Hands on with the Mac Pro: Getting started

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A quick trip to our local build-it-yourself computer store netted two Seagate 320GB Barracuda drives and a black Sony AW-Q170A dual-layer DVD burner. I had no clue if the burner would even work under OS X, but given that the stock drive is a Sony, it cost only $40 locally, and was returnable, I figured it was worth a shot.

After a day of working with the two hard drives, I realized I actually needed a third—see this article for the reasons—so it was back to the computer store for another Seagate (a 400GB model this time).

All told, it cost about $375 for all three hard drives and the burner—not small change, but not too bad for more than a terabyte (unformatted) of drive space and a capable dual-layer burner (assuming it worked; more on that later ).

Hard drive installation and configuration

Adding new hard drives to a Mac Pro is a snap. Turn the machine off, remove the power cord, pop off the side panel, and slide a drive carrier out of its slot. Position the carrier over the drive, tighten four screws, and then slide the carrier back into position. Here’s what the carrier looks like before and after securing to the hard drive:

That’s it; there are no cables of any sort to worry about. It took about two minutes to install the two new drives.

A quick power-up showed that all three drives were visible to Disk Utility. Now, what to do with all that space. One choice, obviously, would be to just use them for storage space. But I was interested in formatting them as a level 1 RAID set (mirrored) for my boot drive.

RAID is a method of combining two or more physical disks into one logical device, and OS X has supported it for many years. There are various levels of RAID, as explained in the linked article above. A striped array (RAID 0) creates a very fast drive, while a mirrored array (RAID 1) is a very safe set up—if a drive in the array dies, it can be replaced without losing any data. If you lose a disk in a striped array, though, you’re in trouble, as data from one document might be stored on several physical hard drives. I was much less interested in speed than I was in safety, so I went with the mirrored (RAID 1) setup.

To create a RAID array, you use Disk Utility and its RAID tab. Just drag in the disks you want to use, choose the type of RAID to create, and set Disk Utility to the task of doing so. You’ll lose everything on the drives when you create the RAID, so it’s obviously best to do this with new, blank hard drives. Once set up, your disks will look like this in Disk Utility:

One thing to note if you’re going to try this (other than that bit about losing all your data—you did notice that part, right?) is the Options button at the bottom of this window. When you first set up your RAID, you’ll want to click that button if you’re creating a mirrored array. When you do, a new window opens, and one of the options is the RAID Mirror AutoRebuild checkbox. Check that box, and when you replace a disk that’s been removed from the array, the mirror will be automatically rebuilt. If you don’t check this box, you’d have to do that step manually in Disk Utility.

Putting the RAID to use

I wanted to use the mirrored RAID I’d set up as my boot disk. To do that, I needed to get a functioning system onto the RAID. I thought the easiest way would be to use SuperDuper to clone the existing system (on the original 250GB drive) to the newly-created RAID. So that’s what I did.

Everything seemed to work just fine, and I then rebooted the machine with the RAID drive selected as the startup disk. And that’s when the problems started. The machine wouldn’t boot, despite the fact that it seemed to find the RAID during boot. Instead of booting, though, the machine just sat there, and eventually put a circle with a white slash through it up on the screen.

Big problem—made bigger by the fact that the Mac Pro (like the G5 before it) lacks an eject button on the CD tray. So not only could I not boot the RAID, I couldn’t boot off a CD, as I couldn’t get a CD into the drive! A bit of grumbling and troubleshooting, and then I remembered the PRAM reset. Restarting while holding down Command-Option-P-R did the trick; it reset my startup disk to the original internal, which booted just fine.

So much for the easy plan. For try number two, I used the Install/Restore CDs that came with the Mac to install onto the RAID. After the 20 minute process, I crossed my fingers and rebooted. This time, it worked perfectly—the Mac started from the RAID. Success!

Of course, since I had used the stock installer CD, that meant I had to download the same 419MB worth of updates again. (And no, I didn’t use the “download and save installers” option the first time.) But once that was done, I had a machine running with four drives:

In the above image, the WDC drive is the stock 250GB unit, the two ST3320 entries are the RAID 1 320GB Seagate drives, and the ST400 is the 400GB Seagate. That gives me roughly a terabyte of usable storage space, which should be enough for my data, backup, and testing needs.

DVD burner installation and testing

For part two of my first-day upgrade, I set about installing the Sony DVD burner. Why a second burner, you may ask? It’s not really that I do all that much disc burning, but I do have CDs and DVDs in and out of my machine all the time. Having a second drive can cut down on the swapping required—say you have a game that requires the CD, and you want to rip some new music. Instead of ejecting the game, inserting the music, then reversing the process when done, you just use the second CD/DVD slot. Why a DVD burner? Because it was only about $10 more than a CD burner, so why not? The fact that it’s also faster than the stock drive in all modes was an added bonus.

Installing a new optical drive in the Mac Pro is a bit tougher than installing new hard drives—but only a bit. The two optical drives are mounted in a bay that slides out. To add a new optical drive, you pull the bay halfway out, then release the power and IDE cables from the back of the existing drive. With the bay freed, you slide your new drive in, secure it with the four provided screws, slide it halfway back in, connect the power and IDE cables, and then slide it the rest of the way in. That’s how it works in theory.

In practice, the IDE cables come out easily, but the power connection is very tight. It’s also located right next to the frame holding the drive in place, so it’s tough to remove. I suggest gentle rocking motions with your fingers, as tempting as it may be to grab hold with a pair of pliers. After several minutes, I had the power disconnected. I inserted the second optical drive, secured it with the screws, reconnected all the cables, and slid everything back in. When I powered up the Mac again, I ran System Profiler to see what it told me:

Success! System Profiler sees the drive… but claims that it’s not supported for burning. We’ll get to that in just a bit, but here’s a comparison of the two drives’ stated speeds with various media:

Mac Pro Optical Drive Comparisons

Stock New
DVD-R burn 16x 18x
DVD+R DL burn 6x 8x
CD-R/RW burn 24x 32x
DVD read 16x 16x
CD read 32x 48x

Stock optical drive is a Sony DW-D150A. New optical drive is a Sony AW-Q170A.

I’ll have more comments on how those differences affect things in the “real world” in a future installment of this report. But for now, back to the setup of the new drive. Feeling all proud of my efforts, I thought I’d test out iTunes’ ability to read a disc in the new optical drive. So I ejected the second optical drive (by pressing Option-Eject), only to be greeted with a “clunk” sound. Uh oh.

The door that seals the optical drives wouldn’t open for my newly-installed drive. Why not? Because a plastic trim piece on the front of the drive was too tall for the opening. Since the part wouldn’t fit out the slot even when I manually lowered the Mac Pro’s door, I had to shut down the Mac and remove the new optical drive. Not only that, but to remove the front trim piece, you have to have the drive’s tray open at least a bit. Thankfully, the drive did have a manual eject button, so a paperclip solved that problem.

Once the drive was open, removing the front trim piece is relatively easy—just slightly flex the trim piece to release the tabs, then lift, and it will separate from the tray—if you do it correctly, it will do so without breaking. I suggest doing this before installing the drive, so you can work with the drive on a solid surface. Here’s what the trim piece looks like, sitting just in front of the open drive tray:

If I get really motivated, perhaps I’ll cut out and attach a thinner piece of black plastic to finish off the front of the drawer. But I’m not taking a bet on the odds of that project getting done.

Once I had the trim piece removed, I reassembled everything, powered it back up, and made sure the drive could now eject (it could). But what about that “not supported” statement in System Profiler? So far in my testing, that’s just not true. iDVD, iPhoto, iTunes, and iMovie all see that the system has two burners and ask me which one I’d like to use. I was also able to import a CD from either drive into iTunes, so all certainly seems to be fine. I even successfully burned a DVD+R dual layer DVD (the latest Leopard seed requires a dual-layer burner). It sure looks like this drive appears to be natively supported, despite the message to the contrary in System Profiler.

Although this may sound like it was a hard process, it really wasn’t. I probably spent a couple hours on the setup stage, and that includes the time needed for SuperDuper and the reinstall from disc that I had to do. Everything generally went quite smoothly, and I was very impressed with the precision engineering of the hard drive and optical drive bays.

Three takeaway points

  • If you own a Mac Pro with a Sony burner, you can probably install a newer and faster Sony burner in the second bay and find that it will work perfectly.
  • If you’re going to RAID your drives, don’t use SuperDuper to clone the installed OS onto the RAID. It may work for you, but it definitely didn’t work for me.
  • When removing the optical drives, take care with the power plugs, as they’re quite tight and there’s not a lot of room to work with.
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