Mac Hardware flakiness: Not just USB, FireWire too!

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Macintosh
January 19th, 2004 • 8:12 am

I’ve already talked about USB flakiness in Mac OS X on my dual 1.25 GHz G4.

Now I am finding that things are not so rosy on the FireWire side either. My G4 only has two FireWire (400) ports on the back, and I have several FireWire devices, so I have to set them up in chains. I have three external hard drives, and an external CD-RW burner.

The burner (an oldish LaCie model) is quite noisy, so I tend to leave it turned off unless I actually need it. But it has its own power supply, which is always plugged in. Does it mean that it can be used as a relay in the chain even when it’s not actually turned on? I don’t really know, because it seems to work some of the time, but not always.

Today, for example, I brought my portable external FW drive from a trip, and plugged it into its usual cable, which is connected to another FW drive with its own power supply, which in turn is connected to the usually-off CD burner. Usually this works, and the portable drive’s two partitions are mounted just fine, even without a power supply for the portable drive (which only requires one with some older iMacs).

This time, however, only one partition appeared, and only after a very long time. This is usually a symptom that the drive is not getting enough juice. Sure enough, when I checked my mounted volumes, I saw that, for some reason, the partitions of the other external FW drive in the chain had disappeared. I tried turning the device off and then back on, to no avail. I tried unplugging everything and then plugging things back in one at a time, still to no avail. The drives would power up, but not mount.

I ended up disconnecting the CD burner from the chain altogether and connecting the other hard drive directly to the computer’s FW port. Finally it appeared again on my desktop. I chained the portable drive to this drive, and it worked as expected as well, without a power supply. But only one partition was mounted. Obviously all this fiddling had created some problem on the other partition.

I fired up Disk Utility and it could see both partitions and repair them both. Yet the second partition still wouldn’t appear in the Finder.

I tried Disk Warrior and it attempted to repair the directory of the problem partition. But then at the very end it told me that it could replace the existing directory due to “a Mac OS X failure”. (I should also mention that the Disk Warrior interface needs some work. Some of these error messages are truncated and cannot even be read in full!)

I ended up connecting the portable hard drive to my PowerBook instead, where both partitions mounted just fine. I tried repairing them with Disk Warrior just the same, but again the repair failed because of a system failure (very helpful, those messages), so I finally rebooted the PowerBook from the CD, and then finally Disk Warrior was able to repair the partition on the external hard drive.

Then I brought the portable drive back to my G4 and connected it to the chain — and still the second partition will not mount!

There’s where I am at right now. It’s rather annoying since this partition contains a lot of important stuff that I need on the road. I don’t know what the problem is, and I don’t know how to fix it. Maybe a complete restart of my G4 will do it — but that’s a pain in the neck.

The bottom-line is that the simple issue of connecting and disconnecting FireWire devices and getting them to work properly is far from being smooth and trouble-free. Some things are mysterious (why did the chain with the turned-off CD burner work until today, and is no longer working now?), some things are not reliable (why won’t this partition mount now that it’s been repaired?), and some things don’t work as expected (why isn’t Disk Warrior able to repair an external partition that is not a bootable volume?).

That’s far too many problems for FireWire peripherals. And I am not even trying to use a digital camcorder or FireWire scanner!

I suppose that I’ll end up purchasing a FireWire hub — but then with my experience with USB hubs, I am not too convinced that this will really help eliminate the flakiness and unpredictability.

PS: Turning the G4 off and back on finally did the trick. But I am bit tired of having to resort to such brute-force tactics just to get things to work right. Mac OS X is not suppose to require restarts except for major system or security updates!

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