Thoughts

Mac Pro line overdue for a hardware refresh

Because of the recent hardware failure on my MacBook Pro, I started to think about getting a new computer.

Given my intensive computing needs, I naturally looked toward the Mac Pro, but I was disappointed to find that its specs are lagging behind the times. The differences between it and what other Apple computers offer are enough for me to hold off on making the purchase.

The areas where it needs to improve can (almost) be summarized by this screenshot:

Thunderbolt

The iMac already has Thunderbolt ports, but the Mac Pro (the top-of-the-line model) doesn’t. Why isn’t it there already?

If Thunderbolt is “the fastest, most versatile I/O in a desktop”, why is it MIA on the Mac Pro? Shouldn’t it be on Apple’s most powerful desktop? If it’s got 10 Gbps data channels, and it’s tens of times faster than FW800 or USB 2.0, why isn’t it on the Mac Pro?

It even made it onto the MBP… Will Thunderbolt make it onto the MacBook before it makes it onto the Mac Pro?

SATA 6GB/S

The Mac Pro’s internal architecture can support SATA 6Gb/s speeds. There are already SATA 6Gb/s hard drives on the market, at very affordable prices. Why doesn’t the Mac Pro, where storage bandwidth really matters, include SATA 6Gb/s technology? Why is it still stuck at SATA 3Gb/s?

USB 3.0

Where is USB 3.0 on the Mac Pro? It still only has USB 2.0 ports. I already have USB 3.0 peripherals, which I wouldn’t be able to use at their native speed if I got a Mac Pro.

Furthermore, where is USB 3.0 on any Mac? USB 3.0 is here to stay, it’s fast, and it’s on a lot of peripherals. It goes without saying that Apple needs to include it on the Mac Pro and on the rest of its computers.

What’s worrying is that Mac OS X Lion may not ship with support for USB 3.0, as this article suggests. No, no, no, Apple, please don’t do that…

30-inch Display

This is more of an annoyance, but it’s worth mentioning. Ever since it came out, I always dreamed of owning a 30-inch Cinema Display. Given some of the stuff I’m doing these days, I could really use it, too. But Apple no longer makes it. The only large display they make these days is the 27-inch Cinema Display, which is very nice, and it uses LED instead of LCD technology, but it’s not a 30-inch, is it?

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Reviews

Hardware review: ioSafe Solo, the fireproof and waterproof drive

The folks from ioSafe gave me a 500 GB ioSafe Solo drive and asked if I could write about it. The short summary is this: it’s quite different from a regular external drive, and yes, it does exactly what it says it’s supposed to do — it is fireproof and waterproof.

iosafe-fireproof

How is it different? For one thing, it’s big — much bigger than a regular external drive, much bigger than even a Drobo. Keep in mind this is a single-drive enclosure, while the Drobo is a four-drive enclosure. It’s also much heavier than a regular external hard drive. The discrepancy is explained solely by its unique purpose, which is to withstand fires and floods. I’ll explain below.

iosafe-solo-and-drobo-1

The ioSafe drive is made with technologies like the FloSafe air cooled vent, HydroSafe water barrier and DataCast fire safe — patented technologies which the folks at ioSafe invented.

One of my concerns with the drive, given its watertight and fireproof seals, was how it cools itself. Could it withstand regular use? Wouldn’t the drive overheat during extended use? The answer is no, thanks to the FloSafe vents, which stay open and allow air to circulate through the enclosure as long as the room temperature stays under 200° F. Once the ambient heat passes over that threshold, the vents close and seal automatically, protecting the drive inside. The closing mechanism doesn’t rely on electricity — it’s mechanically triggered, which means it’ll work whether or not the drive is plugged in.

The drive and circuits are packed inside a foam enclosure called the DataCast fire insulation. The DataCast formulation forms a chemical bond with water molecules that, at temperatures above 160° F, releases water vapor to limit the internal temperature of the hard drive. This enables the ioSafe data storage product to protect your data from heat damage while the unit is engulfed in fire. Typical fires last about 30 minutes and have temperatures of approximately 800° F to 1000° F. The ioSafe fire resistant data storage product has been tested up to UL 72 one-hour standards at 1700° F and the ASTM E119 fire curve standard. While the strength and duration of a fire cannot be predicted, the ioSafe drive has been over-engineered to withstand even the toughest fires, and that’s good news for your data.

When it comes to flood protection, the HydroSafe barrier blocks fresh or saltwater damage, including full immersion, while still allowing for the heat dissipation necessary for normal functioning. All ioSafe products are inherently flood resistant, whether or not the vents are open or closed, which is as it should be, since a flood isn’t normally associated with a temperature rise above 200° F.

The official specs of the ioSafe Solo drive which I reviewed say that it’s fireproof to 1550° F up to ½ hour and waterproof to 10 feet of fresh or saltwater up to 3 full days. They also say the drive comes with a 3-year warranty and a $1,000 Data Recovery Service, which works as follows (quoting from ioSafe website):

  1. The Company or its contracted partner will provide phone or email based support to assist in recovering the data, or
  2. The Company will pay for the disaster exposed product to be shipped back to the Company’s headquarters for data recovery. If data recovery is successful, a replacement product will be loaded with the original data and shipped back to the original user, or
  3. At the discretion of the Company, if the data recovery by the Company is not successful, the Company will pay up to the amount shown in the table below for the specific product to a third-party disk recovery service of the Company’s choice to extract the data. Any data extracted will be loaded on a replacement product and shipped back to the original user. The Company has the right to use a factory refurbished product as the replacement product.
Product Line U.S. Dollars per Disk
S2, R4 $5,000
3.5 Pilot, 3.5 Squadron $2,500
Solo External HDD $1,000

I know of no other company that offers a free data recovery service, particularly after a damaging incident such as a fire or a flood. ioSafe does it, proving their commitment to the safety of your data.

Now let’s talk about the other aspects of the drive, such as its looks, performance and noise levels.

The enclosure of the ioSafe Solo is made of solid sheet metal, particularly the front, top and bottom, which is made of a single piece of 1 mm thick steel. It’s built like a tank — as hard drives go, anyway — and is made to withstand hits and dents. The simplicity of the design — two leaves of sheet metal bent into simple curves that fit together like a dovetail joint — makes it appealing to someone who likes good, solid design.

ioSafe-Solo-front

Other than its size, the enclosure’s exterior isn’t fancy or flashy. The real beauty lies inside, in the fireproof and waterproof padding and seals. Other than a bit of branding and the blue LEDs on the front, the sides, top and bottom feature no adornments at all.

ioSafe-Solo-side

The back side features a lip with a punch hole that can be used to secure the drive physically to a flat surface, or with a security cable. The back of the drive has a power switch, the USB connector, the air grille through which the drive cools itself, the DC power port, and a metal plate with the drive’s serial number etched onto it.

ioSafe-Solo-rear

Hardware noise is something I’m always concerned with. I prefer my hardware to be as quiet as possible. I compared the ioSafe drive with other external devices that I own, like the 1st generation Drobo, the 2nd generation Drobo, the WD My Book Studio Edition II, and the LaCie Mini. On an approximate loudness scale, it ranks below a 1st gen Drobo but above all the other devices, like the 2nd gen Drobo, the My Book Studio and the LaCie Mini. It’s the fan that’s the cause of the noise, not the hard drive itself. Given how much padding and sealing there is inside the enclosure, the fan has to work extra in order to cool it, so you’ll always hear its hum. The good thing is that it’s constant, so you tend to get used to it after a while.

The drive has a USB 2.0 interface, so you can expect typical USB 2.0 transfer speeds from it (it tops out at 480 Mbps). For example, I was able to copy 122.25 GB to the ioSafe Solo in 1 hour and 50 minutes, which is par, or perhaps even a little faster, than my prior experiences with USB 2.0 transfers.

Beside the size of the drive, which is considerable but appropriate given its specifications and purpose (5.0″W x 7.1″H x 11.0″L), there’s also its weight to consider (15 lbs). This is a heavy drive. It’s not something you can lug around in a backpack. It’s something that’s meant to be stationary and to withstand fires and floods. It is serious business. I wouldn’t even call the ioSafe Solo a drive you can keep on your desktop. Yes, you can do that, but it’s probably better to keep it bolted to the floor or to your wall, or even better, plug it into a USB to Ethernet device and keep it away from your desk, somewhere in the basement, in the attic, or in a closet. Turn it on every once in a while, copy your vital data to it, then turn it off and forget about it, until you have a disaster. Then dig it out, retrieve your data, and pat yourself on the back for having bought it.

The ioSafe Solo isn’t the only device made by ioSafe. They have a whole range of drives that cater to consumers and businesses alike. They have internal drives, made to fit inside existing computers, that use the same fire and water-resistant technology. They’re 2.5″ drives fitted inside custom 3.5″ enclosures with SATA interfaces. They also have rack-mountable RAID systems configured as RAID 1 (mirrors) and NAS devices that can be configured as RAID 0/1/5.

I initially planned to put the review unit through fire and water in order to test it, but I honestly don’t know what new things I could add to what people have already done to it in order to prove its capabilities. Take this video from the Wall Street Journal for example, where ioSafe’s CEO dunked the drive in a pool, then baked it in an oven to show the data stays safe.

Another reviewer barbecued the ioSafe Solo, only to find out the data stayed safe, as expected. On a local TV station in California, where ioSafe is headquartered, Robb Moore, ioSafe’s CEO, went on camera to torch yet another product — their 3.5″ internal drive that uses the same technology. The result, once more, was the expected one. The data stayed safe even though the drive was put through 30 minutes of 1200° F fire.

Finally, Gear Diary ran the ultimate fire test on the ioSafe Solo. They put it inside a burning car, left it in there for 10-15 minutes, hosed it down with professional fire equipment, then disassembled it to see if the data stayed safe. It did.

Like I said, I don’t know what I could add by torching and dunking my review unit, when it’s already been done much better by others. Gear Diary’s test in a burning car was the ultimate proof for me. That was a real test under real life conditions, and the drive proved that it could withstand it.

If you’d like to buy the Solo, you can do so directly from ioSafe or from Amazon.

After the 49 Fire that destroyed 63 homes in Auburn, CA on 8/30, ioSafe CEO Robb Moore offered free ioSafe Solo drives to the fire victims.

If you’d like to win your very own ioSafe Solo drive, then join ioSafe’s Facebook page. As soon as they have 5,000 fans, they’ll hold a drawing and award one of them the drive.

Images used courtesy of ioSafe.

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How To

Can the WD TV be networkable with firmware upgrade?

The WD TV can be placed on a network via an unofficial firmware upgrade available from B-RAD. The souped-up firmware apparently allows one to plug USB ethernet sticks (I’ve had one of those lying around in my desk drawer for years) into the WD TV and mounts its connected drive(s) onto the network — among other additional features.

I haven’t tried this yet. I found out about it from Tobias Schneble, a reader from Germany who emailed me after seeing my article on upgrading the WD TV to the new official firmware from WDC. Tobias tells me there’s a wiki site where detailed instructions are given.

Updated 4/5/09: I modified the post in accordance with the very helpful comment you see below, provided by the fellow who runs the B-RAD website. It turns out that hacking the WD TV to add it to a network and to enable other extra features is as easy as upgrading it with a normal firmware package. That’s great!

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Reviews

Hardware review: WD My Book Studio Edition II

WD MyBook Studio Edition II - 02

I have been working daily with a WD My Book Studio Edition II drive for the past eight months (since April ’08). I mentioned it back in July in my popular “What’s on my desk” post. It is a quad interface (USB 2.0, FW400, FW800, eSATA) 2TB drive that can run in RAID 0 (2TB total space) or RAID 1 (1TB total space). My review can be summed up in these three words: it works great.

I should say here, just as I said in my other two reviews of the My Book Pro Edition drive (see paragraph below for links), that this drive was given to me by WDC as a replacement for my faulty My Book Pro drive. I didn’t purchase it, but at the same time, I am under no obligation to anyone to praise it needlessly. I do so because it has really worked for me.

After all these months of heavy use, I have nothing bad to say about this drive. I have put it through its paces, transferring terabytes of data back and forth from it to my laptop and to my other drives, I have used it daily, I have put it through sustained data writes of several hundred gigabytes at a time, and it has not failed me yet. In stark contrast to my experience with the WD My Book Pro Edition II drive, this drive has outshined all of my other external storage devices, including my Drobo.

True, while nothing beats the Drobo when it comes to sheer storage space and flexibility in terms of its building blocks (the drives themselves), the My Book Studio Edition II drive has been faster than the Drobo when it came to working with my photos in Lightroom, in both RAID 0 and RAID 1 modes, and it has also been faster when it comes to data transfers (writing to the drive itself).

WD MyBook Studio Edition II - 07

I did not have a chance to use the drive through the eSATA interface. I used it mostly through the FW800 interface, and, briefly, through the FW400 and USB interfaces. Given that it can transfer data at up to 3GB/s through eSATA, I might just buy an adaptor for my MacBook Pro in the future. I was pretty happy with the FW800 speeds though (up to 800 Mb/s).

My feelings about this drive are somewhat harder to understand for those of you that have not had to deal with a My Book Pro Edition drive. If you did not have to put up with constant overheating, data loss, fan noises, disconnects and computer resets while using that drive, then you can’t possibly appreciate how WDC managed to get things so right with the My Book Studio Edition drive.

Somehow, they have, and for me, it’s a pleasure to use this drive. It suffers from none of the problems of its predecessor. It works reliably, each and every time. It’s fast. It’s quiet. It doesn’t overheat. It doesn’t cause my computer to crash. It doesn’t lose any of my data. The enclosure looks even better. The white LED on its front is much less annoying than the blue LED on the My Book Pro. It has greater capacity. It has more interfaces. It has a 5-year warranty, which amazes me when I consider that most tech products have a 3-year projected lifespan. The list goes on and on, and I have only good things to say about it.

The drive uses the new GreenPower drives from WD, which use 30% less energy and do not get as hot as older hard drives. This means the new enclosure doesn’t need a fan. Another cool thing is that it’s much easier to replace the hard drives, since you won’t need a screwdriver. The enclosure opens easily, and the hard drives pull out with the aid of tabs. Having needed to open the enclosure for the My Book Pro Edition drive, I can tell you it was a lot more convoluted than this.

WD MyBook Studio Edition II - 08

The wonderful thing about this drive is that it’s such a great deal right now. As I pointed out in a previous how to article entitled “A look at hard drives: finding the best deals“, it’s always a good idea to compare the price of the hard drives themselves to the price of the enclosure plus the hard drives, to see how much you’re paying for the packaged, branded product, and whether it’s worth it. Well, 1TB hard drives are anywhere from $100-140 at the moment (there are two of them in the My Book Studio Edition II), and the product itself costs about $280-290 right now. That means, if you factor in the best price scenario for the hard drives, that you’re getting a quad-interface enclosure which is quiet and it actually works on most computers (which isn’t something I can say about other off-the-shelf DIY enclosures) for about $80-90. That’s a great deal in my book.

Detailed specs for the My Book Studio Edition II drive are available from the WDC website. You can buy it from Amazon or from B&H Photo.

Photos used courtesy of Western Digital Corporation.

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Reviews

WD TV is better than Apple TV

WD has put a new device on the market, and it’s called the WD TV HD Media Player. It’s a small box that can connect to a TV via HDMI or Composite output cables, and can take most USB external hard drives as input (it should even read USB flash drives as long as they’re formatted in FAT32). Once a device is connected, the WD TV will read the media from that drive (movies, photos, music) and let you browse through them and play them on your TV. What sets this device apart for me is that it has gone beyond other similar devices like the LaCinema Premier, or Apple TV. I’ll explain below.

The LaCie product, for example, doesn’t play as many formats as WD TV, and can only support NTFS and FAT32 file systems.

You’re limited in the amount of content you can play with LaCinema Premier, since the drive is integrated within the device itself, and because not as many video formats are supported (see the specs on the LaCie website). That means you have to lug the whole thing from your home office to your living room, re-connect it at each place, and copy files onto it when you want to refresh its inventory. The remote also leaves something to be desired (too many buttons).

I know and like Apple TV myself, having bought one and configured it for my parents, but frankly, I find it overpriced and under-featured. The more you use Apple TV, the more limitations you find:

  • It has an internal hard drive that syncs with content over a wireless network, which means you have to wait forever to get a movie onto it. The drive can also fill up quickly, depending on which size you pick. (Yes, you can also connect it via a Gigabit network, if you’ve pre-wired your living room and home office with Gigabit wires already — but most people have not.)
  • You can stream to it, but then you always have to keep iTunes open, and it’s a hassle to remember that, especially when you’ve just sat down on the living room couch and turned on the TV.
  • You also need to be able to troubleshoot WiFi issues in case you’re not getting enough bandwidth and Apple TV playback stutters.
  • You have to add every single video clip you want to play on Apple TV to the iTunes library, and I don’t care for that sort of thing. I just want to store my stuff in folders and browse it from a device (like WD TV).
  • Apple TV has a USB port on the back, but you can’t use it for anything but “diagnostics” unless you hack the device. This is stupid. I can’t use the port to connect Apple TV to my computer and copy content onto it, I can’t use it to connect an external hard drive to it and have it read the content from it (like WD TV), and it just sits there, unused, unless I pay for a hacking device like aTV Flash.
  • It overheats like crazy. It can burn your fingers if you’re not careful.

I love the design of Apple TV and its diminutive remote. I love the fact that I can swap remotes between it and my laptop if I want to. I think the on-screen menus are well done. I also like the fact that it can stream Flickr photos and YouTube videos, but these extra functions are just that: extra-neous. It simply cannot do its basic job well, and that is to play my media conveniently.

I’m not alone in being frustrated with it. Thomas Hawk has written repeatedly against Apple TV, and for the very same reasons I describe in this post. Steve Jobs recently said he’s not sure what to do with Apple TV. He’s treating it like an unwanted step child. It’s not listed in the Mac product lineup on Apple’s website. It sits off to the side in a section of its own, and you have to do a search for “Apple TV” in order to find it. Corrected 11/11/08: It’s listed in the iTunes and More line-up along with the iPods.

For one thing, Mr. Jobs, you can stop being so greedy in your approach to the device and let people use the USB port on the back. Or how about letting people stream Netflix videos with it, so they don’t have to buy a separate device? I’m a Mac user and have a Netflix account. Until Netflix release Roku and opened up its streaming program to Mac users, I was in the dark. You probably don’t want to do these things because it’ll cut into your video rentals and purchases, and you like that extra revenue stream, but the fact remains that sales of the device will always remain low if you insist on hamstringing it.

The WD TV Player, on the other hand, is made to suit most people. It has a USB port where you can connect most external hard drives. It will read NTFS, FAT32, and HFS file systems too. (I found that out from WD Support, because the info isn’t listed among the specs. They pointed me to KB article #2726.) There seems to be an issue with HFS+ file systems, but they’ll still work, only differently. I’ll have to look into that later.

Also not listed among the specs is an Optical Audio port, but when I look at the back of the device, it seems to me I can see one there.

To me, WD TV is the long-awaited answer to my media player needs. At around $99 (street price), this is one device that will make its way to my Christmas stocking pretty soon, because I’ve got a Drobo full of content I’d like to play my way, not to mention that I also have two WD Passport drives.

I may even get one for my parents, to replace their Apple TV. They’ve had to keep their Drobo connected to their iMac in the home office, with iTunes open, all this time, just so they could watch a movie or two from the Drobo. That’s not right. Once I get the WD TV, I can take their Drobo, put it in the living room, and hook it up right there, without worrying about WiFi, streaming, iTunes, and a whole bunch of nonsense. Apple dropped the ball with Apple TV, and WD picked it up and started running with it.

The WD TV supports the following file formats:

  • Music: MP3, WMA, OGG, WAV/PCM/LPCM, AAC, FLAC, Dolby Digital, AIF/AIFF, MKA
  • Photo: JPEG, GIF, TIF/TIFF, BMP, PNG
  • Video: MPEG1/2/4, WMV9, AVI (MPEG4, Xvid, AVC), H.264, MKV, MOV (MPEG4, H.264). It will play MPEG2/4, H.264, and WMV9 videos up to 1920x1080p 24fps, 1920x1080i 30fps, 1280x720p 60fps resolution. That’s awesome.
  • Playlist: PLS, M3U, WPL
  • Subtitle: SRT (UTF-8)

I plan to get one soon, and I’ll let you know in this post if it lives up to its specs and my expectations. If you’d like to get one too, Amazon lists them. See below.

You can buy the WD TV Player from:

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Reviews

Hardware review: Super*Talent 8GB USB flash drive

The 8GB Super*Talent USB flash drive I ordered from Brando arrived last night, and it was a very pleasant surprise to see how tiny it really is. It’s smaller than a simple USB connector, in both width and thickness. I am amazed by how small it is — and the thought that 8GB of data somehow fit onto this minuscule piece of steel and silicone boggles my mind.

I put together a short video review to show you the drive’s size and also to do a quick speed test. I copied a 1GB movie onto it, and the copy operation took about 3 minutes. That means it’s about half as slow as a Drobo in terms of transfer speeds.

The photos of this flash drive do not do it justice. It’s much smaller than it looks in the online stores. I hope that the video itself will do a better job of demonstrating its size (to scale), and its beautiful and simple design.

Download Super*Talent video review (640×480, MP4, 41.2MB)

This USB flash drive’s size and design leave me thrilled to no end. If you’re in the market for a spacious yet tiny flash drive, the Super*Talent fits the bill perfectly. The only thing left for it to prove is its long-term durability. It is rated PICO-C, which means it’s rugged and water resistant. I am very interested to see how long it lasts — if I don’t lose it first.

Updated 10/30/08: Still works just fine after 5 months of use. I have it attached to my keychain, and I carry it around in my pocket all the time. It’s got a few scratches, but it works as advertised. Still happy with it.

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Lists

Condensed knowledge for 2008-03-26

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Condensed knowledge for 2008-03-23

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Condensed knowledge for 2008-03-19

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Reviews

ChiliBox, the do-it-all machine

The ChiliBox

I’m pretty impressed with the specs for the ChiliBox. This little machine really seems to do it all, right out of the box, and for a very reasonable price. Given the proliferation of NAS devices these days, you wonder how much functionality you get out of them, and for some, it’s not much. Well, the ChiliBox could be the network server for a small business, eliminating the need for other servers or separate hardware. Have a look at its capabilities below, or check out the full spec sheet:

  • Firewall
  • NAS File Share (works with Windows, Mac and Linux)
  • VPN
  • Web Proxy Server
  • Remote Administration
  • Dynamic DNS
  • Wireless Access Point
  • NAT/PAT and Advanced Routing
  • Email
  • Backup
  • Anti-virus

Do you really need more to run your network? Unless you’re a medium to big company, you don’t. Just plug this in, and you’ve got more than you need to run everything at home or at work. If you need extra storage, just plug in another USB drive. How easy is that!

When I first saw it a few months ago, I said to myself, I’d love to have a small office and have a need to run this thing. Right now, I’ve already spent enough for my existing setup, but boy, I’m tempted to get this anyway…

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