The Low End Mac Mailbag

Western Digital Inferior?, the Education iMac, Metric Politics, and a New Mac User

Dan Knight - 2006.07.07

Are Western Digital Drives Inferior?

After reading Misleading Hard Drive Capacity and the Western Digital Settlement, Tom Gabriel says:

Hi Dan,

Thanks for the great job on Low End Mac - I have to check in every day or so, so that I won't miss a useful article.

I noted that a reader commenting on the Western Digital lawsuit said that "New Macs have this brand (Western Digital), I think."

This may not be good news, if what I hear about Western Digital is true, i.e. that its quality control is inferior to Hitachi Deskstar, Maxtor, and Seagate, and the drives themselves have a higher rate of failure as a result.

Do you know if it's true that Apple is using Western Digital, and if their lower reliability relative to other brands is true?

Thank you,
Tom Gabriel

Tom, there isn't an easy answer. There seems to be a fair bit of anecdotal evidence that WD drives have a higher failure rate than the rest of the industry, and Storage Review is collecting hard data from users on all major brands and models of hard drives. (You must register [free] and contribute at least one hard drive report to see their results.)

While IBM/Hitachi drives are generally considered reliable, the IBM Deskstar (a.k.a. "Deathstar) 60GXP is worse than 95% of the drives on the market at the 5th percentile. Yet the Deskstar 180GXP is more reliable than 87% of the drives out there, according to the same survey.

WD drives range from the 10th percentile (better than 10% of drive models) to the 93rd (for their Caviar WD800AB). Fujitsu seems to have the worst track record overall, with their worst drive at the 0 percentile mark and their best at the 68th.

As for other brands, Maxtor ranges from 4th to 76th percentile, Quantum from the 33rd to the 99th, Samsung from the 39th to 56th, and Seagate from 11th to 97th.

In short, the drive brand is far less an indicator of quality than the drive mechanism.

As to whether Apple is currently using WD hard drives, the answer is probably. Apple buys drives from a variety of vendors, and I know they have used WD drives in the past.


The Education iMac Story


Regarding the education iMac:

Actually, since this new iMac is for education customers only, they will save only $300, not $400 - the education price on the regular 17" iMac is $1,199, which is $100 cheaper than the retail price.

We just bought the regular 17" iMac last week for $1,199 (my wife is a teacher), so I cringed when I heard about this new $899 model, fearing I'd missed a great deal. But after reviewing the specs, I still think the regular iMac 17" is the better education buy. I like the extra hard drive space, faster VRAM, DVD burner, and remote control for the iMac, so I'm glad I didn't wait on the education model. I don't use Bluetooth, so that one is a non-issue for me.

One other thing of note with the new education iMac - instead of one 512 MB DIMM, like the two normal iMacs, it comes with two 256 MB RAM chips that take up both RAM slots. Replace one with a bigger DIMM, and now you have an extra 256MB DIMM hanging around your house.


Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Rick.

Thanks for the clarification on price. While the education iMac sells for US$400 less than the retail iMac, it's only US$300 less than the education price.

I really don't know what Apple was thinking when they chose to put an 80 GB hard drive in the edu-iMac. Sure, it saves a little money, but 160 GB drives are commodity items these days. And the larger drive is available as a $50 BTO option. You can also add the wireless remote for $26, making it a $975 computer to roughly match the earlier model.

ramseeker doesn't even track 256 MB modules for the iMac, but 512 MB modules are available for as little as $41 (before shipping) these days. (US$70 for the 1 GB modules needed to reach 2 GB total RAM.) If anything, a pair of 256 MB modules probably costs Apple more than a single 512 MB module.

That being the case, there must be a reason for it. Paired RAM allows faster memory access, and that seems to be important to the Intel GMA 950 graphics, as both the Mac mini and MacBook - Apple's other models with Intel graphics - also used paired RAM. That would mean upgrading with paired RAM, and Apple does offer a $90 BTO option of 1 GB of total RAM using two 512 MB modules. (2 GB is a whopping $270!)

For what works out to a $225 savings for a comparably equipped edu-iMac vs. the normal 17" model at educational pricing, I think it's going to be a huge hit. But with "vampire video" siphoning off 80 MB of RAM, upgrading to at least 1 GB total RAM is more important on this iMac than on the consumer model.


The Politics of the Metric System

In response to iTunes and the French Interoperability Law, Mike Perry writes:


"The metric system didn't evolve. It was created artificially and imposed from the top down, and it may be the greatest thing the French have ever given the world."

I beg to differ. The "top down" imposition of the metric system lies at the roots of its problem and why it isn't the "best thing" for many purposes. It's almost as dumb as the rather weird calendar that the French developed at the same time, a calendar that assumed that the entire world had French seasons.

What do the numbers in traditional, self-evolved measurement systems, 12, 64, 360... have in common? They're easy to divide by in half, thirds, fourths, sixths, etc. The metric system is only whole-digit divisible by two (no big deal) and five (not very useful). So divide a something in meters into thirds, and you'll end up with numbers that are an endless (0.333). Not good it you're doing real work rather than a French philosopher with his head in the clouds. That's why home construction sticks so firmly with the English system and cars switched so easily. You don't measure when you work on a car, you replace. Only a few car designers measure, and they use computers that spare them the hassles of metrics. And what good is a measurement system when it only works well where it isn't used to measure?

Or take something workers need to do all the time, half something then half it again and again as in cutting wood. With a fractional English system of inches, that's as easy as pie - 1/2, 1/4, 1/8, 1/16. For the metric system from the second division on, dividing by two means having to guess between "official" lines. In real work, people rarely convert from millimeters to kilometers, and even when they do, the metric system hardly helps - just how many digits to move isn't intuitive. But workers half and third all the time.

This isn't an abstract question. Imposed, top-down solutions are one of the chronic problems in politics. The Great Terror of the French Revolution and the communistic gulags were the product of a system that tried to make people fit the ideology rather than building society around what people actually are and how they work together based on long periods of social feedback and adjustment.

That's the central point of Edmund Burke's Reflections on the French Revolution. Try to rebuild the world "according to an idea," and you'll almost always get it wrong and, if you're stubborn, have to kill a lot of people (i.e., Stalin's slaughter of 5 million Ukranian peasants for not fitting into his farm collectives). There's a lot to be said for being "reactionary" in the presence of such folly and violence. As G. K. Chesterton pointed out, it means that your democracy takes into the account those who lived before you. It doesn't sneer and think wisdom was born with you, much less a few Frenchman with soft hands and limp wrists.

That, incidentally, is my gripe with soccer. It's a top-down game whose rules are extremely frustrating to fans, who take out their rage at its stupidity (i.e., at so few scores and the resulting exaggerated importance of each) in all sorts of irrational, nasty ways. Compare that to basketball, US football, and, to a lesser extent, baseball, where the rules are regularly adjusting to make the game more interesting. There the fans rule rather than EU-like experts "who know best."

Finally, in a loose sense, the metric system is like Microsoft Windows - a bad solution imposed from the top down and widely used only because it is widely used. Windows is researched by "experts" in lab usability tests that frustrate users, who're given less input toward the result than high-tech gadgets. (I know, I've participated.) The conventional English system is like Apple - it's designed by users (at Apple) who think and ponder for other users and response to user feedback over time.

That's why I tell people that the best thing about Macs is that their users complain so loudly about anything they don't like. Windows users are sooooooo . . . passive.

- Mike Perry, Inkling Books, Seattle, Author of Untangling Tolkien

P.S. Feel free to post this online as a response.

Wow, Mike, that's a lot of meat to chew on.

Come to think of it, the decimal vs. natural distinction seems to be at the core of the Western Digital drive capacity issue. Almost all human cultures settles on a decimal (base 10) numbering system, but the world of computers is much more comfortable with binary (base 2).

If only we had a more practical number of digits, like 8 fingers or 12, we could dispense with base 10 except in math class. It's a lot easier to divide a dozen donuts among three people - or two, four or six. But never five or seven.

Your example of the construction industry is interesting. Cutting a piece of wood in thirds is no easier with inches than with cm, and it begs the question why someone would want to cut a piece of lumber into thirds, or cut it in half and then half it again. Then again, they could simply plug the length of the board into their calculator, divide appropriately, measure twice, and cut once whether the board is 8" long, 1 meter, or 27".

The biggest problem the metric system addressed wasn't decimal vs. octal (as 8 oz. in a cup) or duodecimal (12" in a foot), but one system of weights and measures used in Paris, another in Madrid, another in Berlin, another in Rome, another in London, and so on. (I'm still trying to fathom why 1,760 yards equals a mile, and I've been using the English system all my life.)

For better or worse - and I definitely think it's better - the French gave us a single international standard system for weights and measures. No more wondering whether an ounce of something is its weight or volume, let alone whether it's an avoirdupois ounce, a troy ounce, an English ounce, or a US ounce.

Perhaps it would have been better if they had used a more natural base 8 or base 12 system, but they chose to use the more sensible decimal system, one which almost every human society is comfortable with.

As for rules and soccer, it's just human nature to bureacratize things. Football, baseball, and basketball also have more rules than they used to, and some of them seem just arbitrary. But that's nothing compared with things like the tax code; despite decades of promising to simplify and reform the tax system, every step in that direction is followed by more steps toward complexity. It seems someone always has a vested interest that is best served by changing one or more of the rules.

As you note, that seems to be the thinking behind Microsoft products. "If a two-button mouse is good, a seven-button one will be better." "If WordPerfect has 23 new features, we can come up with at least 40." "If someone can conceive of a function Windows might possibly use, we need to find a way to integrate it." It's not driven be research or needs, but by the ability to market a product with more features.

The Mac OS, on the other hand, tends to improve what's there and add useful new features, not ones developed in the abstract. Whether I use them or not, Spotlight and Dashboard are widely viewed as benefits of Tiger, not just useless new features that waste precious computing resources. (That brings up the whole issue of feature bloat, something Tyler Sable covered in Vintage Macs with System 6 Run Circles Around 3 GHz Windows 2000 PC.)


My First Mac Is a G4

Richard Chong writes:


I just want to thank you for your site. I have been checking if for years, and I have finally got myself a Mac! I use Windows at work, but I knew if I ever got a computer for home it would be a Mac. My Mac is a 933 G4 Quicksilver with an upgraded 120 GB hard drive and upgraded 1.25 GB memory with a CD/DVD burner.

I also have a 17" LCD Apple Studio Display. I work at a local college here in Vancouver and periodically they get rid of their old Macs, so I purchased my computer and LCD Monitor for $450 Canadian! Since the computers don't come with an OS, I purchased Tiger for $100 Can. with my education discount. So it's not the most up-to-date computer, but it's still cheaper than a Mac mini! It's fast for what I need it for - now just Internet browsing. I am happy with the computer, and thanks to your site I checked the specs out before buying and determined a used G4 tower fit my needs perfectly. Keep up the good work.

Richard Chong
Vancouver, BC

Thanks for sharing your story, Richard.

Although I've occassionally owned new Macs, my main computer is a 2002 Power Mac G4/1 GHz dual with a 250 GB hard drive and 1.75 GB of RAM. I bought it used last year when a friend at church upgraded to a Power Mac G5, and it's all the computer I need, if not more than that.

I'm sure you'll see several years of use from your Quicksilver Power Mac, especially since you can easily upgrade the CPU, video card, hard drive, and memory if you ever need to. (One thing I have added to mine is a USB 2.0 card for compatibility with the newer iPods and faster printing to my color laser printer.)

Welcome to the low-end Mac life. :-)


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Dan Knight has been publishing Low End Mac since April 1997. Mailbag columns come from email responses to his Mac Musings, Mac Daniel, Online Tech Journal, and other columns on the site.

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