Mac USB & FireWire

Review: Oxford 911 FireWire Bridge

Dan Knight - 2001.04.23

I still live in the universe where a 10 GB hard drive seems huge - I have over 2 GB free on the drive in my TiBook. At the same time, when it comes to buying a 3.5" hard drive these days, it's hard to find anything that small. In fact, I picked up an IBM Deskstar 75GXP 30 GB drive from Buy.com for $137.95 in December. It's one of the best values of price and performance on the market.

I never did install it in my old desktop computer - I bought my TiBook before I found the time. Instead, I decided to find the right FireWire enclosure for it, giving me a lot of extra storage space and a really fast way to back up files.

In February, FireWire Depot sent me their Flex-HDD 3.5" FireWire/USB enclosure, which has two FireWire ports and one USB port. USB performance was horrendously slow, and FireWire didn't seem as fast as it should have been.

But I'd heard rumblings of a new Oxford 911 FireWire bridge that would put the old electronics to shame. Last week I heard that Other World Computing had an enclosure (their Mercury Elite FireWire Case) in stock with the new Oxford chip. I ordered it Thursday, it came on Friday, and I put the Deskstar drive inside.

As with the Flex enclosure, there were no directions, but I figured out how to take the case apart, install the drive, and put everything back together. The only tool you need is a Philips screwdriver to put 10 screws in place.

Drivers

I powered up the drive, plugged it into the back of my Titanium PowerBook, and ran some quick tests, then tried to partition the drive. Drive Setup told me it was an unsupported drive.

No problem. I loaded the Disk Control 1.1 software that came with the case - and it didn't even see a drive on the FireWire bus. Frustrating, since I wanted to create several partitions.

Rob Art Morgan of Bare Feats suggested I power up the FireWire drive after the computer was already running. That solved the problem; Disk Control ran just fine and allowed me to create three 8 GB partitions plus one of about 4.6 GB. (One for my work drive, one "emergency" partition, one to play with OS X at some point, and one to back up my wife's iBook.)

FireWire Performance

Of course, just having the drive up and running is never enough for Low End Mac. We want numbers. We want benchmarks. So I ran MacBench 5, which rates the internal 10 GB drive in my TiBook at 1377. With the disk cache set at the default of 8 MB, the disk test scored a very respectable 1874 - 36% faster than the internal drives score and 31% faster than the 1426 score of the Flex enclosure.

The next test was TimeDrive 1.3, which measures the internal drive of my TiBook at 10,485 KBps (kilobytes per second) for writes and 31,457 KBps for reads. In this test, the external drive tied on writes, achieving 10,485 KBps, and provied half the read performance (15,728 KBps). By way of comparison, the older enclosure measured 7,864 KBps for writes (25% slower) and 10,485 KBps for reads (one-third internal performance, two-thirds Oxford 911 performance).

The following table shows results using the ATTO Tools Benchmark on the IBM Deskstar 75GXP with the Oxford 911 bridge and in the older Flex-HDD enclosure and compares this to results for the internal 10 GB Toshiba drive in my TiBook and results reported for the 10 GB IBM drive on Accelerate Your Mac!

ATTO Tools Benchmark, 8 MB cache

   Drive           Peak Read  Sust. Read   Peak Write   Sust. Write
   Oxford 911     19.00 MBps  18.80 MBps   12.29 MBps   12.23 MBps
   Flex FireWire  11.34 MBps  11.17 MBps    8.04 MBps    7.99 MBps
   10 GB Toshiba  37.61 MBps  13.41 MBps   28.67 MBps   13.02 MBps
   10 GB IBM*     37.26 MBps  15.79 MBps   24.29 MBps    5.67 MBps
      * results from Accelerate Your Mac!, 2/19/01.

ATTO Tools Benchmark, 128 KB cache

   Drive           Peak Read  Sust. Read   Peak Write   Sust. Write
   Oxford 911     18.52 MBps  18.11 MBps   12.20 MBps   12.00 MBps
   10 GB Toshiba  43.20 MBps  13.43 MBps   22.29 MBps   12.90 MBps

We have some very interesting results here. For peak reads and writes, nothing touches the speed of the internal hard drive. The internal Toshiba drive also beats out the Oxford 911 for sustained writes, although not by a huge margin. But for sustained reads, the combination of the IBM Deskstar 75GXP drive and Oxford 911 bridge wins the day.

Update: May 15, 2001

I've been corresponding with Rob Art Morgan at Bare Feats, who suspects Apple may have scaled back FireWire performance on PowerBooks, since he's obtained sustained read speeds of 35 MBps using the Oxford 911 bridge connected to a desktop G4. I recently obtained a Cube to use while my TiBook is in for repair. Benchmark tests confirm that FireWire performance on the TiBook is severely compromised - sustained read and write benchmarks range from 60-80% faster with the Cube.

ATTO Tools Benchmark, 8 MB cache

   Drive           Peak Read  Sust. Read   Peak Write   Sust. Write
   Oxford/TiBook  19.00 MBps  18.80 MBps   12.29 MBps   12.23 MBps
   Oxford/Cube    33.56 MBps  33.54 MBps   23.46 MBps   19.73 MBps

ATTO Tools Benchmark, 128 KB cache

   Drive           Peak Read  Sust. Read   Peak Write   Sust. Write
   Oxford/TiBook  18.52 MBps  18.11 MBps   12.20 MBps   12.00 MBps
   Oxford/Cube    35.61 MBps  33.42 MBps   23.93 MBps   19.24 MBps

Conclusion

Brand name fully assembled FireWire hard drives are either relatively slow or relatively expensive. Having the ability to put the drive mechanism of your choice (for speed, cost, and size) in an enclosure that unleashes the drives potential is a viable option. And at this point, that means an enclosure with the Oxford 911 bridge.

In this case, the drive and enclosure cost about $280, less than practically any 7200 RPM drive available today - and I know I have the fastest FireWire bridge and one of the fastest hard drives inside the enclosure.

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