Apple appears to have come to the conclusion that FireWire Target Disk Mode is now just a Pro feature. I’ll explain why it’s essential for everyone… and how Apple can still pull it off.
For those of you new to the Mac, Target Disk Mode is a revolutionary feature which takes advantage of FireWire’s ability to directly connect two machines together. When you put a Mac into Target Disk Mode, it puts the machine into a special mode, which basically converts the Mac into an external hard drive (it also works with the optical drive as well).
This is critical if you have a sick Mac in the field. Especially with a Mac portable, fixing problems can take minutes with Target Disk Mode, even if a Mac won’t start up! Essentially, with Target Disk Mode, you can run repair tools from another Mac, and fix a sick Mac without having to take it apart. You can rescue files without needing to pull out the hard drive. You can even check the drive for bad disk sectors.
When I say that this is “critical”, I’m not joking. When I used to do IT consulting, this saved my clients hours in billing. I was able to repair damaged directory and filesystems within minutes. Without Target Disk Mode, I would have spent an hour diagnosing, before being resigned to taking apart the computer… which would have taken hours as well. Finally, fixing the problem, and putting the Mac back together again.
Now, Apple does have a point: FireWire is no longer a consumer tool. USB 2.0 replaced FireWire even in digital and HD camcorders. Fine. But, Apple still needs to innovate a solution to Target Disk Mode, and I’m about to tell them how.
See, you can’t just plug two computers together via USB. There are, however, some special Data Transfer Cables, which Microsoft tried to use to promote Vista. Apple even sells one at their retail stores, bundled with software which will let you migrate your Windows files to a new Mac.
And, that cable would work perfectly for Target Disk Mode via USB. Simply sell a special USB cable (similar, if not identical to one of the existing data transfer cables), with custom firmware on the controller in the cord. That cord could communicate with updated EFI/TDM firmware on the slave Mac. The result? The master Mac would “see” (and mount) the drives just like any other external hard drive or optical drive. Just like FireWire Target Disk Mode.
And, we wouldn’t have to wait for new revisions of MacBook Air and MacBook to support this… it could be added right now, to every single Intel-based Mac, with a simple firmware update. That’s the beauty of EFI… if only Apple would take advantage of it.
I know just about every Mac technician would buy one up… just for repairing the new MacBook and MacBook Air. Every IT department that handles Mac would keep one on-hand as well. At $49/cable, just think of the revenue potential right there.
Now, down the road, I would like to see Apple innovate in FireWire again. I think that there is plenty of room for innovation (and yes, profitable innovation), especially since the SIG has indicated that they could embrace using the RJ45 connector as a standard port. Think about it… that Ethernet port that goes relatively unused on MacBooks, could one day be used not just for Gigabit Ethernet, but for FireWire 400, 800, and S3200. But, then again, that would actually be… downright logical, so I doubt it will be implemented.
Woah. I’m not a Mac person, so I wasn’t aware such a thing existed … is there an equivalent of anything like this for Windows? (I’m guessing not, otherwise I would have heard of it by now).
I guess I’m resigned to buying the 17 inch Pro next year as my workstation and using the new Air as a portable with the new 15 inch Pro replacing my current Vista machine this December. I’m really used to using Target Disk for maintenance above all else and don’t see why FireWire should be eliminated..
Daniel, Target Disk Mode is a Mac innovation. It originated on PowerBook systems with SCSI. As FireWire replaced SCSI, it made the transition over to FireWire.
The problem is, that the PC BIOS isn’t powerful enough to deploy this. That’s one of the reasons why EFI helped make the Intel transition for Apple, possible. EFI matches the robust Open Firmware which Mac users have had for a decade.
While Microsoft could offer such a mode in the Windows kernel… it wouldn’t be as practical. The idea of Target Disk Mode is that it can rescue a system, even one which cannot boot.
I think that if Apple does follow through, and implement USB Target Disk Mode, that PC makers would follow up. I think you’ll see EFI start to become mainstream over the next couple of years, as utility makers start to pitch bundling EFI apps into the firmware of OEM PCs.
Sadly, in order to keep my firewire connections, I have thought about maxing out the old version of the macbook. It only comes in white these days, but that is how important firewire is to my work and personal lives. I am in IT and love what firewire enables me to do with little to no effort. I enjoyed your articles idea because I have been thinking the same things! I am ready to see Apple make it obvious to people why they have rid the macbook of such a viable port. Apple tends to come through with an explanation. I guess I will simply have to wait and see.
“And, that cable would work perfectly for Target Disk Mode via USB.”
Would it? Doesn’t Target Disk Mode require a guaranteed transfer rate which the Firewire specification can do as the communication between devices is not delegated to the processor but is build into the Firewire devices themselves. USB cannot guarantee this.
Yes, the cable would simply require you to plug the two machines directly into a computer… avoiding the hub.
Then, the firmware could drop throughput to a reliable speed. Say, 270 mbps.
And, not to mention the fact that USB Target Disk Mode isn’t bound to FW TDM, as much as it is bound to SCSI TDM.
I don’t see why an EFI system couldn’t delegate some resources to the processor… if EFI can do memory diagnostics, virus scans, and other resources… why not make a USB host connection (with the host hardware on the dongle)?
You know why Target Mode isn’t a big loss? There is no “taking apart” issue with the new MacBooks. Just buy one of those SATA-USB adapter cables for $10 on eBay, pop out the drive from the MacBook, and mount the drive on your other machine in less than a minute.
Problem solved 😉
Christian, that’s great if you’re in a nice, cosy office.
Try doing that in the middle of a desert in 100 degree weather. Try doing that in all the places where you wish you had a Mac… because you’ll need the durability.
I know lots of people from consulting that chose Mac, even over a Panasonic Toughbook.
But, most importantly, it’s essential on things like the MacBook Air, Mac mini (when it inevitably loses FireWire) and iMac… those systems are certainly much harder to gain access to the hard drive.
I was thinking the same thing, hence I found this post via Google. I can’t see how throughput can be an issue since computers can already boot from USB devices and it’s not like the host computer would have anything else to do with its CPU.
Though the need for special cables does seem to be another reason as to why Firewire has been replaced my a superior technology. Though perhaps USB could be re-engineered for connecting two computers together. We now have auto-sensing ethernet ports that eliminate the need for crossover cables, yet Firewire never even had this trouble from the beginning (I use the same cable for my FW hard disk enclosure as with TDM between two macs), so I can’t see why USB couldn’t be updated to do the same.
Though ultimately this some of these tasks could be done over the network as well. Even with all the greatness of Firewire and TDM, there was an instance where I couldn’t get it to work between two macs of a different generation. Yet if Migration Assistant could have worked over the network, my problem would have been solved. We’re already seeing some of the former FW TDM functions being provided over the network with the Macbook Air computers. It’s just those emergency situations where you can’t boot one of the computers. If EFI has network support like Open Firmware did, then perhaps it could even provide access to the hard drive via the network. Still I like the idea of USB as an alternative/backup method.
I also don’t see why third parties couldn’t implement such add-ons for EFI.
I couldn’t agree more about the need for USB Target Mode. I support over 130 macs at a small school – laptops with a few desktops and servers. I use Target Mode for support EVERY day. It’s not unusual that a laptop will not boot, but it’s drive will mount in Target Mode with no problem, or at least be accessible to another Mac for repair or recovery with Disk Utility, Diskwarrior or Data Rescue II. It also makes quick manual data backups or migrating a student to a new machine much easier. In the future I will need to pull drives to do what I currently do with target mode or rework my support procedures.
Time for Apple to Think Different on this issue.
So in anybodies’ expert opinion… what is the “new/best” alternative to TDM when i comes to servicing the new macs quickly and effectively?
Depends on the Mac. The MacBook 13-inch and the MacBook Air are the only two systems without TDM (for now).
For the MacBook 13-inch, it’s pretty simple. The hard drive is easy to remove, and I’d suggest that any tech-savvy owner that runs/admins one have a 2.5-inch SATA-to-USB adapter. That will let you plug the drive directly into another system, and try to recover data from it.
For the MacBook Air, removing the hard drive probably isn’t an option (since the drive uses a special connector). So, you’re going to be stuck with using a USB 2.0 hard drive with a copy of OS X installed on it. Then, you’ll just have to cross your fingers that the drive failure isn’t bad enough to screw with the boot process from the USB drive.
A USB 2.0 hard drive (with OS X installed) should be able to boot any Intel-based Mac, so it’s a good idea for any sys admin to have a spare install ready (and up-to-date) for emergency use.
YES – USB Target Mode IS needed.
Please please please Apple – Fix this. Nowadays it takes us one day, what took one hour before.
I agree, the Target Disk Mode is essential for support! Apple, add USB and/or Ethernet Target Disk Mode into EFI!
I would love usb TDM in all of the mac’s including G3’s that would make my life so easy, I have seen a cable that is USB A-A and there is no box in the middle, its A-A (the end you plug in to the computer) I am hoping apple alows us to do that, or put fire wire back in all of the line of computers, or make usb TDM in all of the computers
A-A cables typically serve as extension cables. As I noted above, you would need one of those “in the middle” chipsets to handle communications… but an Apple-built cable that communicated with a driver in EFI is certainly possible.
As to supporting G3’s, sorry, that’s dreaming… er… hallucinating. It would be stupid of Apple to spend time going back and adding TDM to a firmware platform (OpenFirmware) that they don’t support anymore.
On enclosures for the MacBook Air hard drive, seems like they do exist:
Macbook air is my favorite except for this issue of no target mode… especially as the new ones (I was told) have no discrete HD that can be removed for rescue! I find it just insanely stupid and wonder what could be their reason, maybe so they will sell another one instead of have one be repairable? But it just leads me to not even buying it at all!
I’m ready to upgrade but have waited to see if the newer macbook air had target mode. So far I have not found a way, so therefore have not bought a new computer. I’m still using my 12″ g4 powerbook, it is starting to be old enough to really want to upgrade, but I value target mode way to much to get anything without it…
Please if anyone finds a way to effectively put the Air into target mode, please come tell us how!
A new kind of cable, or anything…