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ATPM 9.08
August 2003



How To



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How To

by Sylvester Roque,


Act One: FrankenMac Takes Ill

I was all set to write some boring missive this month about the pitfalls of sharing files and hard drives between Macs and Windows, but then something went horribly wrong. While researching the article FrankenMac began having increasing difficulty with his CD-ROM drive. It was past time to remedy the situation. A problem that began as a minor inconvenience a few months ago was becoming a major pain. Before I go on, let me first introduce you to FrankenMac.

After being conceived by his Cupertino-based parents—I’m told they were likely engineers of some sort—FrankenMac began life as a Blue-and-White 300 MHz G3 with one hard drive, an ATI graphics card, CD-ROM drive, and some miscellaneous ports thrown in for good measure. By the time I met FrankenMac, his previous caretaker had added additional memory but he had not yet been cruelly contorted into what he is today. That was my fault.

FrankenMac as I know him today wasn’t born until last year. By then my normally mild-mannered friend was running OS X, becoming a little older and not quite as nimble as he had been in his 8.6 days. Rather than abandon an old friend, I decided to try to breathe new life into him. A couple of lab trips later and FrankenMac emerged with an additional hard drive, ATI Radeon 7000 video card, a total of 768 megabytes of memory, and a 500 MHz G4 processor upgrade. The whole project cost me just a shade less than $500. That’s not exactly cheap, but I couldn’t really afford a new G4 at the time either.

Act Two: FrankenMac Needs a Drive—Too Many Choices

I have known this day was coming for a while, and had already been doing some homework on finding the necessary replacement part. I knew that I had several options open to me. The only illogical option was to carry on as was with no changes. Having eliminated that option due to a lack of patience, I was left with the following options: replace the existing CD-ROM drive with a new one, replace it with a CD-R/CD-RW drive, replace it with a Combo drive, or replace it with the equivalent of a SuperDrive.

Let’s look back upon my experience and see if there are some things that I have learned that can save you a few steps.

In your quest for answers to these questions you will find the XLR8YourMac Drive Compatibility Database invaluable. This database consists of reports from various users who have already walked this path, and mentions which specific models of drives have been tested with which Mac models. If you are planning on buying and using a drive model originally intended for PC users, this database is a must.

First Things First: Will the new drive replace your existing drive?

One of the first decisions to make is whether the new drive will replace your existing internal drive or be used as a secondary drive. The answer to this question will dictate some of your options. For example, if this is to be a primary drive, it is probably best to select an internal drive. Many Macs have difficulty booting from external drives and some may not boot from external drives at all. This may not be a big deal now, but it might become one the next time you need to boot from a CD for troubleshooting purposes.

Does the drive have the right interface?

In short, will the computer be able to communicate with the drive once it’s installed? If you are not sure about this, check the relevant documentation. The AppleSpec Product Specification Page may also prove useful but as a general rule does not usually specify the interface type for CD drives. You are left with the impression that it is the same as the hard drive. Frank has an IDE drive, so I’m good to go.

Will the drive boot your Mac or not?

Keep this question in the back of your mind all the time. I would hate to see you settle upon a drive and install it only to discover that it won’t boot your system when you need it most. While searching the database I discovered reports from several users regarding drives that would not boot their Mac but performed flawlessly otherwise. I suggest checking this issue under both OS 9 and OS X. A quick trip to the aforementioned Drive Compatibility Database gave me some starting pointers.

Will the drive fit in my machine?

This is generally not an issue for Mac towers such as the Blue and White G3 or many of the G4 systems, but for iMacs this might pose a problem.

Once the first few questions have been answered, you come a long way toward narrowing your range of choices. Now let us move on to some other questions that apply to most of the drives you will encounter. We must choose carefully; Frank’s wellbeing and my remaining sanity are at stake here.

Inside or Outside: Pick One

Someone said that to me one day at school, and it applies to choosing a replacement CD drive. If you are not planning on using the new drive as a boot drive, you will have to choose whether you want to buy an internal or external drive. If you are going to use an internal drive, make sure it uses the right interface and that you have a drive bay available that permits the drive door to eject. Many Mac towers only have two drive bays matching this criteria: one holds the existing CD drive while the other holds the Zip or other removable drive. An external drive avoids these issues and can usually be shared relatively easily among several computers.

Pick an Interface

Choosing an external drive requires an additional decision regarding how the drive will connect to the computer. While most current internal drives connect to the computer via the ATAPI/IDE interface, most current external drives connect via USB or FireWire. Some manufacturers have produced drives that offer both USB and FireWire ports in the same enclosure. As a general rule I have obtained the fastest write speeds out of FireWire drives; if however you plan to share the drive with a PC, a USB or a combination USB/FireWire drive may be the best choice unless your Wintel computer supports FireWire.

Pick a Media Type

One of the other important decisions you will make is on the type of media do you want access to, and what you plan to do with the drive. Unless your Mac is very old indeed it came with at least an integrated CD-ROM drive. These drives are great for playing music or loading software, but you cannot use them to make CDs of your own. The good news is that CD-ROM drives are cheap right now, and the newer ones are likely to be much faster than the one that shipped with your Mac. I have recently seen these drives routinely selling for roughly $50.

If that sounds like a good price to you, don’t rush out and buy one just yet. Roughly $75 will get you a CD-R or CD-RW drive. Both drive types let you write or “burn” information to a CD. The critical difference is in the number of times you can write to or “burn” a disc. CD-R drives can write to a disc once, while CD-RW drives can write to a CD-R disc once or write to CD-RW discs many times if you are using CD-RW media.

I’ll Have a Combo With My Mac Please

Being an observant Mac user, you may have noticed that some Mac models today are shipping with “combo” drives. These drives have all the functionality of a CD-RW drive, with the added benefit that they can read some data DVDs and play many DVD movies. If your primary concern is burn speed, a stand-alone CD-R/RW burner may be your best bet. CD-R drives are routinely burning at 48-52x these days while “combo” drives are burning CDs roughly in the 16-20x range.

“Combo” drives are very flexible in terms of the types of media they support, and can currently be had for roughly $100-$120. Before you buy a “combo” drive however, you should look at the issue of how information on the DVD will be decoded. The video on most DVDs is actually in a compressed format; in order for such DVDs to be played this video must first be decompressed by the hardware. Many of the current video cards perform this decompression but older video cards may not. I am still looking at the issue of how well software decompression works.

The current king of the castle is the DVD burner. Apple refers to their version of this drive as a SuperDrive. These drives are capable of reading from and writing to all of the media types I have discussed thus far. If you do not have one of Apple’s systems with a SuperDrive, read on, intrepid explorer; you may not be out of luck.

Several third-party drive manufacturers are currently selling drives capable of burning DVDs. These DVDs will play back in computer systems that have DVD-ROM or “combo” drives attached, and will play in some stand-alone DVD players. You may be able to add a DVD burner to your system; that’s what I did, and that’s how FrankenMac came to fall in love with DVD.

The Finale—FrankenMac Learns to Love DVD

I had been thinking about putting a DVD burner in FrankenMac for some time. To be honest, I had been drooling over one of these things since I first heard about them. Now that I have finally done it here are some things you need to know before you buy one.

CD burning programs such as Toast or Discribe will burn a DVD to be used for data purposes. Making a disc that will play on stand-alone DVD players requires some additional preparation. To prepare this type of DVD you need something like iDVD, or DVD Studio Pro. Some third-party burners are also coming supplied with mastering software. I haven’t used these programs before so I can’t be of much help; besides, Frank is still sick and I’m not too well myself, so let’s press on.

If you are planning on using iDVD to prepare discs for stand-alone playback, there are a few things you need to know. I don’t want you to buy a DVD burner only to discover that you must spend a fortune for additional software if I can help it, so keep the following in mind. It won’t guarantee that iDVD will work, but it will increase the odds.

If your Mac did not ship with a SuperDrive you may not have iDVD as part of your software installation. It is available as part of the iLife package. If you are going to purchase an external SuperDrive, try to find one that comes supplied with Mac software; otherwise DVD Studio Pro may be your only option, as iDVD will not work with external DVD writers.

Even if you put in an internal drive, iDVD expects to work with a G4 processor. There have been one or two contributors to the Drive Compatibility Database who installed third-party drives only to discover that iDVD did not work because they did not have a G4. iDVD does however seem to work with many G4 upgrade cards. I almost made this mistake, but one of our intrepid ATPM editors pointed this issue out to me. Fortunately, Frank has a G4 upgrade card that should work.

The Recovery of FrankenMac

Well, there you have the questions I asked and answered in my quest towards recovery. I also looked at drives which employ buffer underrun prevention technology, which cuts down on the number of “coasters,” or incomplete CDs, caused by the burner not being fed data fast enough. Most of the current drives on the market support this technology. I finally settled on the Pioneer DVD/DVR 105 DVD burner. This is the retail version of one of the drives employed as an Apple SuperDrive. Frank loves to watch DVDs now.

I haven’t tried burning DVDs yet because I picked up the wrong type of DVD media when I went to the store. That’s another story I’d love to tell you, but Frank wants to watch another DVD. Next time I’ll tell you about some of my other projects.

Also in This Series

Reader Comments (4)

Robert Lewis · August 3, 2003 - 18:23 EST #1
In this article, one point is missed about placing a "Superdrive" in your Mac. The only drive that will work seamlessly with the Mac's digital hub must be made by Pioneer. At the present time, the best unit is the 105 model. It is a DVD-R/CD-RW. It will work perfectly with the Mac's digital hub. Under OS 9, you will need a small system extension called PioneerCDR for it to work. You can download it at The 105 is now going for about $150 on the web. Pioneer has just released the new 106 model that can handle DVD+R media. At this point in time, I would steer clear of it because the current OS X 10.2.6 is not designed to recognize it. The new G5 Macs that will ship in August will be shipped with these drives and software to recognize them. For more information on how to install these drives, please refer to my Under the Hood article in the June issue of ATPM. End of line.
Chris Smith · August 6, 2003 - 13:21 EST #2
Actually, the Pioneer 106 has been made to work. The instructions are found here at MacBidouille. You will need to be able to read French, but it's a simple alteration to a file. There has been an update to the page, so I don't know if the process is more complex now--I don't have time to read it again. It's worth a look.
Norman Brooks · August 7, 2003 - 00:31 EST #3
I installed a Pioneer 105 in my Blue and White G3 which has a 500MHz G4 upgrade card. The About This Mac info under the Apple menu recognizes that one of the devices on the bus is a CD-RW/DVD-R. I can use it to boot the Mac or to burn a CD, but when I put a blank DVD-R into the drive, the machine tells me that the disc is write-protected and will not write to it.

Does anyone else have a similar problem?
Sylvester Roque (ATPM Staff) · August 7, 2003 - 19:49 EST #4
My primary reason for choosing the Pioneer drive was its seamless integration. Perhaps I did not make this as clear as I could have in the article, although there were other reports in the Drive Compatibility Database that suggest other drives also work.

Several drive manufacturers have changed their model numbers slightly from some of those that were in the database. Changes in model numbers can also sometimes bring other changes that affect compatibility. Since I only had a few days to get the drive installed and tested before returning home, I decided to go with a known entity.

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