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Review: Delock Card Reader FireWire B (Nr. 91694)  
Monday, January 30, 2012 | by Rob Galbraith
Over the last year or so, the supply of FireWire-equipped memory card readers has almost completely dried up, despite the fact that, for many photographers who use Macs, FireWire is their computer's only peripheral port that's fast enough to allow for efficient offloading of pictures from a stack of CompactFlash cards.

This reader type became an endangered species when Oxford Semiconductor (now called PLX Technology), maker of a key controller component found in all past FireWire 800 readers, discontinued the part. This signaled the end of the line for all FireWire 800 readers on the market at the time, including the Delkin Reader-39, Hoodman RAW UDMA FireWire 800, Lexar Professional UDMA FireWire 800, SanDisk Extreme FireWire and Synchrotech CFFire800 Pro.

While manufacturing of this generation of FireWire 800 reader has ceased, the demand continues. Case in point: a new unit of the SanDisk Extreme FireWire reader goes for over US$200 online, as some retailers take advantage of the supply drought. And that's assuming you can find an Amazon or eBay store that has stock to sell.

That's the bad news. The good news is that a new FireWire 800 CompactFlash card reader has arrived on the scene, one that doesn't depend on the long-departed component used in earlier FireWire 800 readers. It's manufactured in Taiwan, sold under the Delock brand name and uses a set of internal controller and bridge components from JMicron and LSI, not PLX Technology.

Introducing the Delock Card Reader FireWire B (Nr. 91694)

Called the Delock Card Reader FireWire B (Nr. 91694), we've had two of them connected to the FireWire 800 ports of a Mac Pro 2.66GHz/12-core for about six weeks. In that time they've seen near-daily use, and each has been about as quick and free of glitches as the dependable SanDisk Extreme FireWire reader we've relied on for years.

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New Guy: Views of the Delock Card Reader FireWire B (Nr. 91694). Click photos to enlarge (Photos by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)

The single-slot Delock reader is small (for a CompactFlash reader), sturdy and well put together, cards insert and remove smoothly, it accepts both the thinner Type I and thicker Type II CompactFlash variants and comes with a detachable, 25in/63.5cm FireWire 800-to-FireWire 800 cable. The only design quirk is the placement of the unit's power and activity lights at the rear of the case (they're the two pinholes in the right photo above), rather than a more visible location such as the front or top. Also, if you're a fan of the daisy-chaining ability offered by the Lexar Professional UDMA FireWire 800 reader and its twin connection ports, note that the Delock has only one FireWire 800 port. So, like all FireWire 800 readers other than Lexar's, it can't form its own multiple-reader link to the computer.

In addition to just using the reader regularly to transfer pictures to a Mac Pro, we've also checked out its performance and basic compatibility with over 100 CompactFlash cards of various capacities and vintages. This revealed the following:
  • First, card-to-computer transfer rates are generally a few percentage points slower than the SanDisk Extreme FireWire (and therefore all other past FireWire 800 readers too), though the speed difference is small enough to go unnoticed in day-to-day use.

    On the flip side, a handful of cards actually turn in faster performances in the Delock, including the Lexar Professional 1000X 32GB and all of SanDisk's Extreme Pro series. The SanDisk Extreme Pro 32GB read speed is 16.5MB/s faster in the new reader, relative to the SanDisk Extreme FireWire reader, for example.

    Overall, read speeds are solid for a FireWire 800 card reader. To go appreciably faster you'll need a reader that connects to a faster port, such as USB 3.0.

  • Second, a few older, lower-capacity CompactFlash cards aren't recognized by the Delock, including all the Lexar 80X from 2004 and 2005 that we still have on hand, as well as a disparate collection of mainly 1GB and 2GB cards from different makers, all of which are from the same era.

    But, newer cards posed no problems. Based on our testing, you should expect few compatibility hiccups if your CompactFlash cards came out in the last six years or so.
Examples of some of the read speed and compatibility differences between the SanDisk Extreme FireWire reader and the Delock Card Reader FireWire B (Nr. 91694) are shown in the table below. (As a reminder, we could have substituted any of the other past FireWire 800 readers and gotten nearly identical results to SanDisk's reader, since they all are the same where it counts under the hood.)

The computer was an Apple Mac Pro 2.66GHz/12-core with 16GB of RAM running Mac OS X 10.7.2. Read speeds come from Intech's QuickBench for Mac (we like this software because, unlike many such applications, the results it generates closely match actual card-to-computer transfer rates achievable with the Mac Finder). The fastest result for each card is marked in bold.

delock_firewire_table.jpg

For comparison purposes, the best card-to-computer transfer rate that can be squeezed out of a USB 2.0 reader is 36.7MB/s in the same test. As you can see, the Delock Card Reader FireWire B (Nr. 91694) ups this to nearly 80MB/s with the better-performing cards. USB 3.0 would be quicker still with the very fastest CompactFlash, as would an ExpressCard adapter in some instances. But if you're on a Mac and its connection ports are limited to FireWire 800 and USB 2.0, FireWire will enable transfers to finish in less than half the time.

Purchasing, Mac OS X 10.7.x compatibility and an import quirk

The Delock reader's build quality, CompactFlash card compatibility and performance are all good, and we actually prefer its slim design to that of all earlier FireWire 800 readers. Based on what we've reported thus far, you might be thinking it's an ideal substitute for the no-longer-available reader models mentioned earlier in the story. Before you run out to get one at the Best Buy around the corner, though, there are a couple of things to be aware of:
  • First, this reader isn't available locally in many countries. Delock is a German company with predominantly European distribution, so buying Card Reader FireWire B (Nr. 91694) in Europe should be relatively easy. But if you live in the U.S., Canada or other parts of the world that are not Europe, making a purchase might require more effort.

    We ended up ordering from Amazon UK retailer Avides for delivery to Calgary, Canada, paid 16.99 for "standard" DHL shipping (in addition to about 50 for the reader itself) and the package arrived a reasonable eight days after the order was placed. Given previous hassles with buying and shipping stuff overseas, the entire purchase turned out to be less costly than we'd anticipated, and the shipping time was quicker too. Numerous other Amazon UK stores carry Delock products also, plus Delock maintains their own dealer page.

    For what it's worth, Delock lists Tragant International as being their representative in the U.S., but as of this writing the linked-to site, www.delock-usa.com, isn't active. There does appear to be at least one North American online shop, MemoryDepot.com based in Montreal, that carries the reader. The brand name is given as Tragant, not Delock, but from the description and the picture, which is of the Delock reader, it's obviously the same product. And while we're not certain about the nature of the Delock - Tragant International connection, it's quite likely that Tragant, a Taiwanese company, is the actual manufacturer of the reader for Delock. Or, maybe Delock is a Tragant brand name.

    That confusing explanation leads into this: if you reside in Canada or the U.S., you might be able to save some money by ordering the "Tragant" reader from MemoryDepot.com in Montreal rather than getting it overseas from Europe.

    Update, February 9, 2012: Photographer Peter Wick was able to confirm with MemoryDepot.com that what they're selling is in fact the Delock 91694.

    Update, February 21, 2012: Reports are streaming in regularly now from U.S. and Canadian shooters, including Allan Powell , Eric Baur, JimH and Rob Colclaser , who have received their Delock reader shipments from MemoryDepot.com. So far, it has taken two weeks or more from the date of ordering for the item to arrive, and the U.S shipments appear to have originated from within the U.S. while the Canadian shipments began their journey from within Canada.

  • Second, until fairly recently, the Delock Card Reader FireWire B (Nr. 91694) was incompatible with some FireWire-equipped Macs running OS X Lion (OS X 10.7.x). New reader firmware solves the problem, and this firmware is now being put in at the factory. If, however, you take delivery of a reader that's giving your Mac fits, chances are you got slightly older stock that doesn't have the OS X 10.7.x-friendly firmware inside. If that happens, you'll have to decide whether to try and exchange it or tackle the firmware update yourself.

    The two units we got back in December both needed the newer firmware. How did we know? It was all too easy to figure out. One system, a 2009 MacBook Pro 17-inch, wouldn't recognize the Delock at all, while some cards would spontaneously dismount when the reader was connected to a 2011 Mac Pro and a copy operation was underway.

    Update: Installing the new firmware into the Delock Card Reader FireWire B (Nr. 91694). Click to enlarge
    In response to a tech support request, Delock sent out new firmware, v0.00.100.11.33, and a utility to load it. Once installed, both Mac problems disappeared and it has been smooth sailing ever since.

    The firmware update, however, can only be applied from within Windows, and while we happened to have a Windows machine with FireWire from which to run the update routine, you may not. If you're exclusively a Mac user - and if you're on the hunt for a FireWire 800 reader, then there's a good chance that you are - and have no convenient access to a Windows computer with a FireWire port just long enough to install the updated firmware, then exchanging your older-firmware Delock reader is probably your only course of action.

    With the requisite Windows setup, performing the update is simple, as long as you follow the firmware's included (brief) instructions to the letter. Pay particular attention to where you put the update folder. It must be at the root level of the C: drive or the utility will pop up an error message saying it can't locate the firmware file. Also, be sure to insert a card in the reader before you launch the utility.

    We ran the utility on an ancient Dell desktop running Windows Vista, so a fancy machine isn't required. Also, if you've set up your Mac with Boot Camp so that it can run as a full-fledged Windows computer, that configuration might be able to handle the updating too.

    As of this writing, the new firmware is not available for download and must be gotten from Delock's tech support. Be sure to include the reader's product ID, which is 91694.

    Chances are the Delock reader you might buy today will have been topped up with the newer firmware at the time of manufacture, and you will therefore be spared the rigamarole just described. If not, then you'll have a decision to make: try and swap the reader for newer stock or load in the newer firmware yourself.

    Other than a seat-of-the-pants test - does the reader behave properly with your Mac -  there doesn't seem to be a way to determine which firmware is loaded into the reader currently, or more specifically which firmware is in the reader's JMicron JMB355 component that's at the root of the OS X 10.7.x incompatibility. For example, the reader firmware version reported within the Mac's System Information utility stayed the same before and after we ran the firmware update, despite the fact that the new JMB355 firmware had obviously been installed and the OS X 10.7.x-related problems cleared.

  • There's one other Delock reader quirk to consider before you buy one. Unlike most other readers, FireWire or otherwise, CompactFlash cards mount as external SSDs and not as memory cards. On a Mac, for instance, an inserted card will not be represented by the typical white removable media icon; instead, a FireWire "drive" icon will appear.

    Cards can be mounted and unmounted without any problem on both Mac and Windows systems, and copies to/from the card with the Mac Finder and Windows Explorer proceed without a hitch. So, in terms of basic operation, there is little practical difference between the computer seeing a card in the Delock reader as a memory card or an external SSD.

    But, if you use an import utility to offload pictures from the card to the computer, it may not recognize a card in the Delock reader as a choosable source. We use the Ingest Disk function of Camera Bits Photo Mechanic for Mac for this job, and it will import pictures from a card in the Delock without any problem (though, if Photo Mechanic isn't already running, it will not auto-launch when a card is inserted).

    We haven't tested other import utilities, including ones such as Nikon Transfer or the import feature of Photoshop Lightroom, but based on prior experience with readers that act this way, you can expect that some will be able to pull photos from a card in the Delock reader, like Photo Mechanic can, while others simply won't see the card. This may require a change in your import workflow if you opt to use this reader.
Conclusion

Once fast USB 3.0 ports are ubiquitous, on both Mac and Windows systems, the picking of a CompactFlash card reader for your workflow should be universally easier than it is today: just get a good-quality USB 3.0 reader and you're done. Until that day comes, however, some photographers who require quick card-to-computer transfers will have to explore other options. For most Mac users that means FireWire, and after the demise of all earlier FireWire 800 readers the new Delock Card Reader FireWire B (Nr. 91694) nicely fills the gap, providing true FireWire 800 speeds, a compact design and excellent compatibility with all but certain older CompactFlash cards.
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  • Apple posts Digital Camera Raw Compatibility Update 3.10 (March 15, 2012)
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