Getting the boot, FireWire edition

A while back, I reported on problems booting from USB devices. Since then I’ve run into something even more puzzling—FireWire drives that won’t boot.

When reviewing storage products for Macworld ’s desktop and portable FireWire drive pages, we test each drive’s ability to boot OS X. Until lately, this felt like a formality. All FireWire drives can boot OS X, right?

Wrong.

It was an 80GB Quicksilver drive from Kanguru Solutions that became the first FireWire drive to ever fail our boot test. I thought that I must’ve received a faulty unit, so I e-mailed my contact at Kanguru. The company was unaware of the problem, but was able to duplicate it. Unfortunately, Kanguru never got back to me with a fix or an explanation.

About a month later, a second drive, an 80GB DiskGo! Drive from Edge Tech failed the boot test. I was beginning to see a pattern. Being curious, I popped open the case to see what was inside. Nothing looked damaged or loose, but I did notice that the drive was using a PL3507 FireWire-to-IDE bridge chip from Prolific, a brand that I was unfamiliar with.

Most times, people are blissfully unaware of the kind of chips found inside their peripheral devices. A few years ago, Oxford Semiconductor changed that by successfully marketing its 911 chipset as a “must have” feature for discriminating FireWire drive shoppers. Other companies made bridge chips that worked just fine, but they had a hard time competing with the perceived superior quality of Oxford’s bridge chips. Drive vendors still used products from folks like Initio in their devices, but avoided mentioning them by name.

I googled the Prolific chip I found inside the DiskGo! and found a few unhappy customers—Mac, Windows and Linux users—complaining on message boards. I called my contact at Edge Tech who put me through to technical support. I was informed that the drives under 400GBs in size did not offer bootability as a feature. The tech support person pointed out that nowhere in Edge Tech’s product literature was a booting feature mentioned. I questioned whether bootability was really a drive-specific feature, or really a basic function that the end user should be able to safely assume was supported. I told him that I thought it misleading to not mention this known issue. He told me that Edge Tech’s new 400GB drives would boot and that he’d like to send me one of those to review. When asked, he said that the new drives featured a revision C Prolific PL3507 chip, while the lower capacity drives used revision A chips. And no, you can’t upgrade rev A to rev C.

It’s been several months and neither Edge Tech or Kanguru’s Web site have been updated to mention anything about booting in OS X, not even as an available “feature” in Edge Tech’s 400GB version.

Unfortunately, the lesson here is not uncommon. Don’t assume anything. We here at Macworld will test what we can, and pass the info along, but you might need to familiarize yourself with minute details like bridge chip revisions when shopping online because some retailers either don’t do their homework, or worse, think that withholding information is appropriate business practice.

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