Sunday, November 07, 2010

Beware the FirmTek SeriTek/SpyderHUB

Apple's current lineup of personal computers is damned annoying. On the one hand, they are beautiful machines, and OS X totally rocks. On the other hand, Apple is clearly moving towards servicing the consumer market at the expense of the needs of power users. It has discontinued the XServe, and slowly but surely eliminated any way to attach high-speed external disk drives. The only Apple computers that can connect to an ESata drive today are the Mac Pro and the 17-inch MacBook pro, and even that requires a third-party PCI Express card.

It would seem, then, that the FirmTek SeriTek/SpyderHUB would be just the thing. It's a small, lightweight, inexpensive ESata-to-Firewire800 bridge. FW800 is not as fast as a direct ESata connection, but it's easily twice as fast as USB 2.0, which is the only other way to attach an external disk to most Macintosh computers nowadays.

Unfortunately, the SpyderHub has two really annoying design features, and one extremely serious problem.

The first annoying design feature is that it does not support hot-swapping. So if you want to unplug one ESata drive and plug in different drive you have to power-cycle the SpyderHub. Because the SpyderHub gets its power from the FireWire port and has no external power switch, this means you have to unplug the FireWire cable and plug it back in.

The second annoying design feature is that to switch between RAID modes you have to push a button on the front of the unit. To switch modes you have to press the button, release it, then press and hold it down for a few seconds. This is to prevent accidentally switching modes while disks are connected, which is good, but I can easily envision someone having a heart-stopping moment if they accidentally push the button during a momentary lapse of clarity thinking that it's a power button or a reset button or something like that. It would have made a lot more sense IMHO to have the mode selector be a switch mounted on the BOTTOM of the unit, preferably alongside a power switch. That would have made it even more difficult to accidentally switch RAID modes while disks are mounted.

But the most serious problem with the SpyderHub is that it only works with "direct connect ESata enclosures." This means an enclosure that has ONLY an ESata port and no other ports. Most notably, it won't work with an enclosure that has a USB port, which is >90% of the enclosures on the market. Worse, the failure modes are intermittent. The SpyderHub will appear to work properly -- mine seemed OK for days at a time -- but then it will fail. In my case, the failure mode took the form of a FireWire bus hang, which I was able to recover by simply unplugging the FireWire cable. I think I was very lucky that I suffered no data loss.

For me, this limitation makes the SpyderHub virtually useless. I have no "direct connect" enclosures, and the few that I have been able to find actually cost more than enclosures that have FireWire800 already built in. I have no idea what the FirmTek folks were thinking when they designed the unit with this constraint. This one bug changes the SpyderHub from a must-have device for Mac owners who care about performance to an all-but-useless boondoggle. And the fact that the failures are intermittent, combined with FirmTek's failure to clearly warn about this in their marketing materials, makes the device downright dangerous. (For the record, when I complained to FirmTek about this after discovering the problem they eventually agreed to give me a refund, less a 15% restocking fee.)

I really hope that FirmTek (or someone) comes out with a new version of the SpyderHub without this constraint. I have a bunch of fanless ESata/USB enclosures that I can now only use in USB mode, which makes them three times slower than they were when I could connect them directly to my old MacBook Pro through a PCI Express ESata adapter. I generally like my new 13 inch unibody MBP, but the fact that I can't attach a fast external hard disk just drives me bananas. It's like having a Porsche with governor that keeps you from going faster than the speed limit.

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