Apple USB Superdrive – A cautionary tale

by Doc Coleman - Nifty Tech Editor on January 15, 2013 · 18 comments

in Editorial, Public Service

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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.

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