Review: Newer Technology’s Mac Pro eSATA Extender Cable; The $25 way to add eSATA to your Mac Pro
USB and FireWire are all well and good, but these days all the cool kids are talking about SATA. The Serial ATA protocol is the latest and (in theory) fastest way to hook up peripherals to your computer. With a theoretical transfer rate of 3.0 Gbit/second, SATA 300 drives are used inside every Mac Pro, and provide a degree of speed that was unheard of (or at least unaffordable) just a couple years ago. And these days more and more peripheral makers are slapping an external SATA (or eSATA) connection on their devices. It is becoming common to see a high-end external hard drive sport not only the traditional FireWire and USB connections, but also an eSATA port as well.
“Great!” you say. “I own a Mac Pro. But I don’t see a eSATA port on the back. What gives?” Well, Apple was pretty sneaky. While the Mac Pros sport a wealth of FireWire 400, FireWire 800, and USB 2 ports, you will not see any eSATA ports. At least not on the OUTSIDE.
It’s what’s inside that counts
Deep (and I do mean DEEP) inside every Mac Pro are 2 hidden SATA connections that are all but inaccessible. I have no idea how they ended up there, but on every Mac Pro’s motherboard, located just behind the fan assembly, are 2 Serial ATA ports that are just BEGGING to be used. Unfortunately, Apple did not make this easy, and the Mac Pro’s beautifully designed interiors make connecting to these ports in a way that would not hamper airflow next to impossible. Lucky for us, Newer Technology has developed a solution, and… it’s affordable!
Answer to your eSATA prayers
Whether or not you knew those ports were there, you paid for them, so why not use them? Newer Tech’s Mac Pro eSATA Extender Cable allows you to take advantage of those ports by routing 2 external SATA connections from the motherboard to the rear of your Mac Pro, all for about $25. Compare that to the cost of buying a standalone PCI-X card for $110-$200, and you’ve got a pretty good argument for a do-it-yourself geek project.
Warning, not your average Mac add-on
It is only fair that before I get your hopes up, I should point out that this is not your basic “Oh, I’ll pop in a new graphics or sound card”-type of installation. While the directions claim all you will need to complete the install are 2 small phillips screwdrivers (a P1 and a P0), the reality of the install process is it can be (and was for me) much more difficult than I thought.
Newer Technology’s site does not really point out just how difficult the process will be, although when the cable shows up, thankfully the detailed, full-colored installation guide does. I have to hand it to Newer, the directions are very straightforward. At no time did I not know what I was supposed to do, the problem was actually doing it. The 2 main problems I faced were 1) I am a 6-foot 3-inch man who’s hands are larger than the average Chinese woman’s who likely assembled my Mac Pro, and 2) I happen to have a Mac Pro Quad model which suffered from a manufacturing defect. Newer mentions that certain models of Mac Pros had some improperly installed screws where instead of using loctite being applied on the screw standoff, Apple used loctite on the screws themselves, into the standoffs, which basically means when you attempt to turn these screws, the standoffs themselves turn, instead of the screws. I was forced to enlist the aid of Helper Monkey here and by using 2 pairs of small needle nose pliers, we eventually were able to free the screws (after completely stripping one first, of course).
Aside from that debacle, there were 2 other bottle necks for me. One was the removal of the fan assembly screw, which although I have the requisite computer geek tool set and appropriate screwdrivers, I just had a heck of a time fitting my hand in to reach the screw and apply enough pressure to set it free. The second was in removing the fan assembly itself. The directions call for you to “wiggle, tug, and pull” the assembly out. Well, after about 15 minutes of wiggling, tugging, and pulling I did indeed remove the fan assembly, although at many points along the way I thought for sure I was going to break something. Now that the assembly and other interior parts have been removed once, I have no doubt they will all be easier to remove a second time, if need be, but I think I will just send Newer Technology a check for $25 and keep the cable in there.
Ok, so fast forwarding through the installation. Like I said, the directions are excellent, and if you are comfortable messing around inside your computer, then this really isn’t a huge deal, but I did get nervous a time or two when I felt I had to apply more pressure than I thought I should in order to remove some parts.
As for the eSATA extender cable itself, Newer designed it to be the exact length necessary to connect to those 2 hidden ports and work its way to the back of the machine (you tuck the cable up behind the black SATA drive connectors in the 4 hard drive bays) and to the faceplate in the back.
An important difference between eSATA and the other guys
One thing I should point out to those unfamiliar with eSATA is an eSATA connection is not “hot-swappable” like USB and FireWire connections. In order to be recognized, you must have the hard drive powered on and connected via eSATA before you boot your Mac (like the SCSI connections of old). You’ll notice when connected via eSATA, our Quad drive does not display the “eject” icon in the Finder that it does when connected via USB or FireWire. You actually CAN eject it by unmounting it in the Disk Utility app, and then reconnect via USB or FireWire if you choose to.
Once everything was installed and put back where it should be (note to those with an x1900 graphics card, the order of reinstallation is slightly different due to the length of the card vs the standard Mac Pro graphics card) I decided to run some tests. Luckily, I happen to have access to an OWC Mercury Elite Pro 1 Terabyte Quad Interface drive we are also testing in the lab. The nice thing about the Quad drive is it has USB 2, FireWire 400, FireWire 800, and an eSATA port on it, making it an ideal candidate to compare speeds.
For my test I created a 50.2 GB folder consisting of around 210,000 files. Included were a system folder, some music files, photos, and some larger movies (over 1.5 GB each). I figured this should give a good overall impression of how well the drive moved data over various connections. I compared the results to the time it took to copy that same folder from one of the Mac Pro’s internal SATA drives to another. The results are below. (All tests done on a Mac Pro Quad 2.66 GHz machine with 5 GB of RAM running OS X 10.4.9).
As expected, you can see that USB 2 is a joke, taking over 67 minutes to move the folder to the drive. FireWire 400 was the next slowest (although still showed quite an improvement over USB 2) with a time of 28:13, and FireWire 800 came in with a time of 22:16. The eSATA cable brought in the lowest write time 18:14, even beating the internal drive to drive transfer of 20:15. Oddly enough, on my second test, the “read from” test where I then copied that same 50.2 GB folder back OFF the drive, the FireWire 800 actually beat the eSATA by 15 seconds.
So, is there a compelling argument for rushing out to add eSATA to your computer? Well, yes and no. Your average home user is not going to need eSATA, and likely doesn’t even need FireWire 800 at this point (although your average home user likely doesn’t own a Mac Pro either). However, the video pro and power user might. Now, while the results of the eSATA connection bested those of the FireWire 800, it did not exactly blow it away either. However, the full potential of eSATA comes when you run 2 or more drives together as a RAID array. I did not have 2 eSATA drives handy to test this, however Newer Tech’s support says you can run a RAID off the eSATA Extender Cable. Reports have put the speed gains of an eSATA RAID setup in the 2x or more category, and that’s pretty impressive.
To me the most compelling reason to buy the eSATA Extender Cable is the price. At 1/4 to 1/8th the price of a PCI-card solution, you can add 2 eSATA ports to your Mac Pro without generating the extra heat or blocking airflow that may be a factor with a PCI card solution. It is important to note, however, that the cable does take up a card slot because the connections at the back occupy one of the expansion ports. Also, the cable is designed to fit perfectly in the Mac Pro, but only in the topmost slot. If you have a PCI card that for some reason needs to occupy the topmost slot in order to function (rare, but it happens), then this solution will not work for you.
The eSATA extender cable is the only $25 solution out there to add eSATA ports to your Mac Pro. The installation process is not for beginners, but the cost savings make it an attractive upgrading project for the more technically inclined. If you do not already own a set of small computer-sized screwdrivers, you’ll to invest in a set (Newer Technology sells a kit for $12.95) in order to complete the install. The speed gains over FireWire 800 may not be substantial in a one drive setup, but those considering an eSATA RAID will enjoy a nice speed boost.
Pros: Very affordable solution for adding 2 eSATA ports to your Mac Pro, does not generate the excess heat a PCI card might, supports RAID configurations.
Cons: Installation process is difficult.