Quarter Life Crisis

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Double USB Cable

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A clever cooperation of the ‘a fool and his money are parted soon’ department and the ‘crappy high tech’ department, drove me to eBay once more. The story is the following: After my Powerbook broke I ended up with a spare 80GB hard drive, which I am keen on using for backups and other niceties. So I decided to get an external drive enclosure for it, making use of the new iBook’s USB-2 support as those are much cheaper than their FireWire brethren and performance doesn’t matter too much for that purpose.

But little did I know about USB devices. While I had heard that USB can’t power high-powered devices like CD-writers over the bus, I assumed this wasn’t a problem anymore as I could buy a tiny bus-powered case for my hard drive. But it only took a few minutes of using it to learn that I was overly optimistic. Most USB ports I tried it on can’t power the drive. My old TiBook was the only computer doing that without problems. The new iBook can power the drive on its back USB port but not on the front one and both 15″ AlBooks I tried it with couldn’t power the drive up either. My externally powered USB hub is another device that can’t get the drive running. In short – things suck quite badly.

And it’s even worse than that. From time to time, while doing heavy file copying, the drive would stop working on the iBook as well. Which sucks quite badly as it makes it rather difficult to make a complete and reliable backup. At first I assumed that this was an issue with OS X, but asking around suggested that it could very well be a power supply problem where during a phase of high activity the drive needs a little more power than the bus can provide and just kills itself because of that. And afterwards – in the spirit of excellent hardware and software engineering on parts of the chipset maker, the drive maker and Apple – the drive keeps rotating but not writing, and the computer will simply stall all applications that try to access the drive in question – without even bothering to write a message to console.log or system.log about what’s going wrong. Arrrgh, nothing like quality engineering.

Once you’re in this state, the only thing you can do is to physically unplug the drive. That’ll make the computer realise that there is a problem and the affected volumes will be force-unmounted, usually letting the stalled applications go on running. This, of course, isn’t particularly good for the drive, its directory structure and possible the files on it. So that sucks a lot.

As people hinted to me this might be due to a power supply problem, I considered building a cable that takes power from two USB ports and provides it to the drive. Haha, smart idea Mr Sven! But the thought of having to get all the components for that and the prospect of spending a while to find out all the relevant details and having to use a soldering iron just to create some ugly cable put me off. So I was happy to see that I was not the first one with this idea and that you can buy such cables, ready-made, on eBay. Which I did.

The USB drive connected to two USB ports using the special cable

And what can I say? It sucks. To begin with I had to discover that my external hub is too ‘clever’ for this cable. It seems that it only activates the power supply when there’s a data connection as well. This means I can’t plug the cable’s second plug into the hub and thus lose my ability to simply hide the whole mess somewhere off my desk. I end up with one of the plugs in the iBook and the other one in the hub – ugly and inefficient.

But the very worst part comes last, the external drive still dies when it’s under heavy usage. Perhaps less frequently than it did before, but it still does. So this whole exercise looks like it’s been a waste of time and money. Yikes! I hate technology. Or the people who make and sell technology. Or whoever is responsible for this mess. Why can’t even such basic things ‘just work’. As in: any drive in any drive case connected to any computer with any cable will work without having to worry or seeing things break every other minute. Isn’t that what ‘standards’ like USB are designed to do?

March 23, 2006, 1:08

Tagged as ebay, hardware, usb.

Comments

Comment by Nathan: User icon

I have heard bad things about USB hard drive enclosures. I am still on the lookout for a cheap firewire one, but they are just more pricey.

March 25, 2006, 16:39

Comment by David: User icon

I have the same problem, but my case won’t work with my PC. I’ve managed to plug it in ONCE, but afterwards, I always get the message that my “USB Device had some problems and it isn’t recognized by Windows”.

Works perfect on a Mac, but I also need to use it on my PC… it sucks.

July 10, 2006, 23:49

Comment by Lyskar X. Martinez: User icon

The USB cable in the picture is different from the cheaper ones that comes with USB enclosures off Ebay. I believe it contains an “activity” circuit that would enable the USB power side when the is sustained activity of more than a second. Problem is, it requires power that’s on the USB data extender side. So when the HDD sucks that extra current, it ends up killing the activity circuit, thus defeating the purpose. Try using a plain Double USB A to mini USB HDD cable. LIke the KISS band always said, “Keep It Simple Stupid!” KISS n METALLICA ROCK!

March 17, 2007, 3:06

Comment by Ben: User icon

Hi can anyone tell me what I am looking for on ebay? i have a HDD that i cannot power through a single cable. the seller on ebay is messing me about so Ive had it for 2 weeks but with no cable. What should I be searching for as I cant seem to find what i`m after!! And yes, KISS and METALLICA do ROCK!!!

May 12, 2007, 20:18

Comment by lyskar: User icon

here is a pic of what you need. it’s a plain, dual usb plug to a mini usb plug. it will draw extra current on the fly, with out the need for an activity circuit. http://www.universaluk.com/acatalog/31780bigfr.jpg try most radio shacks and malls to get it quickly. But if you have the extra pocket space opt for a cable with a built in battery pack for a power hungry dvd burner with a non-mini usb plug try: http://www.bixnet.com/usexsldvcddr.html

July 17, 2007, 7:55

Comment by neto-e: User icon

I have a HDD that works with that same type of cable, works without any problem, I use it as a Working HDD for fotoshop and Corel Draw, have you consdidered the HDD itself might be the problem? even when these double power USB cables are not very common these days, they’re not supossed to fail just because.

October 22, 2008, 18:21

Comment by Kathy: User icon

I have a WD external drive, ran into the same problem, but ordered the double usb from their site. Works great and no more problems since August 2008. It is so dumb that they sell these with a cord that may not have enough power to run the thing.

February 2, 2009, 15:50

Comment by shut the fuck up: User icon

You Whiny Bitch, why cant things work…booo hoo hoooo, if you had half a fucking clue you would understand computers are complex and intricate machines. Fucking douchebag baby.

December 11, 2009, 16:50

Comment by dan: User icon

computers are complex and intricate machines

But not yet complex enough to incorporate troll filters…

December 11, 2009, 17:48

Comment by deb: User icon

the iBook’s new Passport external drive does not use the standard mini usb…not only did I have the same problem: I called tech support and they sent me the cable they said I needed, when it arrived it was too big and did not fit into the mini usb port. Extremely frustrating and counter productive.

December 15, 2009, 1:07

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