s “radiator” is prone to getting clogged up with dust – lots of it, too.

After about a year and half of using my laptop mostly on clean tables — not on carpets, or my lap, or on tablecloths, as some of us do [!] — I was very, very surprised to find out how much dust had accumulated on my laptop’s cooling grill. I didn’t even open my laptop in order to inspect it. I just wanted to install some extra RAM, but saw the cooling fan and figured, hey, let me open it up even though it looks clean enough from the outside. Boy, was I in for a shocker! Have a look at this photo to see for yourselves.

Cleaning an Averatec 6240 series laptop

You may not think that layer of dust is much, but have a look at a macro photo I took of a piece of it. I used a moist cotton swab to pull off the dust from the grill. Can you see how thick it was? It’s a wonder any air managed to get through!

Cleaning an Averatec 6240 series laptop

In case you’re wondering how I removed the cover from the cooling fan, it’s simple. There were four small screws holding it in place. They were each about the size of those screws you find in the frames of your eyeglasses, so you can use the small screwdriver from a frame repair kit. (If you’re a geek like me, you probably have your own mini-screwdriver set.) After using moist cotton swabs to thoroughly clean the grill, I blew through the grill from both sides of the laptop to make sure no dust was stuck inside. I was out of air spray, so I just used my lungs — if you do the same, be careful, don’t inhale the dust, it doesn’t taste good… Then I also wiped the fan blades clean with more moist cotton swabs, after which I used a couple of dry ones to wipe the entire assembly. Have a look at the finished product. Looks pretty good, doesn’t it?

Cleaning an Averatec 6240 series laptop

The important thing to remember is that most people can do this at home, and it’s a completely user-serviceable operation. I didn’t have to remove any warranty stickers (although my laptop’s out of warranty anyway). As a matter of fact, I only removed the panel that’s supposed to give me access to the RAM. It’s a big panel, so it really gives me access to a lot more stuff.

Cleaning an Averatec 6240 series laptop

If my laptop managed to get that much dust inside after only a year and a half of normal use (on tables and desks), I can’t imagine how much dust there is in other laptops that get used everywhere, and never get cleaned! To me, it’s a miracle that most survive through their projected 3-year lifetimes, and even last beyond that. I have to wonder how much better they’d run if their owners would take the time to clean them out once in a while. My suggestion is that you schedule time to do this cleaning once a year.After I finished, I noticed a difference right away. My laptop is cooler now, and runs much quieter. Before, the fan ran in overdrive most of the time. Now, it only runs at higher speeds when the processor is crunching through difficult operations, which is the way it should be. It also runs a little faster, and it’s more responsive. This also makes sense, because a cooler processor works better. It’s the same principle behind water-cooled processors, which can be overclocked because their temperatures are kept low.

At any rate, I encourage you to open up your laptops and try this for yourselves. But please, make sure they’re turned off, unplugged from any power source, and the batteries are removed before you even think of opening them up. Also, ground yourselves before you touch the circuits. You don’t want to short anything inside with any static electricity you might generate.

Standard
Thoughts

Possible problems with the MacBook Pro?

Apparently there are problems with the new MacBook Pro, such as overheating, loud cooling fans and whining sounds from the CPU/circuits. It doesn’t happen in all of them, and people are pretty happy with the machines that are working fine. But this is something to watch out for, in particular if you are thinking of plunking down some hard-earned cash for it. To their credit, Apple is doing what they can to fix the defective machines. I suppose glitches are to be expected when one switches to a smaller form factor AND an entirely new CPU. Here is the link.

Standard