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More on FireWire to IDE
A closer look at FireWire to IDE enclosures from MacAlly and ADS
and a peek at Intech Software's HD Speed Tools

The MacAlly CA-805FWH enclosure for hard drives only
The ADS Pyro Drive Kit for hard drives or CDRWs
Paul J. Tetreault, Jr., Esq.
last updated June 30, 2000

Update: For a review, performance comparison and build guide to the new faster Firewire cases with the Oxford911 bridge board (IDE/Firewire bridge), see this article. (This review covers the original Pryo case kit - the current models have 2 firewire ports (not 3) and all have the faster Oxford911 bridge board. Some 24x-40x CDRW owners (including me) have seen problems with 24x to 40x rated IDE CDRW drives (esp. Lite-On drives) with the Pyro case. See this article for more info.-Mike
With thanks to:
ADS, Indigita, Intech Software, & MacAlly Tech Support

Thanks to Mike Breeden's constant hard work, I always learn a lot here at xlr8yourmac, so I'm happy when I have something to contribute. After reading that hundreds of readers have enjoyed success using FireWire to IDE enclosures, I bought a MacAlly CA-805FWH box and a Maxtor DiamondMax Plus 40 40 gig drive (Model 5409U8 - see Mike's test) to attach to the OrangeMicro FW/USB combo card in my 8500.

Unfortunately, I had lots of problems, and looking at articles at MacCentral and MacInTouch, I saw I was not alone. Rather than give up, I also purchased an ADS PYRO Drive Kit and HD SpeedTools v3.0, contacted the manufacturers, and ran tests on a Sawtooth G4 400 and my 8500 with a 313 MHz G3 card and a 450 MHz G4 card. I learned some facts I have not seen elsewhere about the operation of not only the MacAlly and ADS enclosures but also the ClubMac enclosure Mike has been reporting on for sometime.

Since most storage devices access data serially and FireWire is a high-speed serial interface, it's certain we'll see true FireWire interfaces on storage peripherals once a sufficient number of computers ship with built-in IEEE-1394 ports. In the meantime, FireWire to IDE (FW/IDE) technology has spawned many commercially available complete hard drive and optical (CDR/CDRW) solutions (like those from site sponsors OWC and TransIntl) as well as the enclosures we'll look at here. FW/IDE enclosures are probably not cost-effective for CDR/CDRW devices compared to a complete solution with software support. But the enclosures are great for large, inexpensive IDE drives and also offer data portability, as long as the computers to which you carry your enclosure have the right extensions installed.

FireWire interface technology is new and changing rapidly. The ClubMac, MacAlly, and ADS enclosures we'll look at are first generation and have some performance limitations we'll discuss. Upcoming products, some of which may be shipping by MacWorld in July 2000, will offer greater compatibility and performance. Be sure to check the entries in the drive compatibility database and the other articles on the storage pages (Fireire/IDE topics pages) before you buy.

Caveat: Either of these enclosures work great for just about any application, including DV playback, when connected to a new G4. But if you're thinking about one for video work, you should know that Apple's FireWire extensions read me claims only that "Power Macintosh computers can transfer perfect digital video (DV) on FireWire when no other devices are using the FireWire bus. If you have problems transferring digital video, make certain that no other FireWire devices are being used at the same time." Also, the Final Cut Pro system requirements state "one or more separate Ultra2 LVD SCSI media drives recommended."

If you intend to use an FW/IDE enclosure on a beige G3 or older PCI Mac, you may not be able to play back DV files at all. VST, a leading manufacturer of complete FireWire hard drive solutions, lists only G4s, B&W G3s, and slot-loading iMacs as compatible with its drives. Promax says "users who attempt to run video on [beige G3 systems or 86/9600s] might experience drop frames and artifacts when capturing and playing video." In over 100 hours of testing on my 8500, I was never able to playback DV files reliably. The symptoms I observed were the same as playing back DV from a slow SCSI hard drive, except the FireWire interface would fail, freezing my system. Some readers have reported not only being able to playback DV, but being able to capture to a hard drive in an FW/IDE enclosure with both the enclosure and camera attached to the same PCI FireWire card in a vintage Mac. If you try an enclosure on an older Mac, just be sure you can return it if necessary.

What You'll Need to Use a FW/IDE Enclosure

To use an FW/IDE enclosure you need six things:

  • A FireWire interface in your computer. Macs without built-in FireWire will need a PCI FW card which may need enabler software installed.
  • An IDE hard drive or IDE CD/CDR/CDRW drive
  • An FW/IDE enclosure that is designed for the type of device (HDD/CD) you want use
  • Apple's FireWire extensions in your system folder and either OS 8.6 or 9. MacOS versions earlier than 8.5.1 don't support FW.
  • FireWire drivers to place in your extensions folder for the type device you want to use (HD/CDRW, etc.). Hard drive drivers are usually supplied with the FW/IDE enclosure when you buy it. Since CD type devices are always used with specific applications (an audio player, burning software, etc.), a system level driver for CDR/CDRW is not usually supplied with the enclosure. Both Adaptec's Toast 4.1 and Charismac's Discribe have native FireWire drivers for the drives they support. The system level FireWire drivers for a particular type of device (HDD/CD) are usually not specific to the particular enclosure the device is installed in. You should be able to use these drivers with the type of device they support installed in any FW/IDE enclosure. You may need to disconnect, cycle power on the enclosure, and reconnect it for the drive to mount if you initialize it with one brand of software and then restart after switching to native FireWire driver extensions from a different vendor.
  • For a hard drive, software to install a driver on the disk and format and partition it. This, too, is normally supplied with the enclosure though excellent third-party software, like Intech's HD SpeedTools, is also available and may work better. For a CDR or CDRW, software to read and write to the drive like Adaptec Toast or Charismac Discribe. No enclosure includes either of these programs at present.

PCI FireWire Cards - are available from many vendors, including OrangeMicro, Ratoc, Powerlogix, FireWire Direct, and MacWorks. (MacGurus, the only Mac reseller I know of that shares testing information with customers, recommends the Ratoc card.) Be sure to read the FAQ for your card and download the latest drivers, if needed. OrangeMicro's FAQ, for example, says its v.1.1.2 enablers should not be in your extensions folder if you are running FireWire 2.3.3, and recommends disabling all USB related extensions when capturing video through a combination FW/USB card. Check the reader feedback report on FireWire cards here at xlr8 for more information.

Apple's FireWire extensions - the latest version of these extensions is 2.4, released on June 2. Since the drivers that ship with the enclosures were all written prior to 2.4's release, you may want to drop back to v. 2.3.3. In my testing I did not see a difference in performance with either version.

Common Elements of FW/IDE Enclosures

An FW/IDE enclosure is a box with a power supply, rear-mounted exhaust fan, audio connector for CD drives that goes to RCA connectors on the back plane, and one very special component, a FireWire to IDE bridge board. Most enclosures will accept either 3.5 or 5.25 form factor devices, even though the enclosure may not be designed to work with both HDDs and CDR/CDRWs .

The Bridge Board - The bridge board is a small printed circuit board at the back of the enclosure that actually handles communication between the IDE device and your Mac's FireWire port. The type of bridgeboard is what really distinguishes one enclosure from another. Bridge boards differ by the type and models of devices they can be configured to work with (HDD, CDRW, Removable, etc.) and by the number of FireWire ports they provide. Bridge boards also differ in their read and write data throughput rates, although neither of the first generation boards in the MacAlly and ADS enclosure can surpass 15 MBps. Your Mac's processor speed and FireWire interface will also affect read and write performance as the graphs below illustrate dramatically.

Much faster writes with a G4's built-in FireWire! - These ATTO Tools graphs are for the identical enclosure - the MacAlly box - identical drive, disk driver, FireWire extensions and native FireWire driver. The only difference is the results in the top graph were obtained on a 400 MHz Sawtooth with built-in FireWire and those in the bottom graph on a 313 MHz G3 8500 with OrangeMicro combo card. Even with a 450 MHz G4 card in the 8500, write performance did not exceed 7.8 MBps with my OrangeMicro card, which uses the NEC chipset rather than TI's.

A Bridge Too Far? - The problems and reduced performance I observed in trying to use a FW/IDE enclosure on my 8500 probably result from timing problems. As the picture below shows, the data must pass through both a parallel/serial and a serial/parallel translation for either a read or a write. Besides the translation, error checking and correction must also occur, and the data must be put onto or read from the PCI bus while observing bus priority and interrupt polling. And all of this must work with a system bus that could be running within a range of speeds.

Probably for this reason, the OrangeMicro FAQ states "If you have a 50 MHz bus on your system and your upgrade card is running at 48.5, the timing difference will cause [problems with DV transfer]," and this is just from a camcorder, without the extra FW to IDE data translation. I'm not quite sure what OrangeMicro is trying to say the problem is here, however, since the bus on vintage PowerMacs can run at a range of speeds depending on the speed of the processor. TIL 17121 lists the bus speed of older Macs with the processors they shipped with. The FAQ also says the OrangeMicro card works best in slot 1, the highest priority PCI slot.

Of the companies I contacted, only ADS said they had even tested their enclosures or software with 75/85/9500 machines. But the only time I could reliably copy a DV file from either FW/IDE enclosure was while running a 50 MHz bus with a beta native driver written by Intech specifically to address these timing problems.

The Firmware - the bridge board's firmware determines which brands and models of devices the bridge will work with. Thus, devices that are non-standard or that have controller quirks (or bugs) may require new bridge firmware before they can be used with a particular bridge.

Config Roms and Firmware Switches - FireWire separates different types of devices (like hard drives or optical drives like CDRWs) into different classes. Because of this, the bridge needs to be set up to work with the particular class of device you intend to install in the enclosure. The bridge in the MacAlly enclosure is shipped set up for hard drives. While this bridge has a config rom that would allow it to be reprogrammed for optical devices, a flasher application to give the user this capability is not included. The bridge in the ADS enclosure can be reprogrammed for either CDRW or hard drives by running the Drive Mode Selector program that comes with the enclosure. The mode selector program is not a true flasher, it just sets firmware switches to enable automatic detection of the installed device or force hard drive or CDRW mode.

Products and Software We'll Look At

The ClubMac and MacAlly Enclosures - xlr8yourmac was probably the first site to cover FW/IDE enclosures with Mike's article on ClubMac's enclosure for hard drives, CM part no. C104 9025. Because the bridge board used in the ClubMac enclosure cannot be reprogrammed by the user, there are actually two ClubMac enclosures, the one for hard drives and one for CDR/CDRW, which is part no. C104 9026. Both use the same bridge board, the difference is in whether the board's config rom is set up for HDD or CDR/CDRW. The ClubMac stock system also calls the hard drive enclosure a "closed bay" box and calls the CDR/CDRW enclosure "open bay". The enclosures are not listed on ClubMac's website to prevent users from ordering an enclosure that won't work with the device they intend to install.

The currently shipping ClubMac enclosures for both HDD and CDRW use the same bridge board as the MacAlly CA-805FWH, though ClubMac supplies native FireWire drivers and partitioning software from Indigita and MacAlly supplies drivers and software from Prosoft. As the picture below shows, this has not always been the case. Earlier ClubMac enclosures used a different bridge. On the earlier bridge, the FireWire ports are closer together.

Backplane of the ClubMac Enclosure - from Mike's FireWire to IDE article. Note the close spacing of the FireWire ports. This is probably an earlier ClubMac enclosure.

Backplane of the MacAlly CA-805FWH - note the FireWire ports are farther apart here. Currently shipping ClubMac enclosures use the same bridge as this box.

Although the earlier ClubMac enclosures used a different bridge, they used the same firmware as that found in currently shipping enclosures and in the MacAlly box, which shows up as version 45 or 45a (no difference) when you query the box with the Indigita software. According to ClubMac sales, the enclosure has been tested with the following hard drives. Readers, of course, have reported the ClubMac case working with a much larger number of drives.

  • Quantum Fireball KX, KA, CX, and LCT
  • Seagate Barracuda
  • Fujitsu MPD3084AT
  • Western Digital Caviar Series
  • IBM Deskstar Series

On page 2 we'll look a little more closely at setting up and using the MacAlly box. As long as you remember that you're ClubMac enclosure may not have the same bridge as the MacAlly box, most of what we'll cover will apply to both enclosures. We'll also briefly compare the software that is supplied with both enclosures. .

ADS PYRO 1394 Drive Kit - page 3 looks at this enclosure from ADS Technologies, which is sold both with and without a PCI FireWire card. We will look just at the enclosure and the supplied software.

Intech Software's HD SpeedTools v. 3.0. - Intech's HD SpeedTools are a third party alternative to the formatting, partitioning, and native FireWire driver software supplied with an FW/IDE enclosure. We'll briefly look at some of HD SpeedTools' features.

You can read straight through this article by clicking

On to Page 2, the MacAlly Enclosure

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Page 2, the MacAlly Enclosure | Page 3, the ADS Enclosure | Page 4, HD SpeedTools

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