Category: Hardware

Let’s talk about music?

I really haven’t been thinking of things to share on a blog lately, as can be seen by the length of time from the last post. Most of my online interactions are happening other places, like Facebook. But recently I dove into a new hobby (or expanded a longstanding passion, depending on how you look at it). Rather than just listening to and collecting tons of music, I have finally realized that I can curate and mix it and share it with other people, both online, and live. I have been having a tremendous amount of fun gathering tools and building skills in that direction, and this blog seems like it might be a good outlet for some of the discoveries.

To start with, Traktor for mixing is fantastic! At first I was a bit put off by its interface, but the power in there is worth getting used to it, and the choices the designers made do work well once you understand them. And especially when you pair the software with their amazing hardware controllers.

The edge of the new kitchen will be a perfect place to mix during parties.

Last Monday I finally recorded a mix, while I was working off some stress, and I am really pleased with how it came out. And today I found what looks like an ideal way to share mixes with the world, ensuring the original artists of the underlying songs get their full credit and royalties. So you can now find A Concrete Abacus on Mixcloud.

Past the Curse?

It was back in November that I whined about a whole bunch of things going wrong with my tech, all at once. Well, I have finally replaced the last failed item, since my Nehalem Xeon powered Mac Pro shipped a week and a half earlier than Apple promised, and I have it set up and migrated.

Engadget has posted a bunch of nice unboxing shots, so I don’t have to. I will however show a nice touch I found when installing the troublesome Blu-Ray drive that failed so miserably in the dual G5 machine this one replaces. Since the new machine uses SATA for its optical bays I can now hook up the drive directly, without the flimsily-attached bundled ATAPI adapter, which seemed mostly good for causing kernel panics. (The bay also has two slots, so I can leave Apple’s SuperDrive in place when adding the Blu-Ray drive). I quickly realized I was going to need some screws to attach the drive, but before I could start tearing apart my closet in the faint hope that my miscellaneous-server-parts box might contain some that would work, I noticed that Apple had thought of this and taken care of me.

Not only does the mounting tray pop out to make it easy to attach the optical drives, but Apple supplies an extra set of screws for when you want to use the second bay:

Optical drive bay from Mac Pro showing spare screws

Optical drive tray from Mac Pro showing spare screws.

I’ve highlighted the location of the spare screws, and the one I’d already used to start attaching the Blu-Ray drive. A most thoughtful and civilized solution!

Installing the second SATA hard drive for Time Machine was almost insanely easy, as you’ve no doubt read elsewhere. I thought my previous G5 case made drive installation almost as easy as possible, but this was significantly easier.

I am happy to report that the Toast Blu-Ray encoder does make good use of multiple threads, as can be seen in this screen shot:

Activity Monitor windows while Toast encodes a Blu-Ray disc

Activity Monitor windows while Toast encodes a Blu-Ray disc.

I still can’t get over the processor activity window with its sixteen bar graphs—two for each core, since hyperthreading allows two simultaneous threads per core.

I had to rearrange the room a little, since the new LED Cinema Display shipped with noticeably shorter cables than my previous display (perhaps because it was originally aimed at MacBook users, but still somewhat disappointing). The extravagant amount of screen space was worth it, though.

The new arrangement of my desktop to accommodate both displays

The new arrangement of my desktop to accommodate both displays.

After almost a week of getting settled and experimenting, I can confirm that this machine is a joy to use, and a most worthy replacement for the one whose motherboard died. And I’m also happy to report that the old dual G5 has an excited new owner as of this morning: a graphic designer who was expecting to repair her much slower and older machine, and who will be able to make great use of it.

Dealing with the Curse

My Power Mac is dead and will stay that way. It would cost about $1,000 to get a new logic board installed, which is at the high end of what I could hope to sell the whole system for in perfect working condition today, never mind when I want to replace it in a month or two, when the new line of Mac Pros comes out. So I eventually picked it up from the hard-to-reach (on the phone) repair shop, and it’s sitting in my storage locker as a very heavy and attractive source of spare parts for Marc’s own tower should anything (other than the logic board) fail on him.

I found a way to limp along without it, though. I have temporarily repurposed the Mac Mini I had been using as a voice mail system in my comm closet. By adding a 500 GiB external hard drive (which I scored for $80 at Target, hurrah), partitioning that drive to boot Intel Macs, and installing Leopard on it, I was able to boot into the migration assistant, and pull over the environment from my Power Mac’s SATA boot drive. There was some hassle with software that I wasn’t able to deactivate on the old machine before it died (not knowing said death was imminent), so I had to contact support at Adobe and Mark/Space to get my registrations moved over, and jump through a few other hoops, but now I have access to my important media libraries and other such things while I wait for Apple’s exciting announcements next year.

The Mini actually does a surprisingly good job of filling in for the PowerMac and driving my Cinema Display, although it is way short on memory by comparison having just 1 GiB shared with an on-board video controller; the tower had 5 GiB and a screaming video card. I won’t be doing any video encoding projects for a while, and if I get sick of virtual memory paging lag, I may spend $30 and some effort prying open the case to double the RAM. But I can definitely get by for a few months and save the $1,000 repair cost towards buying a new screaming machine when the Nehalem Xeon models debut.

The TiVo is back to full capability, with a Seagate-mechanism 750 GiB eSATA external drive from WeaKnees working just great. I expect it to last much longer than the officially-supported Western Digital drive did, and even though this enclosure has fans (which is a good thing for longevity), you can’t hear them. The drive mechanism itself is more audible, but it’s not an unpleasant sound. The only thing I wasn’t crazy about was the very bright blue LEDs on the front of the enclosure, but a couple of pieces of electrical tape calmed them right down. I may find a more aesthetically sophisticated solution someday, but from normal viewing distance this looks fine for now. And the TiVo Series 3 did warn me it was uncertified, but was quite happy to go ahead and use it anyway, as expected.

Curse Update

Now that I am back from a great visit to friends and family in New York City and Connecticut, I finally had time to make some progress in diagnosing the TiVo. I called back to discuss my trouble ticket last night, and to report that things had degraded significantly, to the point where I could not watch or record anything. No programs had been recorded since Monday, November 24.

The friendly TiVo tech walked me through various troubleshooting steps, leading up to a “Kickstart 54” which performed hard drive diagnostics once we got it to launch successfully. Even doing that required letting the external drive power off for a while first.

It turned out that, as I suspected, the external drive was garbage. It had started to fail days after its warranty timer ran out, and was now unable to pass any of the tests other than the “initial state” which seems to just say “are you there?”

The silver lining is that the internal drive, which would be much more of a pain to replace, is just fine. So I ended up biting the bullet and severing the TiVo’s connection to the external drive. Of course that meant irrevocably losing almost a terabyte worth of the TV programs and movies I had saved, many of which I hoped to watch or burn to DVD. One advantage of the seasonally-imposed delays in getting to this point is that I had already mentally prepared myself for this outcome.

Now my TiVo is working fine again, with a quarter of the space it had before. It snagged an episode of The Venture Brothers last night, and let me watch some spooled Good Morning America while I got ready for work this morning.

I’ve ordered a replacement drive from WeaKnees. I am giving up on the “TiVo Certified” route, since they still only officially support Western Digital drives, and my experience with the last one lived down to my expectations. Happily my Series 3 will let me use an unsupported drive, and WeaKnees has a nice Seagate mechanism that is designed for DVR use, in a quiet enclosure. And I already know how to run the hard drive diagnostics if it ever comes to this again in the future, so good-bye to supported but low-quality hardware.

On the other major front, I am having less luck. It turns out that The MacXprts were not out of business, they were just having problems with their phone line (and still are). They can get calls from some places, but not my office in Fitchburg. If I call on my cell phone I can at least reach their voice mail. When I stopped in (without time to do so, really) on Wednesday, they told me that the original person who took my Mac had misspoken when he quoted two business days for me to hear a diagnosis and repair plan; the real figure was a much less satisfactory five business days.

Well, even that has more than elapsed now, and I have received no communication from them whatsoever. I left a message expressing concern and dissatisfaction yesterday, and they have not called me back. So, I have to report that their customer service, speed, and general business is leaving me highly unimpressed. I should not have tried to support a local business, it seems. At least not this one.

Now that it is clear I will be without my Mac for several weeks, I am being forced to find ways to cope without it. Last night I dealt with the most pressing issue, migrating Quicken, my data files, and the Treo syncing software over to my laptop. I needed to do this in order to record the past few weeks of transactions, adjust balances, and pay some bills that were very nearly coming due.

At some point I may well conclude I can limp along without the desktop machine until Apple’s new line next year. But there are some things I won’t have space to migrate over to the laptop, and some that will be hard to deal with. So I hope it doesn’t come to that.

If I don’t start hearing from the folks at The MacXperts soon, I am going to go and demand my hardware back and dispute their charge on my credit card. Very disappointing.

The Tech Curse gets even worse

It used to be Joe who suffered from incredible tech failures. I fear he has bequeathed that curse to me.

First my Treo’s antenna fell off somewhere during a workday. Luckily, I had his as a spare, and it did not take too long to migrate my software, data, and Bluetooth trust relationships to it. Then our TiVo started rebooting with increasing frequency. I have started jumping through their support hoops but won’t have time to get to the bottom of it until after this weekend. And the best-case scenario is that my external drive (barely out of warranty) is defective, and I will lose almost all my recordings in replacing it. I really didn’t like the fact that the only TiVo-approved drive was a Western Digital, and it has lived down to my expectations.

My car had a low tire last week, and the compressor I keep in my trunk for such situations is dead.

This kind of thing did not previously happen to me with such frequency. And there have been other minor annoyances… But the pièce de résistance is this: My dual G5 Power Mac, which has been out of extended warranty for a year and a half, which I want to replace early next year when the new powerhouse Intel chips make it into the Mac Pro line, died on Thursday. I hoped it was just an NVRAM battery or memory, but no such luck.

So I took it in for repair Saturday. The MacXprts had moved to a new location very conveniently close to my home, so I decided to support a local business rather than dealing with the zoo at the official Apple store. They seemed friendly, there was stuff on the shelves, they asked good questions and wrote up a repair order. I expected to hear back Monday or yesterday. But nothing yet, so I just called them back.

Their number “has been temporarily disconnected.”

At this point I don’t know if they are a victim of the credit crunch, just flaky and forgot to pay their phone bill, or running a scam. And I do not have time to deal with this. I have questions racing through my head like “will the police help me bust in and look for my Mac?” “Will my homeowner’s insurance cover this?” I know that’s premature, but this is very unsettling. I need to use some of the software on that machine soon, and won’t have time to even really pursue this until Monday. Augh!

Thank heavens that I at least had the foresight to remove the hard drives before dropping it off.

Blu-Ray misadventures part 2: MCE’s missing Support

I wrote email to MCE’s technical support last Wednesday, with details about the problems their drive was causing my system. I heard nothing back, so I wrote to their customer service address on Friday. I have still not heard back from either. So I can’t recommend purchasing from these people, after spending over $500 on a drive (which was back ordered for weeks). Which is a pity, because the specs on the drive are very nice.

I needed to be able to use my G5 tower this weekend, so I took out the new Blu-Ray drive and put the factory DVD burner back in. This yielded an instant and total restoration of system stability.

Out of curiosity, I pulled off the jury-rigged SATA to ATAPI adapter they shipped the Blu-Ray drive with, and tried hooking it up externally using my NewerTech USB 2.0 Universal Drive Adapter (a veritable “swiss army knife” of drive attachment which I have found very useful on occasion—they are selling a newer version with more blinky lights and a slightly higher price today.)

In this configuration, I still had the exact same error trying to burn a BD-video disk using Toast 9, but the drive otherwise worked perfectly. I was able to burn and read all different kinds of media with no issues, and my system remained completely stable. So it looks like the drive itself works fine, but the card they taped to the back to connect it to my older Mac is garbage.

I expect them to do something about this, because I would really much rather have it work internally. And even if I can’t get to that state until I upgrade my Mac, I can’t have it sitting naked on the floor with lab wiring running to my computer every time I want to work with Blu-Ray media. So if they can’t get me a stable internal adapter, I want a working Firewire or USB enclosure. And I want a response from their support teams, and an apology for the delay and silence so far.

I’ll also need to open a ticket with Roxio support to sort out the Toast issues burning BD-video when I get back from my trip.

MCE Blu-Ray Burner: So Far, So-So

Almost four weeks ago I took the plunge and ordered a Blu-ray burner from MCE Technologies to install into my Power Mac G5 tower. It was on back order for quite a while, as was the media I ordered from Meritline (which I expect to finally show up this week). The drive itself arrived at the end of last week, and they were kind enough to ship a re-recordable Blu-ray disc with it, so I was able to play with it some over the weekend.

The results so far have not been encouraging.

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