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Build Guide: Transintl Portable Firewire CaseReturn to News Page

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Build Guide: Transintl.com's Portable Firewire Case Kit
with (Fast) Oxford 911 Bridge
Step-By-Step Illustrated Guide

By Mike
Published: 7/13/2001


OS X 10.1.1 Update: The OS X 10.1.1 update seems to have solved the problems seen with Oxford911 bridge based Firewire drives that 10.1 had mentioned in the OS X 10.1 and Firewire drives article. See this page for reader feedback on OS X 10.1.1.

There are two technologies from the last few years that have proven to be far more useful than I ever dreamed when they were announced. The first is Firewire (the other is Airport/wireless networking, but that's another story). When I bought my first B&W G3 with onboard firewire, I didn't think I'd have a lot of use for Firewire. Boy was I mistaken... Since then I've used Firewire for both portable and AC powered hard drives (often re-using IDE drives I had as spares from upgrading desktops or Powerbooks), replaced my SCSI CD recorder with a Firewire model and my small DV camcorder has a Firewire interface for plug-n-play iMovie capture. Of all of the devices I own, I have to say though that the portable firewire drives get the most use (literally daily). With computers in several rooms (that are not networked nor left on all the time), it's nice to have a small drive that needs no AC power to backup or transport files.

If you're upgrading the drive inside a Powerbook, a portable firewire case makes a great way to reuse the old drive while also retaining your original data on it. (Drives formatted on the onboard IDE will mount fine with data intact when put in a Firewire or USB case.)

This is the first portable case kit I've actually used that has the fast Oxford 911 firewire/IDE (ATA) chip. As noted on previous articles here, the first firewire case kits had basically ATA/3 (16.6MB/sec max) rated bridges. The Oxford 911 chip is rated for ATA/66 speeds I believe, although no single drive will sustain more than about 30-35MB/sec rates (even using the G4/AGP systems's onboard ATA/66 controller). Notebook 2.5" drives have much lower performance than the 3.5" desktop models due to their compact and power saving designs, but they're getting faster. (Enough chit-chat - on to the case details...)

Transintl portable case kit

(NOTE: Their current case has Firewire 400+USB 2.0 Ports, this review was of the early FW-only model.) Kit Contents: What you get with the Transintl.com Portable Firewire case kit. (Current kits are FW+USB 2.0, list below if for original FW only case from 2001)

  • Clear Plastic Firewire case (of course)
  • Oxford 911 Chip IDE/Firewire bridge board.
  • AC Adapter
  • Firewire cable (6 pin-6 Pin)
  • CD with El Gato's Disk Control 1.1 Drivers
  • Screws (4 drive mtg screws and 2 case end cover screws)

If you're running OS 9.1 or the Firewire 2.7 drivers, you don't need any extensions to mount the drive once it's formatted. When building 3.5" (desktop size) hard drive case kits, I prefer to format the IDE drive using the onboard IDE of a Mac before installing it in the case, instead of using any 3rd party utilities. With the portable drives it's not practical to do this unless you have a 40 pin IDE to notebook adapter cable however, but just connecting an unformatted firewire drive will usually have the Finder pop up a dialog allowing you to initialize it. Apple drivers are also generally more compatable with future OS versions and perform well in general.

This case kit didn't come with an assembly/installation manual, although it's fairly straightforward to build. The switch positions required a quick trial and error to see which was Off, AC adaper powered and bus powered. I've included a diagram below of the switch settings.

Tools/Items Required: In addition to the case kit you'll need:

  • Philips Screwdriver (small tip)
  • 2.5" Notebook IDE Hard Drive (IBM 48GB Travelstar used in this example)

Assembly Overview:

  1. Install the 4 rubber "feet" on the case bottom
  2. Mount the hard drive onto the circuit board
  3. Secure the drive to the circuit board using the 4 screws included in the kit
  4. Slide the circuit board/drive assembly into the case
  5. Insert the end cap into the case and secure it with 2 screws
  6. Slide the power switch to the desired position (bus or AC powered)
    (If using the drive with a PCMCIA (Cardbus) Firewire controller, you must use the supplied AC adapter. See the diagram below for switch settings.)
  7. Initialize/Format the drive

Tip: As noted in other notebook drive install guides here (PB G3 upgrade guides, expansion bay kit builds and portable FW drive builds), do not press down on the top cover of notebook drives. This can damage the drive. Handle the drive from the edges and try to avoid contact with any circuit board components on the bottom of the drive to minimize the chance of static discharge damaging the drive's electronics.

Step-By-Step Case Kit Assembly:

1.) Apply the Case Rubber "Feet":
Although you could do this last, I applied the 4 small rubber "feet" to the case first. Simply peel off the backing and apply them to the 4 outlined areas on the bottom of the case.

Apply rubber feet

Note: Press down very firmly on the rubber feet. Personally, I'd suggest using some additional adhesive to better secure them, since within 24 hours I noticed one of them had come off during handling here. (Unfortunately I was unable to find it, as they are very small.)

2.) Mount the Drive to the Circuit Board:
First examine the hard drive to make sure there are no jumpers present on any pins. (I've never seen a 2.5" IDE drive of any brand come with a jumper installed, but one reader noted he'd seen this on drive once.) If any jumpers are installed, remove them since you want to the drive to be set as a "master", which normally means no jumpers are present on any pins on the drive's connector.

This circuit board is a close fit lengthwise for the hard drive. Tilt the drive carefully slide the connector end of the hard drive onto the connector on the circuit board. Keeping the drive horizontally positioned within the width of the circuit board will make sure the pin alignment is correct, but watch for this when mating the connectors on the drive and board. The photo below shows the drive mounted on the circuit board.

mount drive on board

The photo below shows an end view looking from the connector side of the circuit board.

End View

Make sure there are no jumpers installed on the pins shown in the photo.

3.) Secure the Hard Drive to the Ckt. Board:
With the drive mounted on the circuit board, invert the board and install the 4 supplied drive mounting screws as shown below. (Note: Do not apply pressure on the top cover of the drive - hold the drive/board by the edges.)

Drive mtg screws

Tighten the screws but don't overdo it, which could place unnecessary stress on the drive.

4.) Slide the Circuit Board into the Case:
The photo below shows me sliding the board/drive assembly into the case with one hand, but the other is holding the camera for this photo. You'll need to use one hand to hold the case and the other to slide the drive into the case.

Installing board in case

Align the edges of the board with the grooves in the rubber strip gasket inserts in the case. Side the board fully into the case as far as it will go. (Do not press on the power switch or firewire connectors - press on the edge of the circuit board.)

5.) Install the Case End Cap:
The final assembly step is to insert the case end cap into the housing and secure it. Make sure the end cap open areas for the switch and AC adapter plug are correctly oriented.

Install end cap

Press the end cap in as far as it will go. Use the 2 supplied tiny self-tapping screws to secure the end cap in the case. (Each side of the case near the end has a screw hole.) Don't overtighten these small screws. (I did not install these screws since I will be removing the drive for installation/tests in a PowerBook G4 later. The end cap is almost a press fit and would not fall out.)

6.) Power Switch Settings:
Once the case is completely assembled, slide the switch to the far left position if you're going to use it with on-board Firewire (B&W G3 or later Macs), or a PCI firewire card. If you're using a PCMCIA (Cardbus) Firewire controller, these don't provide bus power so you'll have to use the supplied AC adapter and set the switch to the far right position (when viewing it from the switch end of the case, with the drive label side up). The diagram below shows the switch settings.

Switch settings

(This is the first portable case I have used with a switch like this.)

7.) Formatting the New Drive:
Once the switch is set, connect the supplied firewire cable to the Mac's firewire port and the drive. The Finder within a few seconds will pop up a dialog box asking if you want to format (initialize) the drive. Select "MacOS Extended" (otherwise you'll waste a lot of disk storage space to larger minimum block sizes.) MacOS Extended (aka HFS+) has more (and smaller) blocks for maximum storage efficiency. If you're running OS 9.1, as noted previously the Apple Firewire 2.7 (and later versions) extensions will mount the drive without any 3rd party disk support extension. (They do seem to often take longer to mount a drive however.)


Disassembly Notes:
What's really needed if you have to remove the drive/board from the case later (for a drive upgrade, repair, etc.) is an extraction tool to help remove both the end cap and the circuit board. I used a bent (stiff) paperclip to extract the end cap and pull out the board. (There is a plated through hole near the switch and AC adapter input on the board that can be used for this purpose.) Once the board is installed, it takes a fairly firm pull to slide it back out of the case. The rubber inserts in the case will come out with the board, but can be easily removed and put back in the case's guides.

Initial Performance Notes/Comments:
I'll have more test results later in dedicated page on performance and comparisons to other drives, but until then here are some quick comments on completed drive.

The 48GB Travelstar drive used with this case (5411 RPM/2MB cache) formats to a capacity of 44.7GB. (The decimal (1k = 1000) vs binary (1k=1024) numbering scheme is the major reason formatted capacity is always less than the "rated" size as noted here previously in the FAQ.) My 32GB Travelstar formats to just under 30GB and a 20GB notebook drive typically formats to 18.6GB. Just a FYI that the 'listed' drive size (SCSI, IDE or any hard drive) will always be less than the listed size.

The first performance tests I ran were impressive for a portable firewire drive. Copying a 102.3MB file from the ATA/66 onboard IDE drive in a G4/500 DP to the portable drive took 11.92 seconds. (Effective rate of appx. 8.6MB/sec.) That sounds low I know to many of you used to seeing only ATTO's pure benchmark rates (see below for those). However as noted in past articles, I've not seen much better effective/real world Finder copy rates even with onboard ATA/66 and a 75GXP desktop drive for this test.
There's also some margin for error in stopwatch tests (easily 1/2 second start/stop possible variation), but performance in this specific test was equivalent to the results I saw on that same test with a full size Oxford911 case w/IBM 60GB desktop drive.

For those interested in the pure ATTO benchmark results with the 48GB Travelstar/Oxford911 portable case (using G4/500 DP system) are:

  • Sustained Read/Write: 19.73/18.30 (MB/sec)
  • Peak Read/Write: 36.42/18.30 (MB/sec)

(Update: I've posted a page on OS X vs OS 9.1 Firewire performance that used this case w/48GB Travelstar drive vs. an Oxford 911 AC powered case w/IBM 60GB 75GXP drive.)
I'll also be installing this drive in a PowerBook G4/400 for testing. (I'll be posting a guide for that as well to suppliment my previous PowerBook G3 wallstreet and Pismo install guides.) Remember as noted in a previous article, the Powerbook/iBooks made before the 2001 iBook have lower than desktop G4 firewire performance, most notably in ATTO's benchmark. However the Powerbooks still deliver rates about the same as their onboard IDE controllers do with the same 2.5" drives, so this is more smoke than fire really.
(The latest Core99 chip [called UMA by rumor sites] revision used in the 2001 iBook has improved firewire performance to desktop G4 levels (which use a separate firewire chip), where previous Powerbooks (including the PB G4s made so far), used an earlier rev. of the Core99's embedded firewire controller.)

Pricing & Availability:
Since drive and case prices change over time, see the storage pages at Transintl.com for current pricing and models.
If you'd rather not build the case, you can buy it with various sized drives already installed. See their web site for pricing.
And again if you're upgrading the drive inside a Powerbook, a portable firewire case makes a great way to reuse the old drive that was in the Powerbook (or iBook), while also retaining your data. (Drives formatted on the onboard IDE will mount fine with data intact when put in a Firewire or USB case.)


Related Articles:
For performance tests of an Oxford911 bridge based 3.5" drive case kit on 4 different Macs (G4/500 DP, PB G3/500, PB G4/400 and 9600/350), see this article. For previous Firewire reviews and install guides, see the Firewire articles page. (Includes reviews from last year on the first ADS Pyro, Macally and Clubmac cases, as well as portable Firewire drive tests, portable case kit build guides and Firewire PCI controller card tests.)

 
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