How To

Firmware update available for WD TV

There’s a firmware update available for the WD TV. It’s version 1.01, and you can download it and install it right now from the WD website. A lot of issues were resolved. The complete list is available in the release notes.

Here’s a summary of the salient points:

  • Now you can update the firmware when using a drive larger than 500GB. You may think this is an unlikely scenario until you try to use a large storage device like the Drobo with the WD TV.
  • Better subtitle support (SMI, SUB, ASS, SSA, MKV) with user-selectable font size for subtitles
  • Disk volume name display in folder navigation; this was an annoying bug, as you couldn’t tell which drive you were browsing if you had two of them connected to the WD TV
  • Jump feature: while fast forwarding or rewinding, if next of previous buttons are pressed, the WD TV will jump 10 minutes forward or backward
  • EXIF orientation flag functionality for auto picture rotate. Thank goodness! It was really annoying to have to turn my head sideways or bother with the rotate feature every time a photo taken in portrait mode was displayed.
  • Display sizing menu for photo playback: fit to screen, full screen, keep as original
  • Resolved issue where WD TV would not turn back on with remote after extended period of inactivity; previously WD TV had to be unplugged and was unrecoverable with the remote
  • Added 1080p 24hz support
  • Resolved info bar display issues in PAL (European display standard) mode

It’s important to note that there’s still a known and unresolved issue, namely this: if the user unsafely removes an HFS+ formatted drive from the media player without using the Eject button, the drive will become read only media. I’m not sure when this will be resolved.

The installation instructions for the firmware are what one would expect them to be and fairly simple to follow. I’ll reproduce them for you here from the WD release notes for firmware version 1.01:

  1. Go to http://support.wdc.com and download the latest firmware update compressed file for your Media Player. (Here’s the direct download link for version 1.01.)
  2. Click “Downloads” then the product name (or photo).
  3. Extract the two files (.BIN and .VER files) to the root folder of a portable USB drive.
  4. Connect the USB drive to the HD media player’s USB port.
  5. Press HOME, and then select the Settings bar.
  6. Select the firmware upgrade icon, and then press ENTER.
  7. You are prompted to perform the firmware upgrade.
  8. Select OK on the firmware update prompt, and then press ENTER.  This will restart the system.
  9. After restarting, the system automatically enters firmware upgrade mode.
  10. Once the update process is completed, the HD media player will restart again.
  11. Once the HD media player restarts, the new firmware is automatically loaded.
Standard
Thoughts

Is it easier to design for the enterprise or for the consumer?

I was thinking about the difference between hardware and software products designed for the consumer and those designed for the enterprise. In particular, I thought about how vocal consumers can be nowadays vs. companies, and how that affects the process of making and selling products to them vs. the business market. I think it makes it more difficult.

You’d have to be braver, as a company, to put your product out there for the consumers in this day and age when anyone can chime in and voice their opinion on the Internet — even when they’re not well-informed, or worse, they intend to do harm to your brand, for whatever reason. Whatever the pitfalls of this brave new age of feedback, it is a good thing, as you’ll see by the end of this article.

On top of that, consumer needs are a lot more varied than business needs. It’s notoriously hard to figure out what people want. Let me ask you something: when was the last time you spent your own time filling out an online survey? If you’re like me, that’d be years ago. How about filling out a survey at work, on the company’s time, because you got an invitation from one of the vendors? I bet that happens quite often. So you see, businesses making stuff for the enterprise have a much easier time figuring out what customers want, while those making stuff for the consumers are stuck paying people to take surveys and doing focus groups and who knows what else in order to get an idea of what they want.

Individual taste is also something that enters into the equation. Individuals will have different tastes, and while your product may appeal to someone, it might appear downright ugly to the next person. Generally speaking, taste and design have little do with enterprise products, which are utilitarian and function-oriented. They are meant to perform certain duties, and as such, not much thought is given to how they look.

How about the difference in ease of use between enterprise products and consumer products? I don’t think I can think of a single instance when an enterprise product was easier to use than a consumer product. Not one. Sure, they perform more complicated tasks, but still, little thought (if at all) is given to making the user interface easier or more intuitive. Mostly, enterprise products are difficult to use, difficult to navigate (if they’re software), difficult to learn, and overall, frustrating. You simply can’t get away with that when you make stuff for consumers, because no one will buy your products. They’ll laugh you right out of the marketplace.

Finally, how about price? Isn’t it true that enterprise products are insanely expensive when compared to consumer products? And yet, the rationale for that huge price difference is always hard for me to find. Every time I ask why they’re more expensive, the answer I get is because they’re enterprise products. That’s never been a good enough explanation for me. Sure, the market for enterprise products is smaller, and you have to price them higher in order to sustain your business — the economy of scale just isn’t there to make up for a lower price. Plus, the stuff you make for the enterprise has to perform more complicated tasks and be more reliable under heavy levels of use. But I’ve always believed that enterprise products were overpriced simply because they’re marketed for the enterprise and for little else — and I haven’t yet been offered any conclusive proof to the contrary.

A few examples came to my mind as I thought about all this. Let’s call them mini case studies. I want to look at each one in particular. First, we have two consumer products, the Drobo and the WD My Book Pro Edition II:

Drobo

The folks at Data Robotics had a tall order on their hands. They wanted to come up with a consumer-oriented product that would give people the benefits of RAID, the ability to increase storage space on the fly, the flexibility of using drives of any size, and a dead-simple way to replace hard drives. Did they succeed? Yes, I think so. On top of delivering on all of those functional criteria, they managed to design a beautiful enclosure, too.

Were the odds stacked against them? I think they were, and while people are enthralled with the product once they begin to use it, there are a lot of questions they need to answer for themselves before and after the purchase. One of them is the file system, called BeyondRAID. Is it compatible with other file systems? Can you get the data off the drives without a Drobo? Another issue is the price. People find the entry price expensive, and they’re quite vocal about that, wherever you look. (For a representative sample of what people think, just look at the comments section of my Drobo review — the 110 comments posted there should give you a pretty good idea.)

Besides all of this, the Drobo is a new product, literally. There is nothing quite like it on the market. Sure, it works in comparable ways to other external storage products out there, but still, the inner workings are new, and the way in which data is stored is new. That means resistance, automatically. When you go against the grain, you get friction. It’s the way things work. So that’s why I say creating the Drobo, marketing it, and actually selling it and getting people to use it properly was a tall order.

Data Robotics had to work extra hard at this. And it was crucial that they provide good product support, or they would have failed. When I say they provide good support, I mean it. You might say I’ve been a frequent user of their support plan — and the Drobo folks might say they could have done with a little less complaining from me.

If you should read through my Drobo review, you will see what problems I had. My situation was a bit different than most. I have three Drobos, two with me in the DC area, and one with my parents in FL. I got a chance to see how the Drobo would work through the changing seasons of a temperate climate in the DC area, on a PC and on a Mac, and also how it would work in a pure Mac environment, in the sub-tropical climate of South Florida.

Now my primary Drobo is a new, second generation, Firewire unit, which I’ve been using happily for the past couple of months. But over the past year since I bought the Drobos, I had noise issues and various other bugs that surfaced through my intense use of the other units, and I went through a few unit exchanges and many email conversations with the folks at Data Robotics. I can say, without a doubt, that they’ve been responsive, courteous, helpful, and even went out of their way to help me sort through the issues and replace units that I didn’t think functioned correctly.

What was their motivation? Perhaps they’re just good people. That’s quite possible. But that’s not what this article is about, is it? It’s about the difference between making consumer and enterprise products. So I think in the end it boils down to needing to work extra hard as a company, because they’re not only making a product for the consumer, but they’re making a new product and they need to carve out a slice of the storage market. Sure, they’ve got good name recognition now, but they’ve had to work extra hard at it, and I think that played greatly into the level of customer support they provided. For me, it’ll be interesting to see how their customer support evolves over time, as they become a more established company.

Western Digital My Book Pro Edition II

This external storage device was an example of how not to design for the consumer market. The drive was meant for the Mac user, although it could be used just fine on PCs. It was a triple interface (USB2.0, FW400 and FW800) device, but it only worked on USB or FW400, depending on who you talked to. It also overheated frequently, and it sometimes crashed the computers to which it was tethered. As if that stuff wasn’t bad enough, some people experienced data loss, or the inability to get at their data because the drive would either crash their systems or it wouldn’t stay on long enough for people to copy their data off it. For a good summary, see the Wikipedia entry for the WD My Book drives, or have a look at my two articles about the drive, one of them the original review, and the other detailing the problems I’d had with it. (I’m one of the cited references on Wikipedia.)

WD Support were responsive, but, at the first lines of phone support, also clueless. The were willing to help, but all they could was to keep sending me refurbished replacement units, each one in worse cosmetic shape than the other, and all exhibiting the same issues. The problems unfortunately ran deeper than a replacement with this line of drives, and WD never really came clean and confessed, which would have helped their image quite a bit. Instead, they were content to sweep the complaints under the proverbial rug and hope they would somehow go away. That didn’t happen. People were getting even more vocal, and there was quite a bit of talk about a class action lawsuit at one time.

I think the problems with the My Book Pro line were hardware-deep. I know WD tried to fix them via firmware upgrades, but they were only partially successful. While the enclosure design was nice, it didn’t lead to easy cooling of the drives, and they overheated. The circuit board was also not successful, and the USB and FW connections tended not to work properly. The on-board thermometer likely didn’t measure temperature correctly, and shut off the units prematurely because it thought they were overheating. It also caused the fan to run into overdrive, which made an awful racket.

Thankfully, a few people among the WDC executives saw the greater picture and stepped in to help in individual cases. I was one of those lucky cases. I got another replacement unit, this time a My Book Studio Edition II drive, which has worked wonderfully for me since day one. Stepping back from my case, I believe that if Western Digital hadn’t mended its image with the My Book Studio Edition, things could have gone badly for them. Just look at the comments left on my two articles (23 on the review and 104 on the one detailing the problems), and you’ll see that people were getting progressively angrier with the company.

I think the problem with the My Book Pro line of drives is that it was put out by a large company. WD just doesn’t look at the market the same way as Data Robotics does. First, they’re one of the big players in the storage market. They not only make enclosures, but they make the hard drives that go in them as well. That’s actually the biggest chunk of their business. When they launched the Pro line, it was just another model line in their large product lineup. Did they do proper product testing and QA? The tally of the real-world results comes in at a resounding no. Did they listen to the customers as the first problem reports came in? No. Did they address customer issues appropriately? No. I bet there still are plenty of My Book Pro users out there who can’t use their drives properly, if at all. I think things went differently in my case because I was vocal about it. My article gained traction and as it started to come up on the first page of Google search results (it was up among the first results for a while), and it posed a real threat to the company’s public image, which they needed to address.

As a side note, I’m glad they chose to address my case correctly. They were polite and helpful in their interactions with me, and while I had to wait a long time to get the final replacement, I didn’t get bullied in the meantime. That was nice.

To get back to the root of the problem, WD just didn’t look at things properly. They put out a faulty product because they thought they could afford to do so (they probably didn’t think that as they were making it, but when a product is one of many, that’s the unspoken thought). They had a dismissive attitude toward the consumers because they were big and thought they could ignore them, and in the end, it cost them.

Now let’s have a look at two enterprise-level products and see how the rules change in this market. I’ll be talking about a DNF SAN and VMware. First though, I want to look at customer feedback in the enterprise arena.

How feedback works (or doesn’t) in the enterprise market

What you’ll find here is the customers (the companies, rather) will tend to be much quieter than consumers when things don’t work as expected. This happens for multiple reasons.

For one thing, companies as a whole don’t have an outlet where they can complain about things like this. The larger the company, the tighter the rein on public relations, as they call it. You won’t find employees going on the company blog and writing about their bad experience with a product. It just won’t happen, because at traditional companies, every post tends to get vetted by multiple pairs of eyes, each concerned with legal and marketing and general image issues.

If the employees won’t do it, the company executives won’t do it, unless it’s off the record, among themselves, at certain gatherings. It won’t be in the public arena, unless a particular products stinks very badly and the company needs to blame it in order to account for poor results during a quarter or year, etc.

You also have resistance from within to let others know that a product is a real stinker. After all, when you’ve just spent a few tens of thousands or more on some fancy piece of hardware that’s supposed to solve your problems, and you find out it stinks, you can’t very well go to the executives and tell them you need to spend another five or six figures on another piece of hardware, because they’ll think you’re incompetent and you didn’t do your homework before recommending the purchase.

Another reason is that you don’t want to spoil a partnership. If your biz dev guys have just worked for months to get a partnership started and the company has put out marketing materials advertising said partnership, and there is promise of work in the future involving said partnership, you can bet your bottom dollar your company’s not going to go public with allegations that a certain product made by their gold/platinum/diamond partner stinks. And if you raise too much of a stink, internally, about said product, you’ll be told you’re not a team player, and you can’t be trusted to work with the valued company partners. What’s more, if the tone of your emails toward said partner gets angry, you may even be counseled.

There’s another ingredient to throw in this mess: the fact that most (if not all) support forums for enterprise products are behind login screens. Even if you should log on as an enterprise customer and voice your complaints on the company forums, those complaints will not show up on search engines, and other potential customers won’t be able to see that you’re having problems with the product until they, too, spend ridiculous amounts of money for the right to use said product and log onto the product forums, after which they find out they should have stayed away from it.

What you’ve essentially got is a muzzle on the customers in the enterprise market, for the reasons stated above. Is it any wonder then, that the companies making such products have very little incentive to be responsible, and to make good products? They can afford to charge ridiculous amounts of money for buggysoftware, ugly hardware, and despicable user interfaces, because the enterprise customers will pay for them and like it, or else.

Now, I’m not saying this is what happens most of the time, but let’s face it, when you’ve got a muzzle on your customers’ real-world experiences with your products, there’s little to keep you from going in the wrong direction and staying that way.

DNF Storage SAN

At one of the companies where I worked, we used to call it the “Does Not Function” SAN, which was a (sadly) true play on the acronym for its maker (Dynamic Network Factory). This SAN was purchased for the sole purpose of working with a VMware server cluster to act as storage for the company’s virtual servers. It never worked correctly. It was supposed to connect through iSCSI to the servers that controlled the cluster, and the iSCSI kept failing, time after time after time. Sometimes the RAID would fail, too. Throughput could never be maintained, the virtual machines sometimes didn’t want to boot up or took forever to do so, writing to the disks and reading from them was horribly slow, etc.

When the company called DNF, they got some support, but mostly, they were told the issue was with VMware. When they called VMware, they were told the the DNF SAN was no longer approved to use with VMware’s enterprise solutions, although it had been on the list to begin with, and that’s why it had been purchased.

Bottom line is the company got stuck with this thing which didn’t do its job and cost a pretty penny to boot. The staff bandaged it together and kept it going somehow, with frequent outages, until money could be gotten together so they could buy some SAN devices from EMC (VMware’s parent company). Those were on the aproved list of SANs to use with VMWare — funny how that works, isn’t it?

But wait, the fun doesn’t end here. Once the virtual servers were transitioned over to the new EMC SANs, the company wanted to repurpose the DNF SAN and use it as storage for various backups from their other servers — basically, use it as a network hard drive. It failed miserably at that task as well. First, one or more of the hard drives went, corrupting the RAID array. That meant starting from scratch. Once the setup was completed and another server stood up, people started copying data to it, and it got corrupted again. This time, it went down and stayed down for good.

At that point, after 2 years of struggling with this thing, and the support contract expired (not that the support was worth much anyway), the company was stuck with an expensive piece of hardware that took up space in the server racks and served no purpose whatsoever.

VMware

I’ve been working with VMware technology, daily, for the past two years and a half. I worked at a company which I think was at the forefront of using virtualization technology. We had production virtual servers when most companies were still only testing the waters. That was cool. Getting support from VMware with various issues that came up as we transitioned our physical servers to virtual ones and started to use them heavily, was not so cool.

While I wasn’t the main point of contact between our company and VMware, I had to take charge in a couple of situations when the POC was out. I remember quite well this one occasion when one of my production servers went down while live, and I couldn’t get it back up. It simply refused to boot at first, and when it did boot up, the networking went out. I called VMware and filed a support request. I asked them to mark it as urgent. I was promised while on the phone that someone would get back to me within 2 hours. No one did. I called again and was assured someone was researching the issue. I waited several hours. No one got back to me. I then called again, but couldn’t reach anyone. It was already the weekend. I kept monitoring my email account on Saturday and Sunday to see if anyone would get back to me, and no one did. On Monday, the main VMware person at our company was in, and he was able to get the server going again. On Tuesday, a VMware rep finally got back to me and, as if nothing happened, asked how the server was doing. I recounted the story, told him a 5-day delay in his response is not adequate for an issue marked as urgent, and expected an apology. I never got one, nor did I hear from him again. So I had a production server that was basically out of commission for a whole weekend, and VMware didn’t give a damn.

That’s not all. You remember from the DNF SAN story above that VMware kept blaming them for the iSCSI bandwidth/throughput issues. For about a year and half, we had to put up with slower than normal servers that could take as much as a half hour to boot up, not to mention that they’d often lose their networking connection on reboots, causing us to toggle between the internal and external virtual network cards multiple times in order to get it going again. When they did boot up, they just weren’t as fast as they should be. VMware and DNF SAN kept passing the buck on these issues.

When the company finally purchased EMC SANs, the problems didn’t go away, but at least VMware couldn’t play the blame game any more, since it was now their own hardware and software. Even then, it took countless hours on the phone with the VMware and EMC reps to get the issues resolved. After that, it could safely be said that the servers were adequately fast, and they booted up without issues, but bandwidth was still a major issue. Even though the company had a Gigabit network, writing data to and copying data from the virtual servers was still not at Gigabit levels (not by far), and I think that’s an issue with the iSCSI connections between the SAN and the VMware production cluster. This is why I said at the beginning of this diatribe of mine that iSCSI connections are problematic.

Another gripe of mine with enterprise software is that it’s needlessly complicated and badly designed. Sure, their virtual infrastructure client is pretty good, but we tested a piece of EMC (VMware’s parent company) software designed to keep virtual servers in sync (I forget its name), and boy, did it stink… First, it was hard to figure out what do do with it and how to do it. Second, the GUI looked as if it’d been designed in the early 90s by some dude with no taste whatsoever. Third, it cost plenty, too. The company ended up not using it.

Summary

If you’ve read this far, I’d love to hear what you think, although I’ll understand if corporate folks reading this would rather not say anything.

I’d also like to make it clear that I’m not singling out the companies and products I’ve named above because I have something against them. I don’t. I do have something against badly designed and overpriced products, no matter who makes them. I think as Western Digital proved, a company can turn things around if they want to, and in that case, I’d be glad to praise the things they’re doing right (see the WD My Book Studio review).

I hope I’ve made it clear that customer feedback is important. It’s very important as a matter of fact. Furthermore, I believe that public customer feedback, as in the case of people voicing their concerns on the Internet about a certain product, makes a company more responsible and more responsive to the needs of the marketplace. It also makes it harder for a company to create products for consumers, because the pressure to deliver a success is greater. But that’s a good thing, because if you’ve got a hit, word quickly gets out and the potential for profit is greater. That should make the bean counters and the execs happy.

When you muzzle your customers though, as is currently the case in the enterprise market, there is real potential for abuse. Companies have little incentive to price products correctly and to address issues that come up once those products get used. There is also no real incentive to design things well, so they look good and are easy to use, and I’m talking about both software and hardware here.

I think that we need to have a more transparent customer-vendor feedback loop in the enterprise markets. I think business customers ought to feel it’s their right as consumers to voice concerns about vendor products publicly if the vendor fails to address them privately. After all, when you’re paying five and six figures (or even more) for enterprise-level solutions, then you ought to get your money’s worth in every sense of the word.

Standard
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.

Standard
Reviews

Hardware review: WD My Passport Studio

While the WD My Passport line of portable drives is a couple of years old, their My Passport Studio models are new, and their specs and capacities were greatly improved recently. The My Passport Studio line is meant for Mac users and comes formatted in HFS+, although the drives can be used just as well with Windows machines if they are reformatted to NTFS or FAT32.

On 10/30/08, WD introduced Firewire 800 connections and new capacities (400GB and 500GB) for these wonderful little drives. The base capacity was upgraded to 320GB, and the 250GB size was phased out. These latest drives feature triple interfaces (USB 2.0/Firewire 400/Firewire 800), which is something one normally sees only on external desktop hard drives (the 3.5″ size).

Technology moves fast, doesn’t it? Just a few months ago, the My Passport Studio models featured USB 2.0 and Firewire 400 connections. The top capacity was 320GB. I myself have a 1st generation My Passport drive, a 160GB model with a USB 2.0 connection. I bought it in February of 2007, and it’s worked great ever since.

The more recent models from the My Passport line have something that my 1st gen My Passport drive doesn’t have: an external capacity gauge. I think it’s neat to see how much space is used up on the drive at a glance. These latest drives also have something I haven’t seen before: turbo drivers for faster data transfers. The drivers are available for Mac computers only. I haven’t used the drive yet, but when I get it, I’ll be sure to test out data transfers with and without the drivers, to see if there’s an improvement between the two modes. I hope the drivers are well-developed and won’t introduce any sort of OS stability issues. I’ll also test data transfers between USB, FW400 and FW800.

I’m really looking forward to getting a 500GB Studio drive, because of its unbelievable capacity. It is double the size of my MBP’s hard drive, which is 250GB. I’m going to be able to store lots of photos and videos on it when I’m traveling, and use it to back up important files from my MBP and my iMac. I also think the My Passport line of drives are some of the best-designed portable hard drives on the market.

I can’t find the 500GB model in any online stores yet. Newegg still lists the Firewire 400 models, albeit at reduced prices, and Amazon only has the 400GB model. B&H Photo also only lists sizes up to the 400GB model. I don’t think I need to worry, since it’s very likely that by the end of November or sooner, the 500GB model will be available in most stores.

Photos used courtesy of Western Digital Corporation.

Standard
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:

Standard
Reviews

What I did in 2007

I made a concerted effort to write consistently and with substance in 2007. Product reviews are one of the foundational pieces of my site. I enjoy doing them, and people seem to enjoy reading them. I thought I’d highlight the most important ones from 2007 below.

Camera reviews (in chronological order)

The thing to keep in mind about my camera reviews is that for all but one of the reviews marked “full”, I used those cameras as my primary cameras for at least a month. That means they went with me wherever I went, so my understanding of how they work in real-world conditions is more than can be gotten from a lab review.

Lens reviews (in chronological order)

I also started reviewing lenses in 2007. Since I had to rent them in order to do this, I couldn’t very well keep them for a whole month, like I did with my cameras, but I did my best to make sure I put them through most conditions you’d encounter outdoors.

Hardware reviews (in chronological order)

I started doing hardware reviews as well, motivated by the problems I kept having with the products I had purchased. I wanted to tell people what to watch out for, and it looks like they appreciate hearing about it.

These were just a few of the articles I wrote during 2007. To browse through all of the posts from that year, use the Archives. Don’t forget to subscribe to my feed so you can find out about all of my new posts in 2008.

Thanks!

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
Reviews

Hardware review: WD My Book World Edition II

After looking around for a storage solution to house my growing collection of photographs, I found the Western Digital My Book World Edition II. I’ve been storing my photos on single external hard drives so far, but data loss has always been a concern with that approach. All it takes is a hard drive failure, and I’m going to lose a good portion of my hard work. Naturally, I’ve been looking into various RAID or other failsafe solutions, since they’ve gotten to be fairly affordable.

Great design

I was immediately drawn to the new WD My Book line because of their beautiful design, 1 TB capacity, and the ability to configure the device in RAID 1 format, which would mean my data would be mirrored across the two hard drives inside it. (This would also halve the amount of space available, but that was okay with me — I wanted data redundancy.)

WD My Book World Edition II (front)

For those of you not familiar with WD’s external drives, they have done a beautiful job with their enclosure design, and I raved about their Passport line several months ago. It turns out I now own one of them, a sleek black 160 GB 2.5″ drive just like the one pictured in that post. It’s perfect for data portability, and for a while, I even stored some of my photos on it. But it is just a single drive, and as I said, I’m worried about data loss.

Choosing the product

Back to the My Book line. There were two models I really liked: the My Book Pro and the My Book World. Because I have a mixed OS environment (both PC and Mac), I thought a NAS solution like the My Book World would work best for me, even though its specs said it would only work for Windows. I had a pretty good hunch that I would also be able to access it with my iMac. It runs on Java, it has Samba shares, and those are readily accessible from any Mac. But, this isn’t advertised, and that’s a pity.

By the way, if you’re thinking about getting the My Book Pro drive, make sure to read my review of that model. The takeaway message is to stay away from it, and I explained why in that article.

How it works

The drive itself is beautiful and fairly quiet, except when it boots up. WD has also made firmware upgrades available that make the drives even quieter, so that’s a good thing. I can tell you this right away. If you only plan to use the drive in a Windows environment, it’ll work great. Feel free to buy it, you’ll be happy. But, if you plan to use it in a mixed OS environment, and are looking to access it in more flexible ways, such as with custom drive mappings, and not through the software provided with the drive, you might be very frustrated.

Let me explain. The drive comes with a custom version of something called Mionet. I’ve never heard of it, but it’s software that installs on your machine and makes your files and computer remotely accessible from anywhere. When you run the installer, it’ll prompt you to create an account on the Mionet website, and it’ll register the WD drive, along with your computer, as devices that you can then access remotely. (There’s a monthly fee involved if you want to control your own PC remotely with the software, but you don’t need to pay it to use the WD drive fully.)

Once you install the software, you start up Mionet, and the WD My Book World drive gets mapped automatically to your machine. You also have the option to manage the drive through a browser interface. That’s actually where you configure its volumes (1 TB single volume, or RAID 1, still single volume, but mirrored data and only 500 GB) and other options. Basically, you have to remember that the only proper way to access the drive, whether you’re at home or you’re away, is to start up Mionet and get it mapped to your “My Computer”. If you do that, you’re good to go.

WD My Book World Edition II (back)

Potential problems

The problem with this approach (and this tends to be a problem only for geeks like me) is that the drive is readily accessible over the network without Mionet. I can simply browse my workgroup and find it, then log in with separate accounts I can set up by using the WD drive manager, which is accessible through my browser. So here’s where the frustrating part comes in. I can browse to my drive over the network, without Mionet, from any PC or Mac in my home, administer its options, add users and shares, etc. Then I can use Tools >> Map Drive on my PC or Command + K on my Mac to connect to the share name, and log in using those user accounts I’ve just set up. But, I can only read from those shares. I can’t write to them. The drive operating system assigns weird UNIX privileges to those shares, and they don’t correspond to the accounts I’ve just set up. It makes no sense to me and you’ll only fully know what I mean if you do this yourself. Suffice it to say that it’s really frustrating, and it’s not what I expected.

It would have been alright if Mionet made a version of their software for the Mac, but they don’t, and they don’t seem to have any plans to make any. It would have still been alright if the drive hadn’t been accessible through any Mac whatsoever. But the fact that they are accessible, and that I can log onto the drive with usernames and passwords that I can set up through the admin interface, yet I can only gain read-only access to those shares even though I’m supposed to have full access really gets me. Sometimes it’s a real pain to be a geek…

So, my verdict is that I really like the design and the RAID 1 capability, but I do not like the implementation. I ended up returning this and getting the My Book Pro Edition, which I love, and will review very soon. But remember, if you don’t have a mixed OS environment, and have no problems with starting up Mionet when you want the drive to appear in “My Computer”, My Book World will work great for you, and the remote access capability is a really nice feature.

Updates

Updated 7/19/07: I purchased and reviewed the My Book Pro as well. You can read my review right here.

Updated 8/3/07: Multiple commenters have pointed out (see this, this, this, this, this and this) that you can use the drive just fine with both Macs and PCs, over the network, if you skip the install of the Mionet software altogether. It looks like the clincher is the Mionet install itself. Just forgo it, and you’ll be able to map the drive to both PCs and Macs, and read/write as much as you want. I didn’t realize that I had to uninstall Mionet entirely in order for the read/write to work properly.

But keep in mind, if you don’t use the Mionet software, you won’t be able to access the drive remotely. Well, you might be able to arrange some access, but you’ll need to custom-configure your firewall settings to allow traffic on certain ports, and you’ll need a static external IP or dynamic DNS so you can get at your firewall from the outside. And then you’ll need to worry about data encryption as well, unless you don’t care that your data will travel unencrypted over open networks. If you’re a hardcore geek, feel free to try this last bit out, but if you aren’t, beware, it’s a weekend project, and I can’t help you.

Updated 8/9/07: I’ve had several people comment on how they bought the drive based on this post and the comments made on it by others, believing they could get it working over the network with their Mac. The kicker is that they thought they could connect it directly to their machine and get it working that way. 😐 I don’t know how they got that idea, but let me set the record straight. This is a NETWORK drive. It needs a network in order to work. There’s a chance you might get it working by using a crossed ethernet cable or connecting it directly to your machine, but it probably has to be a crossed ethernet cable.

The best way to get it working is to use a hub or a switch, or best of all, your home router, which can assign IP addresses. The drive ships configured for DHCP. That means it has no IP address to start with, and it’s looking for a place to get them. If you don’t have such a place, you’re going to have a lot of headaches. Get such a place (router) or go buy a USB/Firewire drive. Most people who’ve commented already made it plainly clear that’s what they needed, but they still insisted on using this drive. I don’t know why they enjoy the stress of doing that. I didn’t. As I already said in my post, I returned it and got a WD My Book Pro Edition II.

Last but not least, please do me a big favor. Read through the existing comments before you write one. There are so many already, and there’s a very good chance someone’s already asked your question, and I or someone else has already answered it. Thanks!

Updated 12/11/07: I found out today that Western Digital is going to disallow the sharing of all media files through the Mionet software. In other words, if you’re going to use Mionet to share the files on your drive and make them accessible remotely, you will not be able to see or use any of your media files. I think this is a pretty stupid move on WD’s part, and it’s going to come back to bite them. Until they decide to do away with this boneheaded downgrade, keep it in mind if you’re looking to purchase a My Book World Edition. Do NOT use Mionet. Install the drive without it, and if you’ve got to make the files accessible remotely, find other ways to do it, like through a custom config of your firewall.

Updated 12/18/07: Christian, one of the commenters, has left two very useful comments that are worth mentioning here in the post. The first shows you how to access the drive remotely (when you’re away from home) without using the Mionet software. The second tells you why you don’t need to worry about defragging the drive, and how to troubleshoot its performance if you think it’s not as fast as it should be. Thanks Christian!

Updated 4/5/10: Andrew Bindon has posted an easy-to-follow tutorial on how to remove Mionet completely from your computer and the My Book World Edition drive. If you, like me and many others, think Mionet is an annoyance that would best be removed, then follow his advice.

More information

Standard
Reviews

WD Passport Portable Hard Drive: a new kind of sexy

These new Western Digital portable hard drives have me drooling. They’re reasonably priced, and they come in various sizes: 60 GB, 80 GB, 120 GB and 160 GB. They’re powered solely by the USB port, and they’re bundled with encryption software and a bunch of Google software (probably the Google Toolbar and the Google Desktop.) Not that I give a hoot about that — the design is much too cool for me to care about anything else. Wowza!

If you don’t like the prices on the WD site, PC Mall is running a sale on these and other WD drives.

Standard