The Northern Spy: surplus G5s, Apple IDs, The Interrregnum
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The Northern Spy: surplus G5s, Apple IDs, The Interrregnum

By Rick Sutcliffe

The Spy recently acquired a few surplus G5s, and in the process of setting them up to be useful file servers and replacements for even older G4s at his home and church, (re)-discovered some interesting things about memory, disk drives, and both hardware and software compatibilities.

First is that all disk drives are not manufactured equal, quite apart from the Thailand flooding that means many aren't being manufactured at all. Two 250G Maxtor drives in an old G5 Quad, when inserted into a new (well, one year old) MacPro, could not be recognized. Evidently this is a known problem with this brand--they play well with some machines and not with others. 'Course, the Maxtor name is gone now, absorbed by Seagate, but perhaps this finicky behaviour is one reason why.

So, the Spy went out to his local NCIX store and picked up a new Western Digital Caviar blue 500G drive for the Quad. No problem getting that recognized, partitioned, and loaded with software, and it worked for reading and writing files, but it couldn't boot. Much experimentation led exactly nowhere, so that drive went back. The only one of a size in stock was a Seagate model ST500DM002-1BD142 (for thirty dollars less), which he brought home with some trepidation, given his experience with the Maxtor. Partitioned and formatted at 465G (they all exaggerate capacity) but works like a charm. Go figure.

By the way, he has two 2T and two 1T 7200RPM Hitachi drives that he can well recommend. Used six months to nearly a year now in his MacPro and Synology NAS box. Fast and reliable. He's thinking about SSDs but hasn't jumped yet. The Spy isn't as much an early adopter as he once was. He notes, however, that Hitachi has agreed, for better or for worse, to sell its storage technology division to Western Digital.

Along the way, the low stock levels and a sign on the NCIX door told a tale of its own. Customers were limited to two disk drive purchases per day because of shortages. Expect drive prices to increase, but no sooner will the supply stabilize than SSD prices will drop enough to become competitive. Sorry, but Winchester technology is so...yesterday that it's not yet retro.

The next adventure was memory. The single core G5s use PC2700 or PC3200, while the Quad uses PC4200 (pairs only). The first two must be low density slugs, whereas the latter will apparently take high density, though it mis-announces it as a much lower speed. After talking the matter over with the memory supplier, the Spy has decided to take their advice and switch it to the low density memory as well. We'll see. Going from 2.5G to 4.5G of memory in the Quad did make a noticeable difference, however, as one might expect.

After that, he had to deal with compatibility issues, for the maximum OS those old G5s can run is Leopard, and a few manufacturers, including Apple, no longer distribute universal binaries, meaning their software won't run on the PPC G5 under any OS, unless you revert to an older version. So, his applications disk now has a segregated section for Snow Leopard/Intel-only apps, including the latest DragThing, Firefox, BBEdit, Microsoft Office 11 (still being tested for compatibility with his vast collection of macros, but close to passing), plus all versions of Logos Bible Software and of backup utility Good Sync.

Leopard itself was not an issue, as he was still running that on his laptop, pending Office passing his compatibility tests so that he can lay aside the 2004 version (the last previous to support his multi-megabytes of macros). However, his first foray into file sharing (the idea was to use those old machines for backup) left him with the impression that the sharing facilities in both Leopard and Snow Leopard were unfinished and amateurish. For instance, an initial connect after a reboot or wake from sleep might require the serving computer to turn file sharing off and then back on before its disks could be mounted elsewhere.

Also, bringing up the server's window automatically tries to connect, and one has generally to wait until that connect fails before selecting either "share screen" or "connect as". Finally, sleep does not work properly and the servers remain awake even if the machine sharing from them itself goes to sleep. Ah, but the Spy well remembers all the troubles Apple had with sleep over the years. He'll be interested to see if it is fixed in Lion when he fires that up in a few weeks' time.

Other blasts from the past needed to make all this work: more copies of Leopard and an Apple ADC to DVI converter to drive an Apple Studio Display (hey, it still works, so why throw it out?) from a machine with only DVI connectors. Good old eBay. Doesn't nostalgia bring back memories? And, while on the subject of antiques, doesn't it make you feel old to see things you have in your own house and use every day (dishes, for instance) on auction by antique stores and sites?

All the file and disk copying, and the lack of GoodSync on the Leopard machines did, however, lead to a re-evaluation of backup programs, and the Spy found himself much more impressed with current versions of the Carbon Copy Cloner shareware program than he was with earlier ones. A cautious thumbs up, pending further testing.

A good news story was occasioned by a partial failure of one of the Spy's KVM switches. For the majority of readers who have no use for such things, these allow one monitor and keyboard to be used on several different computers at the press of a button. Well, almost. One must when switching first put the current computer to sleep, then make the switch before the sleep commences, else the act of disconnecting the keyboard will re-awaken it and confuse it when it finds no monitor attached.

Then it goes into a nightmarish headless world that requires a reboot. This is, come to think of it, another Mac sleep issue. Those machines want really badly to be awake and working for their owners, but when they do sleep they can go comatose. Sigh. Only in computerland.

The Spy has a KVM switch on both home and office desks, and a while back switched (sic) from the older mechanical Dr. Bott versions to the electronic IOGear version. These are audio enabled, switching the sound as well as DVI and keyboard, and come with sets of bundled cables each about 2m long. Very convenient. Like most such "little boxes" they require 5V DC supplied by a little transformer. From one of the units, the Spy had noticed some video wavering, then substantial RFI, and finally the monitor began to flicker, until it was more off than on.

Was the fault in the monitor, the switch, the cables, or …? Swopping around the individual bits and pieces eventually isolated the unit's external transformer power supply, and a 5V unit from another piece of gear was temporarily substituted. Result: no more flicker or RFI, and the cleanest display in months. Got the culprit.

The good side? The Spy wrote up a complete description on a sticky note, signed on to the a chat on the IOGear site, and after a four minute wait, technician Larry Levi came on the virtual line. The Spy pasted in his description, complete with a "What say?" and his mailing address, etc. Seconds later came back the answer "I will send an adapter to you free of charge." Kudos to Larry and IOGear for doing it right. This seems to be a classy company.

Besides the GCS1764 which he has, and the company still makes, they also have some newer product in this line that will switch two monitors rather than just one. Nice, but pricey, and hard for the Spy to justify. He'll keep one monitor always on his main machine and switch only the other.

Along the way, the Spy noted that IOGear now sells 3m and 5m versions of the cable bundle, and ordered one of each from an Amazon site, which had a better price than the manufacturer store. While he was at it he picked up some gender changers to make 4m cables from two 2m cables. Price point: a DVI gender changer is $13 locally, under $1.25 from several Amazon stores. Several lashes to, however, for not telling the customer until checkout that a product cannot be shipped to Canada. Far more lashes to the manufacturers and distributors who agree to territorial rights that prevent such shipments. Agreements like that should be challenged under restraint of trade and anti-trust laws.

Turning to last month's quibble and a less than stellar experience with Apple's support, the Spy finally got them to change his AppleID. They only wanted his billing info for security reasons, not to charge him, and settled for the last four numbers of his credit card for this purpose. Could have said this earlier in the game. No comment back on whether they would take his advice on fixing their own web site and the failed code behind it. No response back after over a month waiting for assets to be transferred from an old ID to a newer one. Twenty lashes for the poorest support experience in years, but at least he was finally able to upgrade to IOS5.

But discussions with his technicians at the university revealed deeper problems. There is no enterprise support, ostensibly because (as a rep is quoted) "our products don't fail." However, they do, and far more often than they used to, because the company has been using ever cheaper components and labour force. Indeed, Apple’s quality control is now middle of the pack, a big change from a few years ago.

Yet the price differential (sometimes nearly double) asks one to believe the quality is still there (you do get more for the money, but not that much). The university will switch from iMacs as a default for all desktops (Win or OSX) to buying Macs only when requested. Twenty more lashes. Get your act together, Cupertino. Mind share can be lost as easily as it was gained. Ask Redmond.

Returning to the pre-mortems of the last two months the Spy notes that the news becomes grimmer by the week for beleaguered once-industry leader RIM. Sales are dismal, it's tablet a failure, and its reputation for reliability in tatters. Could even a takeover and restructuring save it? Maybe, but time is running out. As noted above, the Spy's Fourth Law is as cruel on the downside as it is beneficial on the up. Even if the mindshare space can be turned around, two to five years of declining sales will ensue before this can be reflected in the market. That's an eternity in this business.

Keep in mind that the same is true of the bond market, currency fluctuations (where the lag is far less) and the stock market. Only heroic measures can save the Euro now, and no heroes have yet appeared on the scene. OTOH, the stock market appears to have fully priced in the macro consequences of a European financial disaster, and in the micro case, of Steve Job's death. North American markets and Apple in particular, seem undervalued to this rank amateur (who is not giving financial advice). European ones my be overvalued.

News of The Interrregnum

Longtime (and very patient) readers of the Spy's alternate history science fiction series "The Interregnum" (in which the Irish rule the worlds) will be pleased (or not) to learn that the sixth volume, entitled "The Builder" is in final editing, and awaiting only a last reading and the completion of the cover art. It should be available RSN, though at over 300K words, it is not an evening's read.

Unfortunately, whilst working on volume seven, "The Throne" which was supposed to have a plot sequence within the story circle comprised of shorts from each century of the Irish dominion since 1014, he got immersed in the fourteenth century, whose "chapter" is now up to 525K words, and will likely reach 600K by the time the yarn of Hibernia's equivalents to Arthur Wellesley and Horatio Nelson (cum Thomas Edison) exhausts itself. Four books in a different series?

--The Northern Spy

Opinions expressed here are entirely the author's own, and no endorsement is implied by any community or organization to which he may be attached. Rick Sutcliffe, (a.k.a. The Northern Spy) is professor and chair of Computing Science and Mathematics at Canada's Trinity Western University. He has been involved as a member or consultant with the boards of several organizations, including in the corporate sector, and participated in industry standards at the national and international level.

He is a long time technology author and has written two textbooks and six novels, one named best ePublished SF novel for 2003. His columns have appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers (paper and online), and he's a regular speaker at churches, schools, academic meetings, and conferences. He and his wife Joyce have lived in the Aldergrove/Bradner area of BC since 1972.

Want to discuss this and other Northern Spy columns? Surf on over to Participate and you could win free web hosting from the subsidiary of Arjay Web Services. Rick Sutcliffe's fiction can be purchased in various eBook formats from Fictionwise, and in dead tree form from Amazon's Booksurge.

URLs for Rick Sutcliffe's Arjay Enterprises:

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URLs for items mentioned in this column:

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