Archive for September 18, 2013

Where are my thunderbolt devices?

Very few PC users will have these yet, but every Mac made in the last couple of years sports a tiny new port with a lightening bolt on it – the thunderbolt port. Like firewire back in the day, thunderbolt seems to have almost glacial adoption in the industry despite promising amazing things that USB just can’t compete with. As with firewire, thunderbolt devices are out there, just ridiculously expensive.

I remember back in 2000 when I bought a shiny new PowerMac G4, it sported two firewire ports. At the time, there were very few, if any, firewire devices out there apart from the horribly expensive high end video gear. That port, I believe, sat unused for two years before I bought an external CD burner. Fast forward a few more years and I had five or more external drives and devices daisy chained at any one time … and loving it!

I loved firewire. I loved it for everything USB was not: it was full-duplex, you could daisy-chain devices, and devices could talk to one another rather than have to go through the computer and back out again. Despite FW400′s spec of 400Mbps compared to USB2′s 480Mbps, it was not comparing apples to apples. Firewire often ended up being faster due to it’s architecture, because of it’s full-duplex-ness and it’s ability to communicate with other firewire devices on it’s chain, the real speed would far exceed the dumb USB devices that had to wait for the host machine to tell it what to do. It’s the equivalent of taking the express train instead of the milk run.

The port war continued, with Firewire 800 coming out (which I still use). There has been terrible adoption on the windows PC side, missing out on Firewire’s architecture benefits in favour of on-paper speed and now the release of USB3 (promising 5Gbps speeds) clearly burying firewire for good.

When I got my current machine, a MacbookPro 17”, It was the first (I believe) to sport Firewire’s successor – the thunderbolt port. I was excited. It promised 10Gbps (twice that of USB3) and all the benefits of firewire in terms of being able to daisy-chain it. The best part is that it relies on existing standards. The thunderbolt port (and controller) is really a PCIe expansion coupled with a digital display port along with power in one tiny connector.

This is a great boon to owners of laptops and all-in-one computers that lack PCIe or ExpressCard slots. One could daisy-chain up to six devices off one port: say, four hard drives with a couple of external monitors at the end (thunderbolt port is identical to, and backwards compatible for the mini display port DVI interface, so long as it is at the end of the chain).

This also means that you can plug in six devices using one port from your laptop. Like many laptop users, I’m already finding that I have too many cables snaking all over the place. It’s annoying to have the clutter, the tangle, and having to disconnect every single one when taking my laptop out with me.

What I need is not a new invention. I need a docking station for my laptop. A break-out box that has one thunderbolt cable on one end, and the myriad of ports and connections I require on the other. These type of devices have been around since the early nineties. Thunderbolt, being an extension of PCIe, seems ideally suited for this application as Apple and Intel no doubt intended.

I search brought me two results of up-and-coming devices that looks to suit my needs: The Belkin Thunderbolt Express Dock, and the Sonnet Echo 13 thunderbolt dock.

I was elated, gleefully writing both in on my prospective shopping list and pouring over specifications. Which I will briefly list here.

The Belkin Thunderbolt Express Dock looks promising. It has a nice little aluminum enclosure and sports a nice variety of ports including: Ethernet, FW800, 2x Thunderbold ports, Audio I/O, and 3x USB3. Pretty cool! I could plug everything that lives on my desk into that with room for later expansion.

The Sonnet Echo 15 Thunderbolt Dock, yet to be released, promises even better. It’s a larger squarish enclosure sporting an internal HDD and optical drive bay (useful for new models that lack an optical drive, or those like me who are planning on swapping our optical drives out for SSDs). Even better is a greater variety of ports: 2x eSATA, FW800, Ethernet, 4x USB3, 2x Audio I/O.

Pretty killer right? Both look awesome, the Echo looking a bit better for its few extra ports and internal drive bays.

Unfortunately, like the firewire devices of old, it has one early-adopter failing: price. The Belkin is $300 and the Sonnet $500. Ouch. For what it actually is, this seems to me way overpriced. In addition, reviews have stated the Belkin’s USB ports to be horribly underpowered – not even enough to rapid-charge smartphones and power external hard drives which, invariably, is what these ports would be used for!

The Sonnet at least can deliver 5W of power (a whole amp) for it’s USB ports, making it a better buy. The $500 I mentioned also includes a DVD burner and 2TB hard drive. If it were $300 I think I would snap it up.

Sure, one could argue that current demand isn’t that great for thunderbolt devices, which are ridiculously expensive across the board. My argument is that no one will adopt the clearly superior thunderbolt interface if the devices are priced out of their market. I mean, I could just buy a USB3 docking station for less money despite it’s innate inferiority.

It’s falling victim to the same pitfalls as firewire. Clearly better, but priced out of the range of the common man.

Industry – I challenge you. Build me a thunderbolt dock. Make it have the following: Gigabit Ethernet, 4x USB3, FW800, 2x thunderbolt ports, and Audio I/O (combo analog and optical) and make this for $120. You have the ability to do this, and it would sell. If you don’t, might as well kiss thunderbolt goodbye as people settle for crappy USB (again).

Oh and Belkin – you could have just supplied a more robust power supply so people can at least have powered USB ports. That’s just weak.

The death of a laptop

A laptop has just ceased to be worth starting up. Many people don’t give this another thought beyond the huge price tag of replacing it. To me, though, a passing machine (especially a good one) deserves some mention, at least an obituary in remembrance of its years of service.

This particular laptop has a long history – a 2005 model who yes, just ceased to be useful yesterday. That’s 8 years of service, almost unheard of really. In that time, it served faithfully three owners despite faking it’s own death several times.

I first met this laptop from its original owner, the sister of a good friend of mine who heard I repair macs and gave me her dead laptops. She and her now husband apparently went through two Apple laptops both with disastrous results. The first of which was a lost cause. A 700Mhz white PowerBook with a loose GPU whose ball-grid array was defective. This one I attempted to fix first as I actually was greeted by the startup sound despite the flaky video operation. Following a YouTube fix beyond it’s conclusion, I managed to melt the motherboard with a butane torch. So it goes.

The second one, (the one that just passed), I did not have high hopes for beyond cannibalizing it’s parts. This was a bit of a shame because it was newer and better spec’d that the white one. A 2005 PowerBook G4 12” with a single-core 1.5GHz processor in a cute aluminum case. It was attractive, small, highly portable, and for it’s time packed a punch in power. One problem – wouldn’t start.

I would hit the power key and would be greeted with a whirr up of the fan, which immediately whirred down again. No startup sound was forthcoming and it remained silent. Scratching my head at this unusual behaviour, I initially feared its motherboard was fried. Despite this rather grim prognosis, I decided to mess with it anyway (just because I can).

I followed the usual routine – start removing bits and trying to see if it works. I removed the battery and wireless card, swapped the power adaptor, and still no dice. Whirr-klunk. Then I removed the memory door and memory and WHOA! It starts! Great I thought, a defective memory module. I can replace that.

Just to be sure, I replace the memory and the memory door and try to start it. Whirr-klunk. OK then, I open the memory door, and just randomly for no reason, I try to start it with the memory in but the door off. To my surprise, it started up. I tried starting it a few times just to be sure. As it happened, the memory door sensor was defective and refused to work when the damn thing was properly screwed in.

Leveraging all the fix-it powers at my command, I deftly used masking tape to secure the memory door and it started up every time after that.

At this time in my life, I was severely under-employed. This had two effects. One: I could not afford to keep technologically current and was relying on a heavily upgraded desktop from the year 2000. Two: I had plenty of time to fix things. The rebirth of this laptop was nothing short of a godsend to me.

Finally, I had a laptop A working laptop! What a concept. Previously, I had only severely outdated chunky novelties that weren’t worth using. This one screamed better than my desktop.

To make a very long saga somewhat shorter, this laptop became my primary machine for many years. In that time, while Apple marched on with progress and updates, it kept it’s 10.4.11 operating system and kept running through any task I set for it. Every time I hit a roadblock or limitation, I found some solution (or at least kludge) to keep it running. I ended up working progressively more and more (thankfully) and demanding more and more of it. It happily ran Adobe CS3, Blender, and even some 3D games much to my surprise. The fan would scream, the case would get burning hot to the touch, but it never failed to do what I asked it to. This went on for some time of faithful, reliable service.

As it happened, a couple of years ago, a chance meeting with a new client, and off-hand mention of the age of the machine I was using, I was notified I could have a brand-spanking new (like a few months old) MacbookPro (my current machine) in exchange for some work.

Don’t get me wrong, I loved the little PoweBook G4 but this was like the light of God was shining down on me. Like coming up for air while swimming in molasses. Finally, lady luck and the kind generosity of one lady in particular, landed me a lovely new Mac in my lap.

With almost tears in my eyes, I patted my faithful PowerBook G4 and thanked it for it’s faithful service, now being 180 in human years. Like a lot of my cast-offs, it was sent to my mother to replace her (even older) PowerBook.

I expected the machine to die or otherwise be too frustrating to use and that my mother would replace it soon after. To my surprise, it continued to truck.

By this time, its finish was coming off, half its keys were worn through, there was an ugly blue vertical line on the screen, the battery was long since dead, and it had an annoying habit of once a year faking its death by kernel panics on startup that would persist for a day, then go away as mysteriously as it had arrived.

Finally, yesterday, my mother was ready and resolved to buy a new machine. We went out and got her a shiny new iMac and transferred all her files over.

In this process, I had to remove the PowerBook’s hard drive. Apparently, back in the day it was made, Apple designed this laptop to be as difficult and annoying as possible to open. Probably to discourage creative types with soul-patches from monkeying with it. Patiently following the service manual, I managed to remove 20-odd tiny screws using three different bits to reveal the hard drive.

There I discovered a severe annoyance. The two screws holding in the hard drive rails were stripped. Badly. I know this hard drive was replaced at some point before I received it. Whomever did this – I hate you. I nearly stripped the nice precision Philips 0 bit trying to get it out. In the end, as with many things, the pliers on my Leatherman was used to extricate the hard drive.

At this point I resigned that I would never re-assemble this laptop. Not only did I wreck the hard drive rail, but really I had no patience to replace all those damn screws. Not that I could remember where they all went anyway. So, its death can be attributed merely to my laziness. I know I could re-assemble it and it would work.

Therefore, my lovely PowerBook G4, I would like to thank you for your 8 years of faithful service. You outperformed every time, you kept on ticking even when playing dead, you enabled me to work when I was broke, you have been a dear friend. You will be missed.

Ashes to ashes, motherboard to e-waste.