Washington Apple Pi

A Community of Apple iPad, iPhone and Mac Users

Build a FireWire Hard Drive

by Bob Unger

Washington Apple Pi Journal, reprint information

As we get closer and closer to the release of Mac OS X, I decided I needed (wanted) an external FireWire drive to go with my test mule: an iMac DV SE 500 with 384 megabytes of memory running OS 9.0.4. My strategy is to load Mac OS X on a partition of that bootable external drive and use it to learn all the Mac OS X capabilities. Additionally, I will put another copy of Mac OS X on a second partition of the external drive and use it to slowly test all the various "carbonized" applications I routinely use as they are released: PhotoShop, Illustrator, PageMaker, Microsoft Office Suite, etc as well as all the Mac software applications like iTunes, et alia. Eventually I will move the entire working suite back onto my iMac's internal hard drive and then use one partition of the external hard drive as a total system backup and a second partition for long-term test. A third partition is available for gaming.

After corresponding briefly with Mike Breeden of Xlr8YourMac (http://www.xlr8yourmac.com/), I decided to "build my own" external FireWire drive because I wanted to use the 75GB ATA/100 IBM 75GXP hard drive, mainly because of the documented reliability and speed of this series. By going the BMO (Build My Own) route I could save some serious bucks over purchasing a complete unit from one of the few companies putting the large IBM 75GXP inside their own FireWire case.

Equipment purchased: ADS Technologies Pyro 1394 Drive Kit (http://www.adstech.com) and an IBM 75GXP hard drive. Best price I found for both components was from Buy.com. They were shipped from different locations the day I ordered and in hand via UPS ground a few days later. Shipping costs amounted to a low $7. Note: Outpost.com also sells a Pyro FireWire case bundled with an IBM 75GXP 75 GB drive at a competitive price -- with free overnight shipping.

The Pyro Drive Kit has a relatively slow ATA/33-capable bridgeboard (ATA to FireWire conversion board) but ADS has an ATA/100-capable bridgeboard in final testing with a release date of Spring 2001. ADS tech support assures me the new bridgeboard can be used on their older API-800 enclosure and is user-swappable with a screwdriver. That'll speed up the transfer rate considerably since their new bridgeboard is rated at a sustained transfer rate of 45 MBytes/sec, near the theoretical maximum FireWire transfer rate of 50 MBytes/sec.

So how did the setup go? Just fine. The IBM hard drive came with the jumpers already set to use the drive as a master. I just plugged in the flat ribbon cable and the power cable and used four of the provided screws to secure the hard drive to the enclosure case. Detailed instructions are on Mike's site at http://www.xlr8yourmac.com/firewire/firewire_case_kits/ if needed -- but they certainly are not required. The entire process is intuitive.

ADS provided a Radialogic software package with drivers that worked OK but data transfer rates seemed sluggish. At that point I downloaded Intech Software Corporation's (http://www.intechusa.com) Hard Disk SpeedTools package. I ran the Intech QuickBench v1.5 utility to benchmark the drive's performance. Then I removed the Radialogic driver from my extension folder and reformatted the drive with Intech drivers and ran the QuickBench utility again -- and saw a 29% increase in performance over my previous benchmark! So there must be something to Intech's claim that their "SpeedTools will automatically build a custom-tuned device driver for your specific Macintosh model and operating environment to insure the highest level of speed and compatibility."

I should note that my initial plan was to format the IBM drive using Apple's Drive Setup. That proved to be a "no joy" solution because the Apple utility would not recognize the new drive. If anyone knows how to do that, please e-mail Mike and ask him to post an addendum to this report. I'd still like to try Apple's formatter utility and run another set of benchmarks. Right now I'm seeing transfer rates of 13.8 - 14.1 MBytes/sec to the external IBM drive and transfer rates of 18.75 MBytes/sec to the internal Quantum Fireball LCT15 30 IDE drive that came with my iMac. I would expect to see those IBM numbers increase significantly when the bridgeboard is upgraded.

Intech's Device Test utility allows you to non-destructively examine a device's media for bad sectors, and map the bad sectors out of use. I ran the IBM drive through 3.5 cycles overnight (takes awhile) and found no bad sectors on the virgin IBM drive. That's a good start with regard to platter integrity.

Lastly, the iMac boots just fine from the external FireWire drive as long as it contains a System Folder. I can either select the external drive in the Startup Disk Control Panel or, even better, hold down the Option key while starting the computer and when the appropriate screen opens up, and select any internal or external drive which contains a System Folder.

Note: The external drive must be powered up and at operating speed before the computer is started.

On to the bottom line: negatives and regrets:

None that would cause me to advise against this setup; however:

  1. The present ADS Pyro bridgeboard poses a significant bottleneck to sustained transfer speeds. That will be corrected with the forthcoming ATA/100-capable bridgeboard.
  2. The Pyro case is BIG (10.5 inches L X 7.75 W X 2.25 H) because it's made to contain not only IDE hard drives but also CD-ROM, CD-R/RW, DVD-ROM and DVD-RAM drives as well.
  3. The fan in the Pyro case is certainly noticeable when sitting next to my fanless iMac; however, it is not intrusive. The IBM 7500RPM drive is incredibly quiet. I unplugged the Pyro enclosure fan for a time just to savor the near silence. ;-)