Archive for the ‘hardware’ Category

Buying SATA Hard Drives

February 1, 2011

I have a few recommendations on purchasing hard drives for desktop or laptop computers. I don’t have much recent experience with enterprise-class drives (SCSI, SAS, Fibre Channel, etc.), so I won’t speak to those.

It’s weird how things change. In the ATA/EIDE days, I swore by Seagate and Samsung hard drives. IBM/Hitachi made “Deathstars” (several models of Deskstar drives had very high failure rates; all four of mine died prematurely). WD (Western Digital) had firmware compatibility problems with a lot of chipsets (including G3 iMacs, which couldn’t go to sleep with a WD drive installed).

In the SATA era, it’s reversed. Hitachi and WD Black SATA drives have been reliable and widely compatible in my experience, while Seagate and Samsung have problems with both high hardware failure rates and firmware bugs. The reliability of Seagate hard drives plummeted when they switched to perpendicular recording with the Barracuda 7200.10 line, and it still hasn’t recovered. Most of the dozen or more Seagate desktop and laptop drives I’ve gotten since 2007 have failed. Samsungs from a couple of years ago (the F1 series) reportedly had a lot of problems, so I avoided them, but the F3 series seems to be better, based on searches of reviews (I don’t have any personally). I also avoid WD Green drives after having problems with them unmounting randomly.

I no longer buy hard drives from NewEgg or Amazon because of substandard packaging, leading to higher failure rates from shipping damage. PC Connection, B&H, and OWC all package hard drives better.

When buying external drives (USB/Firewire/eSATA), I prefer buying the enclosures and drives separately. There are several reasons:

  1. It gives me the flexibility to choose both the enclosures I want and the drive models I want.
  2. Warrantees on bare drives are generally three years, but warranties on drives in external enclosures are only one year, for some reason.
  3. I want to ensure I’m free to swap out a drive from an enclosure without having to break the enclosure or void a warranty. For example, to plug it directly into a motherboard to check the S.M.A.R.T. status. Although that’s unnecessary for drives and computers that have eSATA connectors, at least half of my drives and computers don’t.

My preferred external enclosures are the Mercury lines made by OWC. They have proven generally reliable and sturdy over the past eight years, keep drives cool enough without fans, and use high quality chipsets. There are a few other good manufacturers of external enclosures; I have seen recommendations for LaCie, NewerTech, Glyph, and Granite Digital. But after some experimenting, I have stuck mostly to one manufacturer to avoid having to deal with a proliferation of different power supply connectors. Recently I have started also getting G-Technology G-Drive external drives, which are made by a division of Hitachi. They use the same power supply connectors as my OWC drives and seem to be good quality.

I avoid having important data on only one hard drive. I normally buy hard drives in pairs made by different manufacturers, so if one model of hard drive should turn out to have a short lifetime, the other copy of that data will be on a different brand of drive and be unaffected. This approach has saved me from losing a lot of data over the years. I’ll describe in another post how I keep the pairs of drive synchronized.


Recording and Archiving TV Is Still Not Simple

January 2, 2010

We have Comcast cable TV with a digital tuner box that contains a hard drive to support video recording. When its hard drive filled up with shows we wanted to watch in the future, I had to figure out how to save them somewhere else to free up disk space for new recordings. As I pondered how to do it, I thought back a few decades and wondered why this process can still be cumbersome, given the improvements in technology….

In the 1970s, it became possible to record shows from your TV for viewing later, using a video cassette recorder (VCR). This is called time-shifting, and was ruled to be legal by the U.S. Supreme Court in the infamous 1984 “Betamax case”.

Doing this required learning how to program your VCR using its primitive interface and looking up show times on a printed TV schedule in a newspaper or TV Guide magazine. You could archive the shows you wanted to watch later by storing the video tapes.

In 1999, TiVo introduced a hard disk based digital video recorder (DVR), which downloaded the TV guide over a phone line or (later) the Internet. This let you choose shows to record by name; TiVo even records shows it thought you might like. For archiving, hobbyists figured out ways to get the recorded MPEG2 video files off of the TiVo’s hard drive and onto a home computer’s hard drive, where they could then be stored, viewed on a computer, burned onto DVDs, or converted into other formats such as MPEG4.

That was a great arrangement, but the TiVo boxes cost several hundred dollars plus a recurring subscription fee for the guides, and TiVo gradually made them harder to hack into to get the video files. The cable TV companies (like Comcast) started offering their own, simpler DVR boxes for cheaper (just the monthly fee). Our is made by Motorola. It has some computer connectors on the back, like Firewire, which aren’t enabled by the Comcast software on it.

So, how to copy shows off of the Comcast DVR? It’s ridiculous, but I have to record the shows in real-time into a computer. I got a Canopus ADVC-110 DV capture card that connects by Firewire to a Mac laptop running Final Cut Express, and by S-Video and RCA audio to the Comcast DVR. After I capture each show from the Comcast DVR into FCE, I trim out the commercials (replacing them with chapter markers), black out the in-frame ads for other shows with cropped slugs, de-letterbox by zooming if applicable, and save it as a QuickTime DV file that I can re-encode into MPEG2 for a DVD. There’s no good technical reason for these extra steps, just corporate politics.

I also use the Canopus to capture video from VHS tapes and analog camcorders, so I needed it anyway; I didn’t get it just to save shows from the DVR. Otherwise, I might have considered getting a TiVo and a CableCard. Other possible capture devices include:

  • A standalone DVD recorder to skip the re-encoding step, but that wouldn’t let me cleanly edit out commercials or re-encode for viewing on computers or portable devices.
  • For smaller captured file sizes, a capture device that encodes in MPEG4 instead of DV, such as the Elgato Video Capture. That would mean editing out the commercials using QuickTime Pro 7 or MPEG Streamclip, instead of Final Cut or iMovie. I find the Final Cut interface easiest to use and it gives me the most power in editing.
  • To capture HD, I’d have to use something with component video inputs like the Blackmagic Intensity Pro PCI-e card, but I don’t have a Mac with PCI-e slots near my TV. Or the Hauppauge HD PVR, which encodes in AVCHD format, which I would need to decompress to edit. And HD video uses even more disk space. Someone else has written up a procedure to convert HD video captured by a Hauppauge HD PVR into a standard-def DVD, for those who want to try that.

Putting the Power Back in PowerBook

December 20, 2009

My PowerBook G4 (17″, 1GHz) was having more and more problems charging its battery. More often than not, when I plugged it into AC while turned on, it would flip back and forth every couple of seconds between showing it was plugged in and showing it was running off battery, with the screen brightening and dimming each time, and making a loud whining noise. It got to where I usually had to put it in sleep mode or turned off in order to charge the battery. The battery wasn’t the problem; it was a new replacement battery that worked fine in an identical PowerBook.

Some searching turned up a web page claiming to describe a fix for this problem.

The author of the article describes symptoms like I was seeing and attributes the problem to Apple’s power connector design, which gradually wears out. He describes how to replace the PowerBook’s power jack and the power supply’s plug with generic power connectors from Radio Shack. I decided it was my only option for trying to get my laptop working reliably again, so I tried it.

The article’s author has a 15″ model, which is disassembled differently than my 17″, so I had to adapt the instructions. I used the following guide from Installing PowerBook G4 Aluminum 17″ 1-1.67 GHz RJ-11 Board. I used a size N DC power plug and jack, Radio Shack part numbers 274-1583 and 274-1573, and they fit well, with no extra washers needed.

It works! My PowerBook now charges while turned on and doesn’t emit a loud whine when plugged in.

I never thought I’d be hacking laptop hardware, but having someone blaze the trail gave me the courage.

PowerBook G4 replacement power jack, inside view

PowerBook G4 with replacement power jack