Apple’s hold music, and Apple Care+ procedure.

Many things that are very simple and obvious ideas were, at one time, uncommon or non-existent. Obviously a touch screen display makes sense today, but perhaps not so much before the iPhone was introduced in 2007. Anyone who ever used the then state-of-the-art World Key Information kiosks at E.P.C.O.T. in 1982 knows that touch screens have been around for decades, but multi-touch was one of those breakthroughs that we take for granted and expect today.

I recently called Apple and ran in two things I had not encountered before but was such an obvious idea I expect everyone is doing it this way and I just did not know.

First … Their automated system, when informing me there would be a short wait for a representative, gave me a choice of three types of hold music, or silence. I could choose modern pop songs, classical, or jazz.
I know I am not the only one who has made jokes about lousy or annoying hold music. By giving the caller some choices (including “none”), that problem has disappeared.

I don’t know who invented this now-obvious concept, but I will now always associate it with an Apple experience.

And second … After speaking to the representative, instead of him asking me for a credit card number (which I always hate reading out aloud in a public space), he informed me that a link was sent to my e-mail and I could complete the process securely through the website.

What? No more whispering trying to read a credit card number quietly so my cubical neighbor can’t write it down and order pizza using it? What an obvious idea when calling in about a device that does e-mail.

I expect everyone does it this way, now, and I have just been under a rock. Or maybe this is new and exciting. Either way, hold music and phone transactions will never been the same for me moving forward.

On a related side note, the Apple Care procedure is very streamlined these days. To verify a device’s qualification, you can read the serial number to the automated robot, or key press in the EMEI number (if it’s a phone/data device). That let the system know about my device and tell me it’s warranty status over the phone. When the rep answered, they already knew what device I was calling about. And, when they wanted to see if my device was qualified, they had me go in to a Settings/Privacy section and a new link appeared (initiated by Apple support) which let me run diagnostics and (with my approval) share it with Apple. They were then able to tell “stuff” about my device – probably if it had detected drops or damage.

Fascinating.

I’m going back to my rock now. All this change in one phone call is more than I can handle right now.

Another Apple difference…

I was shocked when I found an item from Apple that appeared to be in one of those plastic blister packs. I absolutely hate these things — it seems I have to tear the cardboard apart to get the memory card or whatever out of the package, forever ruining it. For¬†anything pricy or significant, I like to keep the original packaging around so I can still have it when I sell the item later on e-Bay ūüėČ

Why would Apple do this?

Is Apple really using a "blister pack" style package that you have to tear apart to get the product out?

Is Apple really using a “blister pack” style package that you have to tear apart to get the product out?

Before I began to tear in to the cardboard, I flipped it over to see what I was up against. It appears Apple had a better way. On the back was a hole to get the item out with a piece of plastic covering it. There was a small tab on one end which made it easy to pull…

Flipping the package over reveals Apple included an access hole, covered in a small sticker with a tab to use to pull it off.

Flipping the package over reveals Apple included an access hole, covered in a small sticker with a tab to use to pull it off.

The plastic cover could be rolled back easily, or removed completely.

The tab can be pulled out of the way, or removed completely, and even stuck back if you want to put the item back for safe keeping. Nice.

The tab can be pulled out of the way, or removed completely, and even stuck back if you want to put the item back for safe keeping. Nice.

Someone at Apple knew the frustration with this, and designed a better way to do it. I was impressed by this.

Anyone who has experienced a high end restaurant, custom tailored suit, or luxury car already knows there are fine details you get at the higher end. I, myself, don’t really care. They never seem to be worth the extra money for the extra “goodness” you get. But with Apple, the bits of polish seem to be everywhere – from the boxes the products come in, to the interesting ways they design their booklets or even cable straps.

I don’t know what impressed me about this silly little plastic tab and made me want to write this article, but … it did.

Drobo (2nd gen) to Drobo (3rd gen), part 5

See also: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4.

When we last left off, our hero (that’s me) was waiting to see if hs data survived after moving four hard drives from an old Drobo in to a new one. Spoiler: It did.

With that out of the way, let’s look at some of the differences between old versus new Drobos:

  1. The removable front plate has a logo that is now embossed/raises from the black plastic.
  2. The LEDs are much brighter.
  3. There is a power switch on the back.
  4. Drobo Dashboard gives you several new options!

Paradise By the Dashboard Light

Drobo Dashboard has a few notable improvements when browsing a 3rd generation Drobo:

Screenshot 2015-11-12 22.49.12

Drobo 3rd Gen: New System Information status display, featuring Drobo health.

Drobo 3rd Gen: New HEALTH status for each installed drive, too!

Drobo 3rd Gen: New Drive Information status display, featuring health of each installed drive, too!

Drobo 3rd Gen: New Performance status, though mine always shows 0.

Drobo 3rd Gen: New Performance status, though mine always shows 0.

And for comparison, the more limited Status display from the 2nd generation Drobo:

Drobo 2nd Gen: Much less status...

Drobo 2nd Gen: Much less status…

Under Volumes, there is now an option to create a special Time Machine volume. My understanding is that this volume will be treated as a size-limited volume, rather than the “grow until it breaks” virtual volumes.

Drobo 3rd Gen: New Time Machine volume support.

Drobo 3rd Gen: New Time Machine volume support.

The Tools display seems to be the same, except wording is different. “Turn Blink Lights On” versus “Blink Lights”, and “Shutdown” versus “Standby”.

Drobo 3rd Gen: Tools display.

Drobo 3rd Gen: Tools display.

The 3rd gen model adds a new Drobo Settings display. From here, you can set the name of the Drobo (that was possible with the 2nd gen, but was done somewhere else), Disk Drive Spindown, and Dim Lights timeout. There is also a greyed out “Dual Disk Redundancy” selection. According to a feature chart at the Drobo site, this model does support dual disk redundancy where ¬†you can have two drives fail and still preserve data. I am unable to test that with my current unit since it was already formatted to use all the disks for storage in the previous 2nd gen model I had.

Drobo 3rd Gen: Drobo Settings display.

Drobo 3rd Gen: Drobo Settings display.

Dual Disk Redundancy is a feature I would really like to try out. You have less space available for data, but if you migrate from 2TB drives to 3TB drives, you can do this and end up with about the same amount of storage as before. This will be a topic for another time.

Next time, we’ll compare some data transfer benchmarks. How does a “faster” Drobo 3rd gen via a USB 2.0 port compare to a slower Drobo 2nd gen hooked up via FireWire? I could tell you now, but then you wouldn’t need to wait for the next part.

Until then…

Drobo (2nd gen) to Drobo (3rd gen), part 4

See also: Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.

When we last left off, we were waiting¬†440 HOURS¬†(18 days!!!) for my second generation Drobo to rebuild after replacing a 2TB drive with a 3TB one.¬†440 HOURS!¬†Fortunately, it didn’t actually take that long.¬†I did¬†the drive swap on a Friday evening, and it was actually complete the following Wednesday evening – a mere 120 hours later.

During those five days, if a second drive had failed, my data would have been toast. When a drive is down and being rebuilt, there is no data protection. I would be writing a completely different article is that had happened.

Faster than a Speeding Rebuild…

Spoiler: Drobo 3rd gen rebuilt in 12 hours what 2nd gen took 120 hours to do. (* Not 100% fair since I was moving a second 3TB drive in, but it's good enough for a reference point.)

Spoiler: Drobo 3rd gen rebuilt in 12 hours what 2nd gen took 120 hours to do. (* Not 100% fair since I was moving a second 3TB drive in, but it’s good enough for a reference point.)

One of the promises of the new 3rd generation Drobo was that it has dramatically faster rebuild times. (Skipping ahead, it looks like the newer model could have done the same rebuild in 12 hours.) On the downside, the new model does not have Firewire, so disk access would be much slower on my old Mac which only has USB 2.0. Newer Macs have USB 3.0, which is supposed to be very fast with the 3rd gen Drobo.

Since I didn’t want to spend months waiting for Drobo to rebuild as I upgraded drives one at a time, and since I feared trusting my data to a six year old end-of-life Drobo and dying hard drives, I decided it was time to upgrade. I do need to point out that I did not go out and buy a new $300 Drobo. I am far too broke for that. But, I do have one to review. If you want to get your own, you can use a special discount code and get $100 off. Go to:

www.drobo.com/macosken

You can learn more about Drobo there, and find a special “KEN100” discount code that lets you pick up a 3rd generation Drobo for $199 (plus about $20 in FedEx shipping). That would be a good price for a dumb 4-bay hard drive enclosure. (This code is supposed to be good until 12/31/2015.)

I’ll wait right here while you go do that . . .

Old Versus New

Drobo 3rd gen (left) vs 2nd gen (right).

Drobo 3rd gen (left) vs 2nd gen (right).

One week later… You should now have your new Drobo. The first thing you will notice is their package has gotten much nicer. I blame this on Apple, as they have made boring brown boxes seem downright primitive.

My¬†old Drobo came wrapped in¬†a black cloth bag. The new one comes in a¬†black cloth¬†bag that has handles on it — it’s a Drobo-logo’d version of those reusable grocery store bags! There was also a Drobo window sticker inside just like when you get that Apple sticker with a new Apple product (did I mention blaming things on Apple?). The packaging has much improved.

Everything else should be pretty similar. There is an included USB cable, and the power supply now uses a more standard power cable. The new Drobo looks the same except the logo is now embossed/raised on the front instead of just being painted on. (That’s the easiest way to tell them apart by looking at them when the lights aren’t on. More on the lights in a moment.) There is also a power switch on that back now. (Wow! I can FINALLY turn the thing off without having to yank the power cable.)

There is a warning note attached to the Drobo (and repeated in the included Quick Start guide printed on the inside cover of the accessory box). It says any drives you insert will have their data erased. What!?! I thought I read you could migrate your old “disk pack” from an old Drobo to the new one. Just to be safe, I did some searching on Drobos website and found an article that verified this was possible.

I also contacted Drobo support and they clarified: As long as the units are powered off, the erase will not happen, but if you insert the drives while the Drobo is booted, it will being the process of formatting them for new storage.

PRO-TIP: READ THE INSTRUCTIONS AND WARNINGS! Had I made the mistake of having my new Drobo powered up when I inserted the first drive, I would have lost data!

Once my previous drives (three 2TB and one 3TB) were moved over to the new Drobo, I powered it up to see if my data would survive…

Next time, we’ll find out if my data survived…

 

Drobo (2nd gen) to Drobo (3rd gen), part 3

See also: Part 1 and Part 2.

My 2nd generation Drobo (currently for sale on e-Bay).

My 2nd generation Drobo (currently for sale on e-Bay).

The story so far . . . In August 2009, I purchased two 2nd generation Drobos. Back then, Drobo was still a relatively new thing. I had been aware of it since the first model was introduced in 2007, but it was USB-only and thus too slow for my needs. The 2nd generation model added Firewire and I hoped I could use it for some video editing.

I populated my new Drobos with the bare hard drives I had been using separately. It took quite a bit of juggling to get all the data off various drives so I could then wipe them out and put them in the new Drobo. (I always do a zero-byte full reformat of drives before I use them. This exercises every sector of the drive and helps the drive map out bad blocks, or identify larger problems.)

At the time, Drobo documentation said if you make the device look like one huge drive, it might take several minutes to boot up. I chose to have the Drobo split itself up in to 1TB volumes. (This startup delay went away with a firmware update, apparently.)¬†As I added drives, more volumes would appear. Over the years, I upgraded from four 500GB drives to four 2TB drives, and eventually had six 1TB virtual drives on each device. (I say “virtual” because unlike a true RAID system, the Drobo file system is flexible. It has a set amount of storage, split between the various drive¬†volumes. You can’t actually fill each to 100%, and the Drobo suffers from severe slowdown if you fill it within 10% of max capacity. There are alot of gotchas with the magical Drobo.)

Eggs in One Basket

"Just buy another drive," they tell me.

“Just buy another drive,” they tell me.

While having to manage six volumes might seem like more work than one huge volume, it ended up saving me a number of times. I have had several instances of file system corruption on a Drobo volume where a volume would be unreadable (or not even mount). If this had happened to a huge 6TB single volume, I would have lost everything. By having it isolated to 1TB, it greatly reduced the amount of data I lost.

I tried Apple Disk Utility and a few other programs trying to recover the first disk crash, but only AlSoft’s DiskWarrior could do it. I¬†strongly recommend every Mac user have a copy of this wonderful program. In all but a few cases, it was able to recover my corrupted Drobo volume. The one that it couldn’t is still a bit of a mystery. A support guy from AlSoft spent some time examining sectors on my Drobo and determined that the directory had been erased. Drobo support claimed they didn’t do it, and blamed Disk Warrior. Disk Warrior claimed they didn’t even modify the drive until the final stage after the data was declared recoverable.

Thus, two of my major Drobo issues: Support and reliability. Though overall they have been helpful, there have been a number of times when Drobo support was useless. Early on, when a firmware update looked like it had lost ALL my data, they provided me a special firmware version that would let me READ all my data off. That’s great if I had a few spare terabytes sitting around to copy it to. Fortunately, they figured out the problem and I was able to recover my data and continue using the device.

Let’s just say I have had quite a bit of close calls over the years with Drobo (and have lost several terabytes of data). There have been issues where the Drobo would suddenly shut off (unmounting, and not waking up), or times when it would cause my Mac to hang on startup (if plugged in to the computer) and endless other annoying issues. Web searched revealed hundreds of similar reports from other Drobo users.

Much like an abusive relationship, the magic of Drobo seemed to keep many of us involved even when we knew we probably should move on.

I stuck¬†with my two Drobos for over six years. I put up with repeated¬†problems that always seemed to manifest themselves when I needed to get some work done. If my livelyhood depended on them, I am sure I would have had to move on to something else, but since I was just earning some side-income as a hobby-business, I couldn’t justify the expense of a professional high-end RAID system. It seems Drobo is¬†a consumer toy, not a professional tool.

Danger, Will Robinson

Drobo blues...

Houston, we have a problem.

Recently, a few things happened that caused me to consider an upgrade. First, one of my Drobos was regularly sending me alerts that it was in the process of rebuilding.

After about a week or so of this happening, I contacted Drobo support. The 2nd generation models had been end-of-lifed so they were no longer supported, but I was able to get the support tech to look at a diagnostic log file from my device. They wrote back:

Response By Email (xxxx) (11/03/2015 02:26 PM)

Hello Allen,

Thank you for contacting Drobo Technical Support,
I would recommend replacing the drive with the serial number WMAZA1948667 in the top bay.

We are showing that drive has 31 bad blocks and has had a full timeout.

If you have any other questions feel free to ask.

Thank you and have a great day.

Kind Regards,
xxxx.
Technical Support Agent

At the very least, I was going to have to replace that drive. All of my 2TB Western Digital Green drives were now out of warranty, so if one was starting to fail, it seemed likely others would too.

During my research of RAID systems, the low-cost ones I looked in to would not have worked with my Western Digital Green drives. Had I switched to RAID, I would have had to replace all my drives — an expense I couldn’t handle.

But, thanks to Swagbucks, I could at least get me a replacement drive. I decided to go with a 3TB Western Digital Red drive. These were rated for NAS devices, so they would be good for a RAID down the line if I ever ditched the Drobo.

When the drive arrived, I put my Drobo in standby and swapped out the bad drive. After a restart, Drobo then went to work rebuilding the drive and informed me how long it thought it might take . . .

440 hours!?!?!

440 hours!?!?!

Axl Rose, We Have a Problem…

To be continued . . .

 

Drobo (2nd gen) to Drobo (3rd gen), part 2

In part 1, I rambled on a bit about my experience with external hard drives and I stated that next I would explain “why I chose Drobo” and that we’d “look at the 2nd generation model versus the 3rd generation model.”

I guess I should do that.

Never Enough Storage

“Just buy a larger hard drive,” people tell me. It must be nice to have so little content you want to store that you can just buy an extra drive and be done with it. As an early adopter of digital photography (I got my first digital camera in 1996), I have taken several¬†hundred thousand digital photos over the years. With no negatives, keeping those digital originals safe is very important. I learned this the hard way when I had a hard drive failure and lost a year’s worth of photos. The only copies I had were the scaled-down and watermarked versions on my website. At least I had those!

All my earlier photos had been archived to stacks of CD-Rs, so I was able to recover most of them, but it was clear I would have to make backups more regularly¬†just in case it ever happened again. (“Just buy more DVD-Rs”.)

And it happened again. Several times, actually. I’ve had a number of hard drives fail on me unexpectedly. Most were still “new” drives, well under warranty. While Seagate or Western Digital will promptly replace the drive, that does little for you data.¬†ALWAYS MAKE BACKUPS!¬†(And always check reviews. The “more reliable” hard drive brand to buy has changed a number of times of the years. I am currently using Western Digital drives, but many years ago I wouldn’t have touched a WD for anything important.)

CD-Rs Aren’t Backups

For me, my main backup strategy was making sure all my digital photos and digital video files were archived to CD-R (then, later, DVD-R). I have stacks of these discs, but, sadly, some of my earliest CD-R backups¬†no longer read. That’s right, Virginia. CD-Rs are not “forever” media. Exposure to UV rays in light can cause bit rot. Just because you copy something to a plastic disc doesn’t¬†mean it’s safe long term.

When I learned CD-Rs were not enough, I decided I needed to do a combination of things:

  1. Every bit of important data should be archived to CD/DVD. Even if it’s not necessarily a long term solution, it’s still important to have a backup that can’t be taken out by a power surge or by dropping a computer.
  2. Every bit of important data should exist on at least two hard drives.
qBox 4-drive enclosure (photo from their website).

qBox 4-drive enclosure (photo from their website).

I started using some qBox-F¬†quad-drive enclosures on my Mac. I had two of them – one for primary storage and the other for backup. Each one was “JBOD” (just a bunch of disks) so they appeared are four separate drives to my Mac. Soon, though, four drives was not enough and I needed more storage. Every time I did, I had to get out the screwdriver and swap out drives and spend hours copying data back and forth. There had to be a better way.

A Better Way: Trayless Hard Drive Enclosures

iStarUSA v7AGE220-SAU enclosure

iStarUSA v7AGE220-SAU enclosure (photo from their website)

The next thing I found were trayless hard drive enclosures. They let you slide bare drives in and out without using tools. I bought a few inexpensive iStarUSA brand 2-drive enclosures. (I always like to have two matching enclosures in case one of them dies so I can swap drives out and get to my data in an emergency.) I was using the now-discontinued Firewire version for primary store (faster than USB 2.0) and had a cheaper USB-only version for emergency backup.

I also found a company that sold plastic hard drive cases that looked like old VHS rental tape cases. I ended up with a bookshelf full of hard drives. When I would copy data to one of them, I would also copy it to the second backup hard drive.

This worked quite well, but every time my collection grew I had to buy two more hard drives (primary and backup). I was hoping for a way to save some money while still getting protection. That’s what let me to research RAID-type hard drive systems.

Saving Money by Going RAID

With RAID, multiple drives are used and data is spread across all the drives. Every block of data is duplicated on another drive. If one drive fails, any data on that drive still exists somewhere else in the RAID array. This sounded like a good solution, but RAID has some limitations.

RAID systems want all drives to be of matching size (and preferably, type). If you put in a 500GB drive and a 750GB drive, the RAID would only use¬†the largest amount that is common to all drives (in this case, 500GB – thus wasting the rest of the 750GB drive). You were also locked to that size. If a drive failed and you replaced it with a larger drive, the data would rebuild on the new drive, but it would only use the size of the former drive. Thus, you couldn’t upgrade capacity without starting over with an all new set of larger drives and copying everything over.

My 2nd generation Drobo (currently for sale on e-Bay).

My 2nd generation Drobo (currently for sale on e-Bay).

I ended up going with a¬†Drobo because their non-standard “magic” was that you didn’t have to have matching hard drives. You could start with two drives of any size, and then add more (up to four) to expand. When you started running out of space, you could replace a drive with a larger one and continue to do this as needed. Drobo looked like a great solution to my ever-growing need for backup data.

Up next: Drobo pros and Drobo cons.

Drobo (2nd gen) to Drobo (3rd gen), part 1

This multi-part series will be an extensive review of the 3rd generation Drobo external hard drive enclosure and my experiences with it after migrating from a 2nd generation Drobo on a Mac. Thank you to Data Robotics for making this possible. My many years with Drobo have sometimes felt like an abusive relationship – I have had numerous instances of¬†data loss and many other¬†problems, but the “magic” of Drobo keeps pulling me back in. Hopefully, after another generation of product advancement, maybe this time things will be better. Drobo loves me. I know it does.

Most article writers seldom give you any indication of why they are qualified to speak on a subject. My experience with external hard drives began a long, long time ago . . . (Well, to you young folks. To me, it seems like only yesterday…) This will have nothing to do with the actual content, so please free to skip to Part 2 (once it is posted).

My Path to External Drives

In 1998, I purchased my first Apple product – an original bondi blue Apple iMac. It had no RS232 serial port, no parallel printer port, and no floppy drive. Instead, it used some weird port called a Universal Serial Bus (USB) to hook up to such devices. There was pretty much nothing available that used USB back then. Early USB devices included mice, keyboards, printers, RS232 serial ports, external floppy drives and hard drives.

In the next MacWorld keynote after the iMac was released, Steve Jobs gave a presentation where he unveiled “Firewire” (Apple’s re-branding of the IEEE-1394 standard). He demonstrated it by showing it used to hook up an external hard drive and a digital video camcorder. Back then, the only way I’d ever seen an external hard drive hooked up to a PC was via the parallel printer port (Iomega Zip drives, for example) or via a SCSI interface. The only way I’d ever seen a camera hooked up was by audio/video inputs to a video digitizing device. It was a very different world!

Seeing Firewire allow importing of digital video from a camcorder was revolutionary, and I instantly knew it was something I wanted to be able to do.

Digression:

Around 1981, my father had a video camera that hooked to a huge VHS recorder. I remember making silly home videos with it a kid. In 1982, we made a trip to Walt Disney World with a “portable” VHS recorder and camera. I guess we recorded some of the earliest vacation “home videos” long before everyone there was carrying around a camera. In the years that followed, things got smaller: all-in-one VHS camcorders would be introduced, and then tiny 8mm video tapes (and VHS-C). The home video revolution was in full swing, but the only way I ever edited video back then was with two video recorders hooked together. As video moved to digital (Digital8 on 8mm tapes, or DV tapes), a new world opened up. Seeing digital video being “imported” from tape in to a computer and then edited on screen non-linearly was magic. I bought a Sony Digital8 camcorder in preparation for having this editing capability at home.

Although Firewire was initially only available on the high-end (and expensive) PowerMac G3 desktop, Apple quickly added it to their next consumer computer when the iMac DV (digital video) was released in 1999. It took me weeks to get one at the local CompUSA, but soon I was set up with a digital camcorder and a computer with Firewire. The only problem was that an hour of digital video took about 13GB of hard drive space, and the iMac DV Special Edition I had only came with a 13GB drive.

This is what led to me purchasing my first external hard drive. (I am not counting the “big floppy” Iomega Zip drives or SyQuest EZ135 drives I used on PCs, my Radio Shack Color Computer or OS-9 MM/1 systems. I had been using those for years, but they weren’t hard drives.)

After filling up this first 30 gigabyte external drive (at least, I think it was 30), I moved on to many more drives over the years, each one larger than the last. Today on my desk I have¬†four external drive enclosures (two 2-bay RAID systems, and two 2nd generation Drobos), a 3TB Seagate backup drive, and about four tiny pocket drives… Between all of those and the drives in my computers, I easily have over 20 terabytes of storage which, sadly, seems to be full at all times.

Over the years I have gone through brand after brand, including many that no longer exist. Western Digital makes up most of the drives I am currently using, though there was a time when their drives were considered bad and you’d have better luck with Seagate. There were other brands that, for awhile, were considered the most reliable. I have no brand loyalty. I just want my data to be protected. EVERY drive can and will fail. Always assume that day will be tomorrow and keep redundant copies of all your important data.

So am I an expect about external hard drives? Not at all . . . but I’ve probably used more of them over the years, and use more of them today, than most folks will in a lifetime.

Up next, why I chose Drobo and a look at the 2nd generation model versus the 3rd generation model.