Apple USB Superdrive – A cautionary tale

by Doc Coleman - Nifty Tech Editor on January 15, 2013 · 20 comments

in Editorial, Public Service

This article isn’t a real review. To be honest, it can’t be, as I had the product in my possession for a grand total of four days. As the headline above says, this is a cautionary tale. It is a warning about the way that companies advertise their products to make them sound better than they actually are, stupid decisions corporations make that make their products less useful and pull sales out of their own pockets, and how good customer service can still save the day. I hope you’ll read my little tale, as it may give you the opportunity to save yourself some time and money.

The Setting

Our tale begins way back in 2009, when my old Mac G4 that I was using as a server died. To replace it, I bought a Mac mini Server. At that time, the regular Mac mini came with an internal hard drive and a “Superdrive”, as Apple styled their high-speed CD/DVD burner. The Server version, however, came with two internal hard drives, and shipped with a case that didn’t include the slot for the Superdrive. The point here is that the Mac mini Server from 2009 was a computer that did not come with an internal optical drive. To make up for this, Apple, and lots of other folks, sold external CD/DVD drives.

Fast forward to the introduction of the MacBook Air. The Air didn’t have the room for an internal DVD drive, so Apple updated their external Superdrive design to produce a small, portable drive that could be powered through a single USB connection. This was, and is, the Apple USB Superdrive. On the packaging, it says it is compatible with any Mac that does not ship with an internal optical drive.

The story begins

Our action begins about a month ago when I discovered that the DVD drive I use with my mini, and the G4 before it, had quietly died an electronic death in the night. Needing a new drive, I bought the Apple USB Superdrive. After all, it is compatible with any Mac that doesn’t ship with an internal optical drive, right? And a quality piece of hardware to boot.

Last Wednesday, my drive arrived. I pulled it out of the box and connected it up to my mini, then proceeded to pull out a CD that I wanted to rip into iTunes. I put the CD in… and the drive spat it back out. Actually, that’s not quite right. The drive wouldn’t accept the CD at all. I’d push it in, and it would be pushed right back out. I tried it with different CDs, and with my MacBook Pro. No change. This disappointed me, but I figured that even Apple turns out a lemon now and then. I packed it back up in the box and made a Genius Appointment at the local Apple Store.

That brings us to Saturday, and my appointment. I brought a CD along with me so I’d be able to show the problem. The Genius tried my drive on a MacBook Pro, and got the same results I had. Then he pulled out another USB Superdrive, plugged it into the same computer, and got the same result. One lemon, yes, but two? That didn’t seem right to either of us. We took the drives over to one of the Mac minis on display. In case you didn’t know, Mac minis no longer have internal optical drives. He plugged my drive into the mini, slipped my CD into the slot… and it mounted on the desktop.

This puzzled us mightily, so as my Genius went off to consult with other Geniuses, I ejected my CD, and did some research on the online Apple Store. Looking at all the official Apple materials on the page, it should have worked with my computer. Then I noticed the Questions and Answers section at the bottom of the page. Looking through the answers, it became clear that the drive was built specifically for the MacBook Air, the newer Mac mini, and the latest iMac model. As one person put it, “Apple prevents you from using them in other devices by using firmwares in the superdrive that will not allow it.” The Genius came back and confirmed it: The USB Superdrive ONLY works with the latest version of the MacBook Pro with Retina Display, MacBook Air, Mac mini, and the iMac. It DOES NOT work with Macs that come with an optical drive, or have an OPTION to have an optical drive. The firmware will not let it work with other devices.

Rant time

Normally, Apple makes some pretty solid hardware that works with just about everything. And let’s face it, nothing says “works with everything” like a USB drive. Most USB devices work with anything that has a USB port. I can see the device not working with a device that doesn’t provide enough power, but to make a drive that refuses to work with computers where it is perfectly compatible? That’s just insane from a business point of view. Going after a niche market is one thing, but kicking out the rest of your market in order to pursue a single niche is ridiculous. And that is what Apple has done. They’ve kicked out their customers who need multiple CD/DVD drives, and those with older Macs, in order to focus on a niche market of customers who bought four specific models of Mac in the last two years. It’s one thing to say other and older machines are unsupported, but to refuse to even try? Insane.

The Happy Ending

Fortunately, my story ends well. Because the drive, the ONLY CD/DVD drive that Apple makes, wasn’t compatible with any of my machines, and because I had only had the drive for a few days, I was able to return the drive and get my money back. The Genius was very helpful and he agreed with me every step of the way that Apple’s corporate decisions were stupid.

The moral

So, what have we learned from this? Always do your homework before you buy. That includes reading reviews and forums to see what kind of problems people are having with the product. No company is totally reliable, so don’t depend on just the reputation of the brand name. Even the best will make stupid choices. And if you do run into a problem, run it down as fast as possible, or you may just find yourself stuck with a perfectly good product you can’t use.

{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

BigJohn January 15, 2013 at 1:43 PM

Wow. I know that Apple likes to keep their products fresh and builds in obsolescence to their hardware so you really have to keep up with them, but that’s crazy. I understand it to some degree (the planned obsolescence, not your scenario) since it’s easier to NOT have to support older technology going forward. But someone dropped the ball on this one. I guess your only alternative course of action is to get a 3rd party drive, which will most likely work no problem. I hate it when Apple makes me upset with them.

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Doc Coleman - Nifty Tech Editor January 15, 2013 at 11:17 PM

John,

Exactly. Not only did Apple not support some of their older hardware, they’re not supporting their current hardware that includes an optical drive. I don’t think there are very many people who would replace a perfectly good computer just to use an optical drive. So, they’ve forced me to seek out 3rd party alternatives because they have sabotaged their own sales. So very, very stupid.

Doc

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Keith February 7, 2013 at 11:42 PM

Doc,

Thanks for posting this. I bought an Apple USB Superdrive back in August last year for a MacBook Air. I then sold my Air and kept the DVD/CD Superdrive thinking it might come in handy anytime I needed a spare portable disc drive. I later bought a Mac Book Pro with an internal drive and most recently built a home pc that doesn’t have a disc drive yet. I thought it would be nice to use my Superdrive from Apple for awhile but when I plugged in the Superdrive to the USB port on my pc there was no power activated on the Superdrive and no recognition of the device by the computer at all. To test the optical disc drive by Apple further, I plugged it into my MacBook Pro that already has a disc drive and got the same result. The USB Superdrive didn’t respond at all even when connected to another Mac device! I thought for sure it was broken despite having used it only a handful of times, but now that I read your post I understand that it is a completely lame compatibility restriction put in place by the manufacturer. This is the most vexing thing to think that I blew $70 on an external USB drive that can only be used on four select Apple devices. I actually feel defrauded by this purchase when it is common industry practice to make drives like this universally accessible. At the very least, they should issue some kind of disclaimer on the packaging of the device and train their sales people to warn potential purchasers of this hyper-restrictive anomaly. Even after six months, I am marching back to the Apple Store with my receipt to complain about this and see if I can get a a refund or an exchange. Thanks again for issuing this post to inform others about the debacle you encountered after purchasing your Apple Superdrive. I am usually known for being an Apple aficionado and singing their praises, but this leaves me scratching my head asking, “What were they thinking?!”

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Doc Coleman - Nifty Tech Editor February 11, 2013 at 7:45 AM

Keith,

I’m glad you at least got some use out of your Superdrive. I agree with you that limiting the Superdrive to a handful of devices was a very silly thing for Apple to do. There actually is a disclamer on the packaging, but it is in such tiny print it is easy to overlook. The cynical among us would probably say that was done deliberately to sell more units that don’t get used. I’m sure the small print was there deliberately to cover Apple’s posterior in case of a law suit, but it seems to me that if Apple wanted to sell more units, they’d just make them work with any USB capable computer. Not smart business. Let’s hope Apple learns from this sometime soon.

Doc

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Morgan March 6, 2013 at 11:51 AM

Here’s how to make this Superdrive hopefully work for you:

Open terminal and type “sudo nvram boot-args=”mbasd=1” and restart.

I pulled this from an amazon review: http://www.amazon.com/review/R2JRMYVLTP5DHF/ref=cm_cr_pr_cmt?ie=UTF8&ASIN=B008AL9VXI&linkCode=&nodeID=&tag=#wasThisHelpful

Hope this helps anyone who get’s here via search engine!

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The Shrinking Man March 7, 2013 at 6:27 AM

Morgan,

Thanks for the tip. Unfortunately, I returned my Superdrive, so I can’t verify the effectiveness of this solution. Use at your own risk, folks! Be sure you have a good backup before you start using Terminal commands, especially if you’re not sure what the command is actually doing.

If you decide to try this fix, please come back and let us know how it worked for you.

Doc

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Andrew Kincaid April 2, 2013 at 10:34 AM

I came across this entry trying to find out the true model number of the Apple USB Superdrive before I bought one for my MacBook Air. Now that I have one, the drive model number is HL-DT-ST DVDRW GX40N (revision RQ00) according to XLD.

Anyway, I was also shocked that you could not use this drive on previous Mac models! I only need this drive for my MacBook Air so I wasn’t too upset that I couldn’t use it on my older MacBook Pro and Mac Mini.

I’m writing to report the sudo command listed above:
sudo nvram boot-args=”mbasd=1″

Did enable the drive on my mid-2010 MacBook Pro (after rebooting.)

Hope this helps someone!

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Doc Coleman - Nifty Tech Editor April 3, 2013 at 6:40 AM

Andrew,

Thanks for the heads up on the sudo nvram command! I’m glad it worked for you. I may have to consider getting another Superdrive now…

Doc

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Steve April 23, 2013 at 12:47 PM

Anyone know of a command that will allow this drive to be used through a powered USB 3.0 hub? It seems that even when I use this device with a new Macbook Pro that it was designed for, it will not work if it is plugged into a powered hub (presumably because of the same checking the internal chipset does won’t natively pass through the hub itself).

Thanks.

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Doc Coleman - Nifty Tech Editor April 24, 2013 at 6:17 AM

Steve,

I’m afraid I can’t help you directly, as I no longer have a Superdrive to experiment with. Have you tried the sudo nvram boot command mentioned in the above comments? I would think that if it works to let you connect the superdrive to other Macs, it might help with using a powered hub. It really depends if the Superdrive itself is updated, or just how the Mac talks to it. Might be worth a try.

If you do find a solution, please come back and post it so others can benefit.

Thanks!

Doc

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Alberto Vignuzzi July 20, 2013 at 1:06 PM

I read all the above comments, then i bought an LG 50NB40 external drive delivered for half the cost of Apple super drive. It is perfect.

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Doc Coleman - Nifty Tech Editor July 21, 2013 at 9:20 AM

Alberto,

Glad to hear that you found something that worked for you. Although, I have looked up that particular model and found that some people have had issues with it. Of course, problems can happen with even the best products. There are a lot of good options out there.

Doc

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Brian Holmes August 1, 2013 at 11:49 AM

Good story, and people should know about the dumb restrictions placed on the Apple USB Superdrive. I was flabbergasted when I found out and I still can hardly believe it!

Regarding other brand optical drives: my reading suggests that a non-Apple drive will not be bootable, will not be usable by Apple’s DVD player software, and won’t respond to the eject key on the keyboard. Otherwise it should work, but the first point is important to me — I want to be able to boot my SSD vendor’s firmware update utility from CD/DVD. (I have an older iMac I will be installing a Plextor SSD in.)

I also came across the “sudo nvram boot-args=”mbasd=1″ command, and I’m wondering if anyone knows if it resolves any of the three issues above for a non-Apple drive, especially boot capability?

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Doc Coleman - Nifty Tech Editor August 25, 2013 at 5:08 PM

Brian,

I finally got a Samsung SE-208 drive for my Mac mini so I’d be able to rip CD’s and burn DVDs to and from my server. I haven’t tried to boot up from a dVD yet, but when I drop a DVD into it, Apple’s DVD player comes right up and starts playing like it should. I can’t really test the eject key, as the keyboard I use on that system was originally bought for a Mac G4 tower, and pre-dates the eject key. That G4 tower gave up after 11 years of use, but the keyboard is still going strong and is at least 15 years old.

I’ll come back and let you know if I have a need to boot off of a DVD using the Samsung drive, and what kind of success I have with it.

Doc

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Brian Holmes August 27, 2013 at 9:26 AM

That’s interesting (and good) that your new Samsung drive works with Apple’s DVD Player. I was sure I’d seen multiple reports of people having trouble with DVD Player not working with their non-Apple drive, but it appears that at least some do work OK!

I ended up buying an external Apple USB Superdrive “like new” from eBay (saved >$25). I played it “safe”; I couldn’t find any reports of successfully booting a Mac from an third-party drive so I went with Apple’s.

Of course Apples USB Superdrive is not “supposed to” work with my 24″ Early 2008 iMac, so I used the NVRAM command (sudo nvram boot-args=”1″). Now my external optical drive does allow booting from CD/DVD, works with DVD Player.app, and the Eject key works.

BTW, congratulations for making your hardware last so long — I think that’s great. I like to do that too; my last computer (non-Apple) lasted 10 years, and my 5.5-year old iMac is still going strong and meeting my daily needs.

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Doc Coleman - Nifty Tech Editor August 30, 2013 at 6:41 AM

Brian,

After I got burned last year buying a USB hard drive that turned out to be Windows only (I still don’t know how you could make a USB drive windows only, but someone did it), I double-checked when shopping for drives to make sure that it was approved for use with the Mac. It may be that is the difference, as there are a lot of DVD burners out there that don’t say if they are Mac compatible or not.

I wish that the NVRAM fix had been known when I had my Superdrive, and I’m happy to hear that it is working for people. I considered going back and getting another one, but decided that the price was too high for the uncertainty. Glad to hear you got a deal on eBay.

I pretty much find some way for making use of my hardware up until it fails. It may not be my primary workhorse, but a working computer can do something, so there is no point not putting it to work.

Thanks for reading!

Doc

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Bob August 26, 2013 at 6:31 PM

Hello Doc,
I found the fix! Take a look at this website:
http://hints.macworld.com/article.php?story=20111107064435227
Very easy to follow, and it has worked on multi Macs and operating systems that I use.

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Barry Hughes January 27, 2014 at 8:55 AM

For £24.35 delivered I bought a ‘LiteOn ETAU108-02 8x USB 2.0 Slim Top-Load External DVDRW – Black’ from Amazon. It works fine reading discs on my 2013 iMac, even though it is described as a Windows machine. What this seems to mean is that the burn software won’t work on the Mac — or at least I haven’t yet got the MAC built-in burner to recognise it.

If all you want is to watch DVDs and install the odd disc-based programme then this should do the trick.

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Adrienne Anderson November 17, 2015 at 10:52 AM

I had one but it was stolen during my home sale. I was just ready to replace it. Thanks.

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Claus May 14, 2016 at 3:01 PM

Well, there is a way to make it work:
1) open the terminal and enter:
sudo nvram boot-args=”mbasd=1″
2) reboot.
3) Enjoy.

Does anyone know WHY on earth Apple did this? I found no reason for it. Power drain? I found on the net: “A Superdrive requires 0.45a at 5vdc, well within USB range.” So why then?

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