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The world according to Sven-S. Porst

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Technical Progress

784 words

One thing I liked about Apple, was how their hardware had the tendency to be relatively future proof. Seeing friends with IBM compatible computers try to do things like start their computer from a CD, attaching different keyboards or doing similar stuff used to be amusing in a sad way. It mostly didn’t work. And when those people saw you do things on your Mac by plugging in a cable or holding down a key, it was sometimes a strange situation to see people be astonished that the most natural things to do ‘just worked’.

A particularly strong player in this compatibility game was SCSI, as I’ve ranted about before. Sure, it wasn’t all perfect as you still had to manage to give each device a distinct number and handle the termination properly but those were clearly defined and easy to understand problems. I never had any significant problems with them. In particular any Mac with SCSI would quite happily start up from a SCSI device you attached to it. In fact, Nibbler, my Mac SE –a model that was introduced in 1987 – will happily start off my zip-drive – a device that was introduced in the mid 1990s – using System 7 – introduced in the early 1990s. Backwards compatibility is important. But in a way forwards compatibility is more impressive an to me looks like an indication of good engineering.

Fast forward a decade or so and SCSI is mostly gone for the home user. We have FireWire and USB now. And while FireWire is better in some ways, those advantages probably aren’t too significant when compared to situations where you’re using a single drive and a keyboard on USB-2. Particularly USB seems to have brought the world of plug and play to most computer users – although the Wintel-loving world still seems to love using antique ports for attaching their keyboards and they seem to similarly love using very long cables to plug their mice directly into the computer rather than into the keyboard.

Of course you have all sorts of nice problems with USB as well. Such as devices using too much power and you needing extra power supplies or hubs for things to work nicely – with the powered hub I got being particularly strange with my iBook as it often fails to turn on the graphics tablet that is attached to it and it similarly fails to run the USB hard drive I have (which will only run on one of the iBook’s USB ports as well). So here we start to see shoddy engineering. As far as I understand, things should work just fine with USB as long as you’re connected to a powered device. And should some problem come up concerning power, you should get an error message. Those messages do exist, I’ve seen them and they’ve been helpful. But in the case of my graphics tablet and hard drive I didn’t see any error messages and had to remain clueless.

But that’s the new iBook already. Let’s take a step back and look at my old Powerbook again. It only had USB-1, i.e. a slow connection. But still I can attach the USB-hard drive to it and it will read and write just fine. In fact, it even starts up just happily from the USB hard drive. Just as you’d expect. In comparison, the iBook sucks a lot. Apparently it can’t start from USB devices. WTF?! Apple had that technology working years ago. And being able to start from an external hard drive can be extremely useful in case you’re having some trouble with the machine. Particularly if you’re running an operating system that carries the burden of a Unixoid heritage. I.e. one that isn’t easy to copy on another volume like a CD and is rather slow when being run from there. And now – apparently ‘by design’ – Apple chose to prevent the machines from booting from external USB drives. In a time where USB remains a lot cheaper than FireWire and where Apple strongly prefer it over FireWire in the iPods they sell.

A very sucky move by Apple. One that limits the ‘just works’ factor a lot by restricting compatibility. And if I had any trust in Apple as a vendor of a future proof platform, this limits the trust I can build. Will MacOS XI run on my iBook in 2010? Who knows. But it doesn’t seem likely. And will I be able to start the machine from the hot new drives that come out in 2012? Most likely not. But thanks to the iBooks’ track record of breaking rather quickly, I shouldn’t need to worry about that anyway.

October 4, 2005, 0:17


Comment by rentzsch: User icon

There’s apparently good reasons why USB booting is sketchy:


USB booting seems preordained, with everybody wanting it and working towards making it Work Right All The Time, but it right now it sucks.

October 4, 2005, 1:04

Comment by ssp: User icon

Two remarks on that

(1) USB booting worked just fine on my old Powerbook, so it doesn’t seem that much of a problem.

(2) How does it compare to FireWire in that respect? I had problems with CD burning when I plugging in my iPod while it was in progress and got hints that something similar to a ‘bus reset’ was causing that problem. To the layman this sounds like a very similar situation.

October 4, 2005, 10:12

Comment by Sebastian: User icon

Really WTF! When I bought my PowerBook (ALU) and heard that you can only boot from a external FireWire drive, but not a USB device, I thought it was just not possible on USB.

But now I hear that Apple already had accomplished it and then took it away again. Strange…

I’d really like to see USB-boot capabilites in future Macs. Sure, FireWire is the better bus on the Mac, but those 30+ Euros more are just too much for this.

October 4, 2005, 11:08

Comment by dan: User icon

Being a sad little *nixer I don’t know the first thing about macs, but I do know this: With my generic pc machines, boot from usb is usually disabled in the bios by default. You just re-enable it at boot time if you want it on. Can you get to the mac’s bios settings?

October 6, 2005, 16:30

Comment by ssp: User icon


while the Mac has Open Firmware which possibly is something like a sophisticated BIOS thing, I’ve never had to deal with that. But from what I’ve heard the modern machines just can’t boot off USB devices while the older ones could.

Usually you can just hold a key during startup to see all possible startup volumes or you can use the system preferences to select the startup volume. Neither of these options shows my USB drive…

October 6, 2005, 20:37

Comment by Sören Kuklau: User icon

The developer notes of recent Macs indeed seem to suggest that USB mass storage boot has been removed. In contrast, the iMac G3 developer note, for example, specifically mentions USB booting.

http://developer.apple.com/documentation/Hardware/DeveloperNotes/MacintoshCPUs-G3/iMac18Jul01/imac0701.pdf “Features of the USB ports include power saving modes and the ability to boot the computer using a USB mass-storage device.”

The features seems intentionally removed, but this makes no sense. There is no financial reason to scrap the feature — USB mass storage device support is there, and the chipset is developed/designed in-house at Apple. There is no political reason to scrap the feature, either — neither USB booting nor FireWire booting are particularly touted by Apple marketing as a ‘feature’, and even if they were, USB booting wouldn’t cannibalize FireWire booting in any way. And finally, there is no technical reason: USB booting and FireWire booting both work fine, flawlessly, seamlessly, on my 2002 iBook G3.

This baffles me.

October 6, 2005, 22:54

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