Pogoplug Problem

I was hoping to be writing a review praising my recently acquired Pogoplug, but I’m sad to report that the device was faulty on arrival and so after a brief encounter with Pogoplug Support, it’s on it’s way back.

There have been occasions recently when I’ve been at a friend’s house and wished I had access to a certain file back home. Setting up a Pogoplug and hooking it up to an external USB drive containing all the stuff I’m ever likely to need access to sounded like a good idea, and this is squarely what the Pogoplug is aimed at. In essence it’s a little Linux server that connects to your home network via ethernet and shares whatever USB drives are attached to it. It’s all done via the Pogoplug website and it’s up to you to choose what you share and who can access it, so you can share those embarrassing pictures with your mates while hiding them from your folks, you know the drill.

Pogoplug

I hope pink is your thing!

First impressions are that the device is a lot larger than the pictures on Amazon lead you to believe and that in the looks department it’s a bit of a marmite device – you’ll either love it or hate it! Set up is pretty straightforward – plug in a USB drive with some data on it , plug in the ethernet cable and plug in the power.  Then you create an account on the Pogoplug website and work through a few easy installation steps, well that was the theory. The device has three USB ports on the back and I found that plugging a 500Gb Freecom USB (2.0) FAT32 formatted external drive into the lowest of the 3 ports gave me … absolutely nothing. The device refused to recognise the drive at all, so I went through the usual troubleshooting steps. I checked the drive on my Mac using both Disk Utility and Drive Genius and it was fine, but nothing would persuade the Pogoplug to recognise it. I reformatted as FAT32, reformatted it as HFS, tried a FAT32 16Gb USB stick in the port, powered everything off, disconnected everything, powered everything on again, all to no avail.

Plugging the Freecom drive into to top USB port similarly produced nothing, it was only when I plugged TWO devices into the Pogoplug at the same time using the top two USB sockets that it started to play ball. After a long afternoon experimenting I found that port 3 was dead and that ports 1 and 2 would only seem to work when each had something plugged into it simultaneously.

My next problem was accessing the data. I had copied 50 photos onto each USB drive and figured that would be an easy test for the Pogoplug software. Ok the Pogoplug website is a bit clunky but I could live with that… if only it would show me some thumbnails! After an hour it had still not managed to index my handful of photos. Sure I could click on the placeholder icon and see the photo, but all I had to go on were the names of the photos themselves – not very helpful. I also tried adding a PDF file and found that when viewing it on the Pogoplug website it gets reformatted, and not for the better. In this situation I found it was a better bet to download the PDF and view it locally. I also briefly experimented with streaming a video file which you’re also supposed to be able to do via the Pogoplug website. I got about the first 3 seconds of the video before it stopped and would go no further.

At this point I decided that the whole experience was not particularly good. Pogoplug Support had been pretty responsive to the USB port problem, but other than the obvious troubleshooting steps (unplug everything, check your drives, etc.), they weren’t able to help. If it was just the clumsy interface then I might have lived with it, but the suspect USB ports tipped the balance and it’s now on its way back for a refund. It’s a shame, the Pogoplug is a great idea, and would be marvelous for non-techie people who want to share a few photos etc., assuming the indexing works eventually. Unfortunately the execution seems a bit of a way behind the idea, and I subsequently found when reading the Pogoplug forums that I’m not the only one to experience these problems. Perhaps Pogoplug v2 (if there is one) will be worth investigating? Just please offer it in a choice of pink or something NOT pink!

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Icy Box 2 Disk ‘JBOD’ SATA Enclosure – Uncooth but useful

Icy Box 2-Bay JBOD Enclosure

Icy Box 2-Bay JBOD Enclosure

A by-product of having built and upgraded my own Windows PCs in the past is that I now have an assorted collection of 3.5″ IDE and SATA hard disks. However, the one place I was short of storage space was on my entry-level Mac Mini which sports a mere 80Gb internal drive. To solve this, I had attached two Freecom 500Gb USB drives as well as a Freecom 400Gb USB drive, taking up three of the Mini’s four USB slots, and more importantly three power outlets as each Freecom drive needs it’s own power supply. There has to be a better way, one that takes up fewer ports and gobbles less power.

Enter the Icy Box 3.5″ x 2 Black JBOD SATA Enclosure USB (to give it its mouthful of a full title). In essence it’s a two-bay enclosure that lets you add two of your own SATA drives and then connect it to your Mac (or PC) via a single USB cable. With two ‘spare’ SATA hard disks (a 300Gb and a 400Gb) floating around, this had the potential to give me nearly 700Gb of storage which should be fine for the Mini. First impressions are that the Icy Box is a neat, pleasant looking device that wouldn’t really be out of place anywhere, even tucked away with your other media centre gadgetry in the living room. In fact I only have two real criticisms of it as a gadget and that’s build quality and noise.

To take build quality first, the whole thing is reasonably well designed and screwed together, however on my unit the on/off switch doesn’t sit flush with Icy Box JBOD #2the backplate, rather it’s crooked, as is the 4cm fan that protrudes 1.5cm from the case and is also not aligned. It’s more nit-picking though because both things work and once you’ve put the thing together you’re unlikely to see them when the unit is in use. While we’re on the subject of the back panel, it also sports a USB socket and a DIN-style power socket for the supplied mains adapter. There is also a rather flimsy plastic ‘stalk’ labelled backup (aimed at providing one-touch backup for Windows users).

Now fitting the drives is a little frustrating and is done as follows:

  1. You remove the two screws from the bottom of the case and slide out the internal chassis.
  2. Before completely removing the internal chassis, you remove a small ribbon cable that connects the front LEDs to the circuit board on the backplane.
  3. Screw your two drives into the bays on the internal chassis.
  4. Slide the internal chassis back in to the case and re-attach the ribbon cable before pushing it fully home.
  5. Turn the unit upside down and attempt to screw in the two bottom screws.

It’s the last step that’s the frustrating bit. The two SATA drives are quite heavy and there’s enough play inside the case to allow the internal chassis to move a few mm when you turn it upside down, so even when you line up the holes on the enclosure with the holes in the internal chassis, the screws to secure the two together don’t reach. In the end I had to balance one of the screws on a magnetic screwdriver, align everything with the unit the right way up, then holding the unit above my head I approached it from the bottom in a sort of juggling act. It worked and the whole assembly is now secure, but I wouldn’t relish undoing it all to replace a drive!

Finish isn't brilliant, but it'll do.

Finish isn't brilliant, but it'll do.

So, with the drives fitted it’s time to plug it in to a Mac and with that done and the unit switched on, that’s where my second minor niggle is. The fan is on all the time the unit is powered up, and it’s not quiet. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not noisy either, but it’s louder than my Mac Pro and it’s noticeable in the sitting room if the TV is off, or you are near the TV watching a quiet scene. I did think about disconnecting the fan completely, but figured it was probably worse to run the disks at a higher temperature than put up with the whirring noise. To be fair, if you’re 12 feet from the TV and watching a movie, you probably won’t hear the fan.

Ok, so what did Mac OS X make of my little drive store? Well the nice things here is that this is a ‘JBOD’ device (Just a Bunch Of Drives) and because you have two drives presented to OS X via a single USB interface, you have a choice of ways you can configure the space in Disk Utility. On opening Disk Utility, you see each physical disk inside the unit separately, and the most straightforward option is then to simply partition each one separately and use them as they were two separate external hard drives. However, you can also explore the options you have using software RAID. Now as I mentioned, I’ve got a 400Gb and a 300Gb drive in my unit and certain scenarios RAID works better when using disks of the same size (e.g. space isn’t wasted), however this doesn’t stop you experimenting with what software RAID under OS X has to offer, and here are your choices:

Mirrored RAID Set – OS X mirrors the contents of one drive on to the other. That is the most secure because if you lose one drive, then all your data is safe on the other. You just replace the failed drive and rebuild the RAID array, and you can even continue using the ‘good’ disk while you’re waiting for a replacement for your failed disk. . The downside is that the space available for storing data is equivalent to that of the smallest disk, so in my case using a 300Gb + 400Gb disk, I actually only get 300Gb of usable space. What’s more, by using two disks of different sizes I also lose the extra (100Gb) space on the larger drive.

Striped RAID Set – OS X ‘stripes’ the data across the two disks. The plus point is that it’s supposed to be faster than a ‘concatenated disk set’ and you get to use all the available disk space, so in my case that’s 400Gb + 300Gb = 700Gb which I’d see as a single large volume. The downside is that if either drive fails then you lose all your data (you are backing up… aren’t you?). Note that given this is a USB device, any speed gained through striping may be lost because USB isn’t the fastest connection in the world.

Concatenated Disk Set – Like the Striped RAID Set, essentially OS X joins the two disks together and you see them as one single drive having the total picture-23space of the two drives added together. However the data isn’t striped across the two disks, rather the two disks are just joined together one after the other. Great if you’ve got data you don’t want to split over multiple volumes, but the downside is still that if you lose one disk, you stand to lose the data on both drives.

You can even combine RAID sets if you have multiple disk sets to play with but that’s a topic for another day. The point here is that the Icy Box ‘JBOD’ Enclosure gives you options via OS X for being a little more creative with how you use your disks. It’s a handy little unit and if you don’t mind the few rough edges, then it’s a good way to employ spare disk drives. Icy Box make a number of other disk enclosures, including a slightly more expensive 2-bay ‘JBOD’ USB disk enclosure that sports a variable-speed fan and screwless drive fittings. In hindsight I’d choose that one as it’s only another £10 and it addresses both my niggles with the cheaper unit. Still, it’s worth it from the perspective of being able to put my spare disks to good use.

If you want to check out the Icy Box homepage it’s HERE.

Synology Diskstation DS108J – Jack of all trades

Wanting something to replace my large, noisy, energy guzzling Windows 2003 Server PC in the loft, and to free up my Mac Mini from a life of server servitude, my attention inevitably turned to the Synology Diskstation DS108J, given that it supports AFP, and the Synology website specifically talks about Mac compatibility rather than just adding it as a footnote as some manufacturers do.

Eco-friendly packaging

Eco-friendly packaging

This single-bay device is essentially an external disk enclosure with NAS built-in. You pop in your own hard disk (this model takes a single SATA disk, but there are IDE models and multi-bay models too) then work through some fairly quick and intuitive configuration screens and you’re done – the disk appears on your network. The range of things the Diskstation can do is almost mind boggling for a NAS device, plus there are a few features where you think “I’m really glad they thought of that”. Unfortunately it seems there’s a fly in the ointment, and a fairly large hairy one at that called AFP. But let’s start at the beginning…

For the casual home user, the DS108J looks like the ideal model with a price tag of around

What's in the box?

What's in the box?

£95+VAT. I ordered one from Novatech together with a Samsung SpinPoint 1Tb SATA drive (HD103UJ), which according to the Synology compatibility list is OK and doesn’t have any hibernation issues in this setup.  I’ve also used this same model of hard drive in various PCs and it’s always performed well. Assembling the device is simplicity itself, just slide the two halves of the enclosure apart, fit the drive then put it back together, a real no-brainer that took all of two minutes. Plug in the power and ethernet cables and you’re good to go. The manual is (supplied on disk) is good with one or two minor exceptions, and given the intuitive Diskstation Manager 2.0 software which presents a beautifully designed Ajax interface via your browser, all you really need to know is what address your Diskstation is at. There’s also a wizard to help with the initial setup so it’s incredibly easy to get this thing online. Build quality is nice and solid, although the unit has a slightly 70’s design look about it if you ask me – perhaps if they got the Apple designers to give this the once over?

Easy as (SATA) pie.

Easy as (SATA) pie!

Once I’d set up the basics, the first job was to copy around 380Gb of data on to the device as my first ‘backup’. Doing a drag & drop file copy using PathFinder, I could see that with an estimated transfer rate of just 6MB/sec over 100MB ethernet, this was going to be a slow process. Thoughtfully Synology has equipped the DS108J with three USB ports and an ‘instant USB copy’ button. All that’s needed is to connect a USB drive and press the button and the entire contents of the USB drive will be copied to the Diskstation under a (pre-configured) folder of your choice. The only gotcha is that the USB drive must be formatted using FAT for the Diskstation to recognize it for this operation. As luck would have it, I had my data on just such a drive so I plugged it in and off it went.

Copying 380Gb of data from my Freecom 500Gb USB hard drive using the wired connection took a few minutes short of a staggering 24 hours (yes, twenty four hours), which I wasn’t expecting. Armed with this I set about running some speed tests. I use Super Flexible File Synchronizer to run daily, weekly and monthly backups to various locations. One particular backup is an incremental backup of a local folder on the Mac Pro containg around 50,900 files totalling 239Gb. The software scans the target directory and then presents a list of what has changed and needs backing up, so I decided to test this step using identical sets of files on the local and target drives, and here are my results:

  1. Lacie d2Quadra 1Tb FireWire 800 – 1m 09.1s
  2. Mac Mini 1.83GHz, 2Gb attached Freecom 500Gb USB drive, AFP share via 100Mb ethernet – 2m 27.1s
  3. D-Link DNS-323 NAS, SMB share via 100Mb ethernet – 5m 10.4s
  4. Synology Diskstation DS108J & Samsung SpinPoint 1Tb, AFP share via 100Mb ethernet – 23m 29.7s!!
  5. Synology Diskstation DS108J & Samsung SpinPoint 1Tb, SMB share via 100Mb ethernet – 6m 11.8s

The closest comparison is obviously between my trusty old D-Link DNS-323 NAS box and the Diskstation from which you can see that the Synology took well over four times as long when using AFP, but only slightly longer when using SMB. Currently I’m puzzled as to why this is other than it being down to the Linux implementation of AFP, which I know from my attempts to get it working under OpenSUSE can be pretty painful. I should mention that I was running these tests with all the extra features of the DS108J like media sharing, photo sharing, FTP, etc., switched off. Switching these features on may slow the performance of the Diskstation, but hopefully not by an appreciale amount. My next task will be to investigate whether or not there is any way to improve on these figures? To be fair the Synology website does show it’s own performance figures and rates the DS108J as 2 out of 5 ‘blobs’ compared with the DS107+ which sports a faster processor and more memory but costs another £65+VAT. The figures here suggest that uploads to the DS108J take almost twice as long as for the DS107+, while for downloads the DS108J achieves around 65% of what the DS107+ can manage.

Bursting with features!

Bursting with features!

There is so much more I could write about the DS018J given it’s huge range of features, but there are plenty of reviews out there, plus the Synology website covers these features pretty well. Just look at the left-hand side of the screenshot to see what sort of things this gadget will do. One thing I did notice in the manual about printer sharing (you can connect a printer to one of the DS108J’s USB ports and access it over the network), is that this will only work for Macs when using PostScript. It’s not a feature I plan on trying given that my Canon ip4000 is already attached directly to the Mac and if I need to share it, I’ll probably do so via the Mac. Also I found that when directly connecting a USB drive to use the one-button disk copy function, it would only work using the port on the front of the unit next to the button itself, which isn’t mentioned in the manual.

I’ll have a look at the other features of this device in due course, but for now it’s a definite thumbs up – if you’re a Mac user looking for a cheap yet flexible NAS device, the the DS108J fits the bill, and gives you plenty of options to play with. Incidentally, with UPnP DMA turned on, the Diskstation appeared on my XBox 360. I haven’t tried out streaming yet, (currently I use Connect360 on the Mac and it works really well), but that’s something else to keep me busy this weekend.

Keeping it safe

Close your eyes.

Imagine for a moment that the unthinkable happened. Perhaps your hard disk crashed. Perhaps a thief broke in and stole all your computer gear. Perhaps (heaven forbid) the house burned down. All your photos, music, scanned documents and hard work have gone. How do you feel, and how much would you pay to get it all back?

LaCie d2 Quadra

LaCie d2 Quadra

It’s a scenario that all too often happens, and almost every day someone, somewhere will have that sinking feeling. However all that’s needed to avoid this is a little planning and not a huge amount of money. Ok, I happen to have gone to quite some lengths to make sure my data is protected, but just some of these ideas will hopefully get you thinking about what to guard against and how to do it.

Scenario #1 – Hard drive failure. Actually the easiest to guard against because all that’s needed is an external disk attached to your Mac. I have a LaCie d2 Quadra 1Tb drive sitting on my Mac Pro to which I take daily backups. It’s a little expensive because it features USB, Firewire 400/800 and eSATA connectors, but USB alone will probably suffice in most cases. If you’re a Mac Pro owner like me, then a second internal hard disk to backup your boot partition to is also a good idea and dead easy to set up.

D-Link DNS-323

D-Link DNS-323

Scenario #2 – Theft. Not so great, the thieves broke in and not only stole your Mac but they also took your external hard drive sitting on the desk next to it! How about a hard disk somewhere else in the house, like in the loft? Somewhere a thief in a hurry isn’t going to hang around and search for. I have an ethernet cable running up to the loft where I have a D-Link DNS323 NAS device to which I take weekly backups. The D-Link comes as an empty case and you just add your own hard drives. For NAS devices I favour ones that ‘natively’ share disks via SMB of AFP so that you don’t need client software. There are other makes like Synology, or you could even hang USB disks off a Mac Mini (yep, I’ve got that too!). The advantage of the new Synology enclosures over something like the D-Link is that in addition to standard SMB sharing, they also offer Apple’s AFP. I used to have an old PC running Windows 2003 Server but decided to scale this down to something more eco-friendly.

LaCie Rugged

LaCie Rugged

Scenario #3 – When I was a kid our house caught fire and you quickly realise nothing is safe in those situations. Only solution to that is ‘off site’ storage. The belt and braces approach here is a LaCie Rugged 500Gb drive. Once a month I back up all my important stuff (music, photos, etc) and then I unplug the drive and give it to a trusted friend for safe keeping. The tough construction of the ‘Rugged’ means it’ll survive the odd knock when it’s transported. I also have a free 2Gb Mozy account which I’m thinking of upgrading to the full kahuna at $4.95 a month, as it seems to work really well on the Mac.

Software – I prefer to use software that gives me a lot of control and doesn’t assume I want to store files in Super Flexible File Synchronizersome proprietary format. Time Machine gives me the ‘easy to grab back that deleted file’ solution, but for my daily and weekly backups to external disks I use Super Flexible File Synchronizer. Coming from a background as a SyncBack SE user under Windows, this is as close as it gets on the Mac and the degree of control it gives you over what to back up and how, is just amazing. I also mirror my boot drive to a second internal disk in the Mac Pro using Super Duper on a three-daily basis so that if for any reason my Mac won’t boot, I can simply boot off the spare drive without losing too much work. For the odd files that might contain sensite data, like old scanned credit card statements, I store these in encrypted .dmg files using DropDMG. (If you know the passphrase, you can open an encrypted .dmg file on any Mac without needing the software installed). That way if anyone ever get hold of my backup data the financial stuff would hopefully be safe.

DropDMG

DropDMG

To go the extra mile I back up my Apple mail once a day using Email Backup Pro (it handles both Mail.app and Entourage plus loads of others), as well as using MobileMe for my .Mac account, and I back my passwords up weekly from 1Password.

There you have it, I’m hoping I’ve got every angle covered. Ok I might seem paranoid, but the thing to remember is that your insurance can get you a new Mac, but safeguarding your data is down to you so please don’t leave it to luck… keep it safe!

Belkin Network USB Hub

Belkin Network USB Hub

Belkin Network USB Hub

About a year ago I bought one of these gadgets, and despite the very obvious bugs in the software I was happy enough to score it a 3 out of 5 in an online review. In those days I was using it to share USB devices between two Windows XP PCs and the sheer convenience of not having to unplug certain devices from one machine and plug them in to the other went some way to making up for the various shortcomings this thing has.

Here’s a quick summary of what I had to say about it from the point of view of a Windows user:

  • Looks – neat. Same dimensions as a Mac Mini but about a quarter of the height.
  • Software – easy to install and configure, but buggy. No way to configure safe device removal. Can crash VPN software (e.g. AT&T client).
  • Performance – Ok for printing, downloading pictures off cameras. Very poor on USB hard drives, throttling speed to about 10% of what you get with a direct connection.
  • Compatibility – very hit & miss. No way to know if your device will work without trying it out.

Overall I said that if Belkin worked out the bugs and performance issues then they’d have a winner, but given those issues and the patchy device support I would be very cautious about recommending it.

Printer woes

Printer woes...

Since switching to using Macs, and given the fact that they haven’t addressed any of the bugs since I got this thing a year ago, I can safely say that I would not recommend this device at all. Unfortunately the one thing it seemed good at which was printer sharing, trying to print from my Mac via the hub is now a complete lottery as to whether or not it works. The general principle seems to be that if you want to print something ten you need to have your printer switched on and connected, before you launch the application on the Mac that you want to print from. Not really practical and not actually guaranteed to work either. All too often the hub will cause an error, in which case you then have to try and save what you want to print (not always possible), close the application, restart the printer and try again.

In addition to that, some devices that would connect to a Windows machine via the hub, won’t talk to a Mac when connected the same way. Here’s a table of what success or otherwise I’ve had.

What works, what doesn't.

What works, what doesn't!

If I’d bought this device today for use in a Mac environment I’d be asking for my money back. As it is, I had a reasonable amount of use from it for a year with my Windows machines, but there’s a good chance this little gadget will end up on eBay before long now!

Microphone for a Mac Pro

For a while now I’ve been wanting to use speech recognition on my Mac, and to be able to tell it to ‘Get my mail’ or to ‘Switch to Firefox’. The problem has been that the Mac Pro doesn’t come with a built-in microphone, and the built-in mike on my Logitech QuickCam Vision Pro, whilst fine for iChat and Skype, flatly refused to work with the Mac’s own speech recognition. So the search was on for a microphone that was guaranteed to work so that I could start talking to my computer, just like Scotty in Star Trek!

Now before we go any further, I must point out that I wasn’t in the market for a headset with a microphone on it. I figured that being attached to my Mac via a cable was going to be too restrictive and besides, I’ve already got a very nice set of speakers hooked up to the machine. Also, any thought of a wireless headset or even a bluetooth headset to perform this role were quickly dismissed, owing to the lack of evidence that they work with OS X.

So, having searched around in Google for a variety of ‘Mac USB Microphone Speech Recognition’ keywords, it became clear that there were no websites that stated categorically “this USB microphone works with the built-in Mac OS X speech recognition”, although I did start to find some likely candidates.

The MacMice MicFlex was mentioned on the MacSpeech Dictate website and I figured that if it was verified to work with their Voice Dictation software, then it would almost certainly work with the OS X feature. Unfortunately, tracking down a UK supplier selling them at a sensible price was another matter (I found one shop wanting £49.95 for it). I also spotted the Samson C01 (£54.99) and the Blue Snowflake USB (£49.98) on the Solutions Inc website, and as these guys are an Apple retailer I figured if they were selling mikes chances are they’d be sure to work on the Mac. I talked to one of their sales reps and while he said these were excellent devices for creating podcasts and working with things like GarageBand, they couldn’t guarantee they’d work with the built-in speech recognition simply because no customers had actually reported back that they did. Fair play to them as they weren’t about to sell me something they couldn’t guarantee would do the job.

Wasteful packaging

Wasteful packaging

In the end I decided to take a punt and just try out a ‘cheap’ Logitech USB microphone that retailed at Amazon UK for just £13.92, and with free delivery it arrived 3 days later. Once I’d disposed of the ridiculously unnecessary packaging, I was left with something that looked like it had escaped from a 1970’s B movie, but at this price what can you expect. Plugging it in, I opened up my System Preferences, found Speech and selected ‘AK5370’ as my input device. (AK5370 refers to the chipset used by the microphone). I then went in to the calibration settings and started talking, and guess what…. IT WORKS!!! Yep there you go Mac Pro owners, if you want a low-cost USB mike that works with the built-in OS X speech recognition feature then I can confirm the Logitech USB Desktop Microphone works.

However as is often the case in the computer world, this little story didn’t end on a high note. Yes, aside from the occassional misunderstanding (the Mac keeps launching FrontRow when I ask it to launch Firefox) the speech recognition is definitely a usable feature, and it’s quite fun to simply ask your Mac to do something and to see it respond. No the problem is that it seems there’s a bug with the speech recognition feature in OSX 10.5.x which is that it simply shuts itself off after a random period of time, and I’ve seen various posts from people complaining that this happens. I’m running OS X 10.5.5. and the only way I’ve found to restart it is to turn the feature off, turn it back on and re-calibrate it, at which point the little speech recognition ‘pad’ reappears on the desktop.

So close…..

More PCI slots for a 2008 Mac Pro

Mac Pro owners will know that finding accessories for their machine can sometimes be a bit of a lottery. iMacs and Mac Books have things like cameras and microphones built-in, and anything else is either a dedicated peripheral from Apple, or something that connects via USB. So when it comes to expanding the Mac Pro it’s often a case of reaching for Google and off you go.

I’m already looking for a USB microphone that works with the voice recognition built-in to OS X, given that the ones on my Logitech webcams work with everything (Skype, iChat, etc.) except any form of voice recognition. Both the MacMice MicFlex USB and the Logitech USB Desktop Microphone look like possible candidates, and I’ve got the latter on order from Amazon UK (for just £13.89 rather than the £24.99 PCWorld want to fleece you for it!), so when it arrives I’ll let you know how it works out.

However all these USB devices need a home on my Mac Pro and with only 3 USB slots at the back and 2 at the front (that I want to keep free), I need more slots! A bit of research will tell you that the 2008 Mac Pro sports PCI Express (aka PCIe) slots. This means that many of the regular PCI style cards won’t fit and you need to look elsewhere. What I also found are many websites that try and sell you PCI cards telling you they’re supported under Mac OS X but failing to warn you that they may not fit the latest Mac Pros.

In the end I was looking at a Belkin PCI Express 5-port USB card from Amazon UK for the princely sum of £42.35. Surely that couldn’t be the cheapest? A bit more digging and I found Cancom stocked USB cards so I headed over there. Turns out they didn’t have what I needed, but the salesman very kindly telephoned Maplin who are just a 5 minute walk from their store and established that they had what I needed. With service like that it seemed a shame to go elsewhere, and if you want helpful Mac-buying advice I can definitely recommend Cancom. Just a short while later and I was picking up my ‘4 + 1 USB 2.0 PCI Express Card‘ at Maplin for just £24.99!

The eco-unfriendly-slice-your-fingers-sharp-plastic(!!) packaging mentioned nothing about Mac compatibility, and indeed the little leaflet enclosed said I needed some flavour of Windows from 2000 up to Vista (eugh!), but the edge connector was exactly what I was looking for. Fitting it was a 3 minute job, and powering the machine back up with my two external Freecom USB drives connected saw them burst in to life. Likewise my Logitech QuickCam Vision Pro works a treat, as does my iPhone 3G dock. With the receiver for my Logitech MX Revolution mouse, and my Elgato Hybrid TV tuner plugged in to the Mac Pro’s built-in rear USB ports, I’m left with one free slot – for my USB microphone when it arrives.

The PCIe card fitted.

The PCIe card fitted.

Testing out the read/write performance of my external USB disks, they seemed as fast as they were when connected to the Mac Pros built-in USB ports. One point to note is that none of the USB devices that I have plugged in to my new PCIe USB card is bus-powered. The card does have a 4-pin power socket on it, but I elected not to power up the card, a) because I don’t need it, and b) because I have no idea where I’d take a power feed from inside my Mac Pro anyway, at least not without some further investigation!

So, if you’re a 2008 Mac Pro owner looking for a PCIe USB card, you could do worse than opt for this one from Maplin.

Incidentally, if you don’t have a Maplin store in your part of the planet, here’s the website for the company that makes the card (SunRich Technology H.K. Limited). Navigating the site can be a little tricky, you want to click on ‘Product’ at the top, then ‘PCI Express I/O Card’ then ‘PCI-E USB 4 + 1 Port’. If you don’t manage that, then the part details off their site are as follows.

Article No: PCIE-USBNEC101-5P-1 (4+1) PORTS
Part No: IE-N17-1241-00-00012
Description: U-321, PCI EXPRESS NEC101 USB 2.0 4+1 PORTS ST LAB GIFTBOX