The Mystery of the Failing Floppies

Some months ago, I acquired a Power Macintosh G3 All-In-One, the so-called Molar Mac, and posted about it here at the Happy Macs blog. As I indicated then that I would, I have spent some time upgrading it, principally adding a much larger hard drive and installing an Iomega ZIP-100 drive into the option slot for it. I partitioned the hard drive such that I now have three bootable partitions and one major “My Files” type partition. I installed Mac OS 8.1, 8.5.1 and 8.6, one into each of the bootable partitions and now have all of them happily co-existing on my AIO. But I digress…

With these hardware and OS upgrades complete, I began a serious “shakedown” of the new AIO. I was not pleased with the results! My “new” ZIP drive is erratic at best, and almost non functional at worst. ZIP disks are only rarely detected when inserted, and in this invisible state, nearly impossible to eject.

Zip 100

Even the time honored insertion of a paperclip into the drive’s mechanical ejection hole fails to deliver the goods. Some research on the web turned up the fact that this is fairly common in older, used Zip drives. Iomega used plastic internal parts for the detection and ejection of disks, and over time the predictable tends to happen – these parts break and the associated functions no longer work. Sigh… I guess I am back in the market for another ZIP disk.
What is more vexing however is the state of the floppy disk drive, or of the floppies themselves, or both! I still haven’t determined where the real culprit lies.

Floppy Disk

For the most part, when floppies are inserted into the drive, they are recognized as being there, but are presented as “not readable”, accompanied by Mac OS’ ever helpful offer to format them. I say “ever helpful” somewhat sarcastically since accepting this offer results in the usual minute or two of the floppy formatting procedure, terminated by the not so helpful, and definitely not very useful, message that the formatting has failed – no explanation, just that it has failed. This always occurs at the very end, after Mac OS has wasted the full amount of time needed to format the disk.

Initially, I was sanguine about this. “Not a problem” I told myself. “Just a bad disk – I’ll try another”. When that “another” also failed, and then another, and then another, I began to get worried. My first conclusion was the obvious one – the drive must be flakey in some way. The most probable modality of this flakiness was simple “dirt” on the read/write heads and so I acquired a floppy head cleaning kit from eBay (you can get ANYTHING on eBay it seems!).

Floppy Cleaning Kit

These kits consist of what looks like a normal floppy disk, but with a cloth circle in the middle where the disk media would normally be, and a bottle of cleaning fluid that can be applied to the cloth circle a drop at a time. After placing a few drops of fluid onto the cloth, you insert the “floppy” into the drive and in blissful ignorance of the real nature of the disk it is now spinning, the floppy drive attempts to read it. This effort brings the read/write heads into contact with the cloth surface, now suffused with cleaning fluid, and this results in cleaning of the heads.

This all sounds very promising, and after repeating this two or three times, I hopefully popped a real floppy into the drive. The initial results were encouraging. The floppy was properly recognized, and was mounted on the desktop. Problem solved, correct? Not so fast. More testing was in order and so I tried writing a file onto the floppy. This did not succeed, failing with a disk write error. Then I tried to format the floppy. This failed as well, in the same way as above. Well, I reasoned, there has been improvements, but just not enough. So, I reran the cleaning process several more times. However, at the conclusion, the results were scarcely better. Now and then I could actually write a file onto the floppy, and now and then I could even read it back, but never, ever could I get the floppy to format successfully.

Still, incremental progress had been achieved, and the conclusion seemed obvious enough – the read/write heads were not being sufficiently cleaned by the cleaning kit. What was needed was a more intensive approach. I needed to remove the drive, disassemble it, and clean it thoroughly. YouTube provided several videos that showed how to do this in detail, and so I undertook the task, armed only with Q-tips and the cleaning fluid from the floppy cleaning kit.

Q-tips and Cleaning Fluid

The process was quite simple. After extracting the floppy from the AIO, I used a small flat head screw driver to gently pry the top off of it, as shown in the YouTube videos, and ended up with what you see below:

Dissassembled Floppy Drive

Then, moistening a Q-tip head with cleaning fluid, I carefully swabbed back and forth across the inside of the read/write head assembly, as shown below:

Cleaning Read-Write Heads

When done, I reversed the process, reassembling the floppy drive and re-inserting it into the AIO. I now had the ultimate in clean floppy heads, and surely read/write success must lie ahead.

Unfortunately, this was not the case. Same errors, same erratic behavior! This got me thinking. At this point, I could rule out the floppy drive itself as the cause of the issue. This left only the media. Could the floppy’s media surface have degraded to the point that it was no longer usable? I decided to test this theory with my other vintage Macs.

I decided to start with the best-preserved media I could find, so I went out on eBay and found a factory-sealed box of Macintosh formatted 1.4MB floppy disks, still in the original shrink wrap plastic. Then I turned to my trusty PowerMac 7300 as the normative test of whether the floppies were good or not. I was surprised to find that some were, some were not. Even my best machine was having trouble with floppies!

On to my next best machine – my Quadra 840AV. Similar results. Some floppies worked well, some were not recognized as formatted, and there was no consistency in anything. I have a variety of other vintage Macintosh and Power Macintosh machines and I found the same result across almost all of them. Floppy usage is really “touch and go”, and most definitely not reliable. I have only ever successfully formatted a floppy once, that being on the Quadra 840AV. What is going on here?

I titled this piece “The Mystery of the Failing Floppies” and for now, that is where I have to leave it. It IS a mystery, and I am not sure what to chalk up the continual failures and erratic behavior to. I am guessing that it is a combination of age, dirt and media degradation over time, but I cannot be sure. Various sources online indicate that the life expectancy of floppy media is 10-20 years, and both the machines and the media I am using are well beyond that. This is likely the major contributor to the problems I am observing. Perhaps I should be happy that they EVER work!

As to my G3 AIO, I am taking one more crack at the hardware, even given the above. I acquired another floppy drive on eBay and will try it to see how it works. If this fails, I will just need to accept that at least for now, and perhaps forever, I do not have a reliable way to read and write floppies, or I do not have a reliable set of floppy media, or both! As I learn more, I will keep you posted!

Pimp My Ride – Upgrading a Power Macintosh 7300 – Series Wrap Up

Pimp My Ride 10

Welcome to the summation of our “pimp my ride” series. In this series, we have looked at upgrading a Power Macintosh 7300/200. We have upgraded the video card, the CPU and both the hard drive itself and the hard drive interface (from SCSI to IDE). Reviewing the full set of results we have achieved, one upgrade really stands out from the rest: the CPU. Our results clearly demonstrate that to get the biggest “bang for your upgrade buck”, you should upgrade the CPU. This is the highest impact single step you can take. No other single upgrade delivers such dramatic across-the-board improvements.

PowerPC G3

What about the other upgrades? The other upgrades we undertook helped, but none to the extent of the CPU upgrade. Upgrading the video card was nice, but it did not produce that much observable impact in day-to-day use of the computer (unless you are a gamer). Upgrading the hard drive from SCSI to IDE delivered modest improvements in boot time, and also delivered somewhere between 1.5X and 2X reduction in program launch time, definitely making it a good second upgrade step to take. However, in the final analysis, only the CPU upgrade made significant, observable, day-to-day improvements across the board: boot time, program launch time, general responsiveness and so on.

So there you have it. In this series, we started with a stock Power Macintosh 7300/200 and step-by-step, upgraded the video card, the CPU and the hard drive. Of these upgrades, the single largest bang for the buck is the CPU upgrade.

Want to speed up your Power Macintosh? Hit eBay and start searching for Sonnet G3 and Sonnet G4 CPU upgrade cards. Find a good one, install it, and strap on your goggles and driving gloves – you are in for a high speed computing experience!

Goggles and Gloves

Pimp My Ride – Upgrading a Power Macintosh 7300/400 to an IDE Hard Drive

So far in this “pimp my ride” series, we have looked at upgrading the video subsytem of our Power Macintosh 7300/200 with an ATI Radeon 7000 Mac Edition video card (not much impact) and upgrading the CPU from the stock 200 MHz PowerPC 604e to a 400 MHz PowerPC G3 (BIG impact). In this last installment of our upgrade saga, we will look at upgrading the stock SCSI hard drive to an ATA-66 interfaced IDE drive.

The stock SCSI hard drive that shipped with the Power Macintosh 7300/200 may be many things, but FAST was not one of them. Using the Intech Hard Disk Speed Tools benchmarking program, I was able to measure the maximum transfer rate of the SCSI drive in my 7300 at about 9 MB/s. The graph below tells the tale.

SCSI Drive Speed Results

Now, there is nothing wrong with this number. 10 MB/s is the advertised speed for Apple’s “Fast SCSI”, but to put this number in context, today’s SATA hard drives operate in the GB/s transfer range. Even the older IDE technology delivered up to 133 MB/s transfer speeds. 9 MB/s, while absolutely in spec, is simply SLOW!

To overcome this, I purchased on eBay a Sonnet Tempo ATA-66 IDE interface card. This PCI interfaced internal expansion card promised up to 66 MB/s transfer speeds, a worthy jump in performance vs. the existing SCSI drive. I happened to have a Seagate 3120814A 120 GB IDE hard drive in stock, and so I installed that into the second drive bay of the 7300.

ST3120814A

I then installed the Sonnet Tempo ATA-66 into a spare PCI slot and connected an IDE cable from it to the newly installed Seagate IDE drive. For those that know about such things, I was careful to use the higher speed double conductor type of IDE cable, so as to get maximum speed out of the interface.

I restarted the machine and went into Drive Setup (the standard Apple utility, usually found in the Utilities folder of the boot drive). It obligingly found the drive and offered to initialize it. I will spare you the gory details of that process, but I partitioned the physical drive into several logical drives (one for use as a general files partition, one for use as a second Mac OS partition, and finally, two for a later Linux install on this machine) and initialized each one. That done, I now had no fewer than 5 logical drives showing up on my Mac OS desktop.

Desktop w 5 Drives

How fast was this new disk? Had I accomplished the 66 MB/s I was hoping for? I reran the Hard Disk Speed Tools benchmark, and got a disappointing 31 MB/s.

IDE Drive Speed Results

This is still more than 3X the speed of the stock SCSI drive, but was only half of what should have been possible. I swapped IDE cables, I swapped out the Tempo ATA-66 for another Tempo and generally tried everything I could think of, but nothing would induce the interface to run any faster. I still haven’t solved this mystery, but 31 MB/s IS still a lot better than 9 MB/s, and so I decided to proceed with the testing based on this slower, but still much faster, hard drive and interface.

Clearly, to do any meaningful testing, I needed to be able to boot from, and run applications from, the IDE drive. The Sonnet Tempo ATA-66 box and documentation was very clear that this interface supported booting of the Macintosh and so I proceeded under that premise.

It was MUCH too much work to install a new version of Mac OS onto this new drive just for the purposes of testing, and so I took a very convenient shortcut. I simply copied my entire SCSI boot volume, folder by folder, to a partition of the IDE disk. I then “blessed” the system folder of this copy of my boot disk (if “blessing” of a system folder is a mystery to you, it is the arcane but simple process of making a Mac OS system folder bootable). Finally, I went into the Startup Disk X control panel and selected the new drive to boot from.

Startup Disk X

All set and ready to boot! Stop watch in hand, I hit the power button and timed the boot sequence. It clocked in at 1 minute and 40 seconds, or 100 seconds, from power up chime to the appearance of the control strip on the booted desktop. This may sound slow to you when examined through the lens of today, but this was GOOD! Prior to all of the upgrades undertaken as a part of this series, the equivalent boot time was 2 minutes and 57s, or 177 seconds.

However, I must note that after just the CPU upgrade undertaken earlier in this series, the boot time was already down to 2 minute and 5s, or 125s.  Compared to the new time of 100 seconds this implies that booting from the 3X faster IDE hard drive hadn’t really bought me anything close to a 3X improvement. How could this be? As we noted in the CPU upgrade part of this series, it seems that booting is both CPU bound and disk bound.

What about other performance metrics? After the machine was booted, I tested a few programs that I had comparative metrics for:

– Photoshop 6.0 Load Time: 12 seconds (vs. 27 seconds from SCSI drive)

– Corel Word Perfect 3.5e Load Time: 2 seconds (vs. 3 seconds from SCSI drive)

The improvement in Photoshop load time was impressive; Word Perfect less so, but still good.

Looking at the above, the net result of this decidedly unscientific examination of the relative speed impact of using a 3X faster IDE hard drive vs. the stock SCSI hard drive is that it had an observable impact. Booting was faster, but not THAT much faster, implying that booting was bound by more than just disk I/O. Some program launches were more than 2X faster, while others were only 50% faster or so.

In summary, I think we can conclude that upgrading the hard drive of your Power Macintosh from SCSI to IDE is a worthy step, and one that will deliver you observable performance gains. Critically, booting is faster and program launching is faster. These two areas factor large in the subjective impression of the “speed” of a machine, and this all by itself makes a SCSI -> IDE upgrade well worth considering.

That’s it for this installment! Stay tuned for final post in this series, a wrap up of all of the upgrade steps taken to date.

Pimp My Ride – Upgrading a Power Macintosh 7300/200

powermac-7300-200-image

Imagine for a moment that you are a computer. What do you do on a day in, day out basis? Well, in the abstract, you read some data in from disk, you apply various algorithms and transformations to it, and you display something on screen related to the work you have just done.  On occasion, the user inputs something that causes you to execute more algorithms and transformations, and you then update the screen and potentially write some data back to disk. You repeat this cycle over and over again until finally the user turns you off for the day, allowing you some well earned rest.

With the above in mind, If I WAS a computer and I wanted to optimize my day to day operations, I would clearly focus on a few of my major subsystems: disk, CPU and video.

Now you are not a computer and neither am I. However, we are both likely to be users of computers, and as such we have an interest in optimizing (read “speeding up”!) their operations. To that end, I decided to take a run at optimizing my Power Macintosh 7300/200, to see just how fast it could be made to go, within the bounds of reason… It is after all a 1997 machine.

In the vernacular of the day, I decided to…
Pimp My Ride 10

The small series of posts that follow this one will detail the process of, and the outcome of, the following upgrades:

1. Video: addition of an ATI Radeon 7000 video card

2. CPU: addition of a Sonnet Crescendo G3/400 CPU replacement

3. Disk: addition of a Sonnet Tempo ATA 66 IDE controller

I will reveal in advance that the net result of the above upgrades was quite impressive, but not as impressive in some areas as I might have thought going into this process. Read on to learn more!