Following tests conducted by PhoneNews.com, Toshiba has acknowledged an issue affecting their Canvio USB 3.0 hard drives. The issue prevents current-generation MacBook Pro and MacBook Air models from properly connecting and powering up the drives.
Read more to see our findings, and the resulting (ongoing) investigation by Toshiba.
We began our tests based on tips from readers like you, and went out and purchased five (yes, five) Canvio USB 3.0 drives, along with a brand new 2011 MacBook Air.
Drive problems happened immediately, and were relatively isolated to the MacBook Air. Of all the systems we tested on, we were only able to reproduce issues on a Sony VAIO laptop late in our testing, as well as a current-gen MacBook Pro.
Essentially, the drives failed to mount, and in most tests never even spun up on these systems.
The Canvio USB 3.0 hard drives have sat under many people’s Christmas trees, as they were hot sellers during Black Friday. Retailers like Office Depot slashed prices on the slim, 2.5-inch drives down to $79 for a 1TB hard drive. With coupons, Radio Shack was selling the 500GB model for a mere $39.
Canvio USB 3.0 drives tout on the box compatibility with USB 2.0 systems, including both Mac and PC. The advantage of a Canvio USB 3.0 hard drive for a MacBook owner lies in Thunderbolt. Purchasing such a drive today can achieve USB 3.0 speeds with upcoming Thunderbolt-to-USB 3.0 adapters. USB 3.0 mass storage was designed to be fully backwards compatible with USB 2.0.
To get to the bottom of the problem, we probed the five Canvio drives purchased, in an effort to better understand the issue. And, we were able to isolate the problem; the Canvio USB 3.0 drives draw more power than the USB standard permits. The drives were drawing, upon connection, slightly more than the five watts that the spec allows. And, the new MacBooks appear to promptly shut the device down because of this.
Why? Well, Apple can assert that this is to protect the MacBook Air/Pro from a malfunctioning USB device. However, the answer really lies in tablets. Apple allows iPad and MacBook to perform a hardware handshake, which then allows Apple devices to draw 10 watts from the USB port. This is why you can charge an iPad directly on a Mac, but not on a PC.
Apple does not want to allow rival tablet manufacturers (Android) to have the same access to Apple’s USB port. Hence, any device (like a tablet) that wants to draw even slightly more than five watts, is shut off from communicating with the Mac. We affirmed this by testing a powered USB hub. With a powered hub connected to the hard drive, and the hub connected to the MacBook, the drive instantly came to life, and worked without issue.
This creates a bit of an odd situation; Toshiba is technically in the wrong for making drives that technically breach USB specifications… but Apple seems to be the only manufacturer to enforce this aspect (as well as breach it with their own devices).
Toshiba, to its credit, has owned up to our issue, right down to our suggestion to them that a powered hub works around the issue. Quoting an official statement in response to our research:
Toshiba DPD has identified an isolated USB connectivity issue between the Canvio USB 3.0 drive and currently shipping MacBook Pro and MacBook Air laptops. The issue involves the MacBook Pro and MacBook Air being unable to recognize the Canvio USB 3.0 drive when connected directly to the laptop USB 2.0 port. Toshiba is actively working to remedy this USB connectivity issue. In the interim, Toshiba recommends MacBook Pro and MacBook Air users employ a powered USB hub to connect their Canvio USB 3.0 drives.
We have asked Toshiba if they intend to inform retailers to accept returns for affected drives, or if they will offer some form of refund program in the interim. Retailers such as Office Depot do not permit refunds on opened technology items, including Canvio drives. Toshiba has said are looking into that aspect of this problem, and will get back to us shortly.
In all, we spent a few hundred on hard drives, and confirmed the issue. Unfortunately, because it is a power drain concern, Toshiba will likely have to offer an exchange program to fix it. We seriously doubt that this can be fixed at the firmware level. Theoretically, it’s possible a USB cable replacement might be able to mitigate this issue however, so there is hope that Toshiba won’t have to recall a bazillion hard drives.
Update: As a follow-up, Toshiba has informed us that they have completed their investigation, and will replace affected drives.