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Migrating away from FireWire hard drives

If there’s one downside to my new Retina iMac, it’s that it completely lacks FireWire ports. While my main data storage is a Thunderbolt RAID array, all my backups (Time Machine, offsite drive, boot drive clone, and extra paranoid backups) are done on FireWire drives.

My setup precludes using Apple’s Thunderbolt to FireWire adapter. (Because I use two external non-Thunderbolt displays, they end any sort of chaining capabilities. With some rewiring and an expensive Thunderbolt dock, I can sort of work around that problem—but those docks are pricey.)

The money-is-no-object solution is, obviously, to replace all the FireWire drives with Thunderbolt drives. Given I drained the computing budget to purchase the Retina iMac, that’s not going to happen any time soon. ($400 for a 4TB drive, and I’d need three of them plus a smaller drive for the boot clone.)

After some digging, I managed to convert from FireWire without buying new hard drives, and spent just over $100 in total. The solution? The more-than-fast-enough USB3 bus in the new iMac.

Never having owned a desktop Mac with USB3, I’d forgotten just how much faster—10 times—it is than USB2. That means that a USB3 hard drive is actually reasonably speedy, instead of being an emergency “it’s all I have” solution as it was with USB2. So all I had to do was convert my FireWire drives to USB3 drives, and I’d be set.

Of my backup drives, the Time Machine drive is always connected; the other three rotate in and out, and on differing schedules. So I could either do what I’d done before, and put each of the not-always-there drives in a case of its own, or find a different solution. I went for the different solution.

Time Machine drive

For the Time Machine drive, I did go the traditional route, and bought a USB3 enclosure. The first one I bought was a Hornettek Viper enclosure. After transferring my old hard drive, Time Machine fired up, and all looked good. However, after the first two or three backups, I’d get an error saying OS X couldn’t back up to the drive. If I unmounted then remounted the drive, Time Machine would work for another couple of backups, then fail in the same manner.

So I returned that dock (it claims Mac compatibility, so it may have been something in my setup), and tried a $40 Insignia USB3 hard drive enclosure.

With the same drive inserted, and plugged into the same USB3 port, I’ve not had a single problem with this enclosure—Time Machine has been working flawlessly since I switched. My only (minor) complaint is that there are no front side lights to indicate activity; there are lights on the back, but that’s not a lot of help. Given it’s a mostly-idle Time Machine drive, this isn’t a deal breaker. There’s no fan, but the case does vibrate a bit; I set it on a piece of foam to quiet the vibrations.

Other drives

For the drives that aren’t always connected to the iMac, it really didn’t make a lot of sense to have each in its own case, with its own power supply. That’s a lot of cords and power bricks to manage for a drive that only sees action on an occasional basis.

Instead of a case, I went with a drive dock. These devices are designed to accept bare drives, either 3.5″ or 2.5″. Once inserted, they’re locked in, and work like any other hard drive. But when you’re done, you eject the disk in the Finder, then hit a mechanical eject button on the device to free the drive.

After much searching (there are lots available), I went with a $23 Sabrent USB3 drive docking station. Never having used a drive dock before, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but it’s been completely trouble free. I just drop in the drive du jour, and it then mounts in Finder. I run the backups I need to run, then eject the drive, and pop it out of the drive dock.

This is so smooth and easy, I really should have done it years ago (assuming anyone made a FireWire drive dock). Obviously, the drive is exposed to kids and pets, which could a concern. My kids, however, know not to go near dad’s computer, and the cats have (so far) shown no interest. I wouldn’t use a dock like this for a drive that’s in use all the time, but it’s worked great for my various backups.

Now, instead of multiple cases and power bricks, I’ve got just one power brick, and a dock that will handle however many drives I’m using in my backup plan.

Baubleries

To complete the transition, I bought a $12 set of 3.5″ drive boxes.

These are just cheap (really cheap) plastic boxes in which you can store your bare drives when they’re not in the drive dock. They seal tightly, but will clearly not offer much protection from a drop or a drink spilled on the box.

They do, though, make it safer to move a drive back and forth from offsite storage, and keep them free of dust when awaiting their turn in the drive dock. They also keep my kids from investigating the odd looking devices stacked on my shelf.

Finally, I added a $40 j5create USB3 4-port hub. I didn’t really want to spend this much on a USB3 hub, but I wanted one with a separate power supply (to handle hard drives), and I was buying locally and this was the only model available.

The other nice thing about this hub is that one port is a 5V/1.5A “fast charging” port; I’ve connected a spare Lightning cable there for charging devices.

The last word

In total, I spent $115 on this conversion—but I did this all shopping locally, as I wanted to be able to return and try other things within a day if I had an issue with something. Shopping more frugally online, the total cost could have been around $75. All in all, that’s not a bad total conversion cost for moving away from my FireWire drives.

Now I guess it’s time to post a couple FireWire enclosures on eBay and see if I can offset some of my costs.

5 Comments

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  1. FYI yes there were FireWire drive docks aka “toasters”. I have one with Firewire 800, Firewire 400, USB2 and eSATA. Has the same form factor as the one you pictured. Probably got it around 2008.

  2. What kind of Thunderbolt raid are you using ?
    Have you seen the Blackmagic Design MultiDock (Thunderbolt 2 and 4 SSD possible drives ?).
    Thanks for the article..
    Max from Italy

    1. I have a LaCie Big 5 Thunderbolt 2. That Blackmagic thing looks stunning … but I need way more space than I could fit on (somewhat affordably priced) SSDs. Once 4TB SSDs are as cheap as hard drives, well, then they’ve got a sale! :)

      -rob.

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