For Plug-and-Play, I Pick the Apple

Peter Coffee: When trying to configure a standard hard drive as a plug-and-play IEEE 1394 device, I found my Apple PowerBook a lot more cooperative than my newer Windows-based systems.

Last week, I promised you the story of how I learned the hard way about the difference between mere IEEE 1394 compliance and genuine, FireWire-class plug-and-play convenience. Theres also a moral to the story, one that may change your perception of evolution versus revolution in personal computing platforms. Pull up a chair.

More than three years ago, I bought a commodity hard disk—a Western Digital, not that it matters—to replace the failed hard disk in an ancient Pentium PC. It turned out that the new disks capacity was beyond what that old PC could use: It required a BIOS upgrade that I never got around to performing. The drive, still in its box, sat in a corner of my storeroom.

About two years ago, I believe it was, ADS Technologies sent me one of its Pyro Drive Kit packages: an enclosure, with interface electronics, designed to turn a standard hard disk into a plug-and-play IEEE 1394 device. To my chagrin, though it certainly wasnt the companys fault, the ADS unit required Windows 98 Second Edition or Windows 2000 (or a Macintosh)—at a time when my only available machines used either the original Win98 or NT 4. That box sat in another corner.

Last week, I realized that I had gradually accumulated a Win98 SE laptop, a Win2K laptop, and a Mac OS X laptop—all with IEEE 1394 connections, along with (theoretically) the necessary software support. The time had come to take advantage of high-speed plug-and-play storage. I assembled the drive kit, powered up the boxes, and anticipated great things.

On Windows 98 SE, a "required" software update left me with a machine that could not even boot to the GUI desktop. I had to bring it up in command-line mode, run the registry scanner, and settle (with a sigh of relief) for system self-repair that restored the state where Id begun. I guess I should be glad that I can write this column on that machine, but it sure is a struggle to feel thankful.

If my Win2K machine werent my primary photo/video system, with the attendant need for portable high-speed storage, I might be tempted to search for an updated software driver that would make the Win98 SE interface work. I may do so anyway, after my recent discoveries about how hard it is to really defragment a WinNT/2K/XP drive; Ive used this Win98 SE machine with a FireWire camcorder, so I know its not a hardware problem. But come on, theres work to be done.

On Windows 2000, I got a cheerful report (but only after double-clicking the obscure taskbar icon for managing plug-and-play hardware) that the 1394 device was working correctly. OK, so where was the Explorer icon for my new drive? Nowhere to be seen.

But kudos go to Tuan, at ADS technical support: Less than 24 hours after I left a hotline message ("Where, oh where has my disk icon gone?"), he called me and talked me through the process of getting Windows 2000 to admit that the disk was there and to put it to work. But it was a journey that most users would find intimidating, involving several layers of navigation through utilities with forbidding names and impeded by insistently helpful wizards. It certainly wasnt what you would call "discoverable."

Then there was Mac OS X, where things just worked the way they should. Period. The contrast was impressive—or depressing, depending on your platform loyalties.

When I plugged the drive into the Titanium PowerBooks spinal-tap connector, I got a courteous dialog box offering to format the disk (this happened before I had persuaded Win2K to see it) as a Mac, DOS or Unix volume. When this was done, the system offered me a completely obvious GUI utility for creating partitions and making other optional settings. I had a fully functional drive, desktop icon and all.

In other words, and I want to stress this, the ADS and Western Digital hardware worked just fine. And what I want to emphasize further is that this "new" plug-and-play drive was almost-geriatric, completely generic hardware from one non-Apple vendor, combined with another vendors first-generation IEEE 1394 interface electronics, working together without a hitch on the least evolutionary of the three high-performance laptop systems that I tried.

Such openness isnt what most people seem to expect from Apple: After all, its a hardware company, and vertically integrated at that. Wouldnt you expect Apples software to push you in the direction of buying all-new Apple devices from end to end?

The saga continues: When I did persuade Win2K to see the disk, it wasnt about to admit that it had already been formatted by Mac OS X, even though Id specified a DOS format in hopes of making life easy. Win2K wanted to make its own partition, and format the disk from scratch.

When I plugged the result back into the PowerBook, however, Mac OS X did not complain. The icon appeared, although it now had an ugly (and apparently unchangeable) NO_NAME label despite the descriptive volume name Id given it on Windows: room for improvement there, Apple. But the disk was ready to go.

I guess when youre in the minority, you learn to get along. But Apple has done more: Just as the Macs of the late 1980s made SCSI a plug-and-play proposition, while SCSI upgrades for PCs were on the fringe of rocket science, the Macs of the new century are going the extra mile to make life easy for next-generation devices.

I know that theres one thing missing from this story: What would have happened with Windows XP? Im not yet privileged to be among that user community, nor had I planned to join it any time soon. If people want to tell me why I should, even though my Win2K laptop is only six months old, Im ready to listen—but also just as ready to move, perhaps before the summer is over, back to the Mac. It served me well as my primary platform 15 years ago, and its grown up a lot since then.

Tell me what you want made easier.