Adventures In External Media With Kubuntu

Friday Jan 30th 2009 by Rob Reilly
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Uncertainty over hardware support is a perennial Linux bugaboo. Rob Reilly tested various external storage devices on his Asus Kubuntu laptop, including an antique Zip drive, and reports his findings.

My new ASUS X83-VM laptop has a very capable, whisper-quiet 320 GB SATA drive. For some jobs, like storing my photos, that disk simply isn't big enough. It was time to look at external USB media options. Good thing the new machine has five USB 2.0 ports.

After successfully installing Kubuntu (kernel version: 2.6.27-11-generic, 64-bit), I searched all over for information about hooking up an external IDE USB drive to recover data from the 2.5 inch disk out of my dead HP Pavilion laptop. I also thought that a 500 GB Western Digital MyBook might work for photo storage duty. Alas, I couldn't find diddly. There was much speculation, but nothing saying "yes, these things work with Linux."

The solution to my media uncertainty...buy the equipment, plug 'em in, cross fingers and see if they work. My substantial financial risk is your informational gain.

Thus begins the adventure into Kubuntu on ASUS external media.

It makes sense to start out with the easy media and work our way up to the more complex.

I've been happily running Kubuntu on my old HP Pavilion for about a year with all hardware working, except for the built-in HP 5-in-one card reader. Nothing I've ever done seemed to make it functional.

Being able to read and write to SD cards has been increasingly important because of their use in modern digital cameras, such as my Nikon DSLR. I could always plug in the USB cable, enable file transfer mode and then access the card through the camera. It was workable, but took a little extra effort.

I found another solution in a SanDisk Micromate reader that came bundled with a recent 4 GB SD purchase. The little external card slot fob worked by plugging it into a USB port, then inserting and mounting the card.

Although my new ASUS laptop doesn't have a 5-in-one, it does has a functioning SD card reader, under Kubuntu. And, the latest version of the OS has a slick file system auto mounter that works very well with the default Dolphin file manager. Just stick the card in the on-board slot and select the "Volume VFAT" item from the device notifier menu to start the Dolphin file manager. You can then drag and drop files to whatever you like. See graphic #1 for a screen shot of the Dolphin file manager and the notifier menu.

I found that if you unmount the card, by right clicking and choosing "Safely Remove Volume (vfat)", that Dolphin will forget what's in it's directories and you'll no longer be able to see some of them on the card. A quick "Reload" from the "View" pull-down tab returns directory visibility to normal.

The USB cable to camera trick works, as does the Micromate reader, on the ASUS. Today, I can have three SD cards available all at once, if needed.

With SD cards covered, let's move on to using my vintage IOMega Zip CD drive.
My old external IOMega Zip CD drive and I have been through a lot. This relic cost me $200 back in 2000. It seems so long ago. Anyway, this device has been very reliable over the years. I've used it to burn countless CDs and it was a savior for loading SUSE Linux on a tiny OQO Palmtop PC, for a story a few years back.

I can't say enough about hardware recognition in Kubuntu. Using this old drive amounted to plugging in the USB and powering up the device. The drive shows up in the device notifier pop-up, as soon as a CD is inserted into the device. A quick click on the appropriate menu item and Dolphin appears with all the files and directories, from the CD.

The Zip CD drive is useful now because the only thing that doesn't work on the ASUS is the internal CD/DVD drive. It's an LG model GSA-T50L, which apparently is known to have problems with Kubuntu. Funny thing is that it worked fine to load the basic Kubuntu software during installation, but is unreliable under normal desktop conditions. I think it might be a problem with the LG drive being SATA. Hopefully, a fix is in the works for future versions.

Let's switch over to a more complicated external device.

Lots Of Portable Space

Perhaps I'm loosing my Internet research edge, because I spent a couple of days looking around for data on using external mass storage devices with Linux and really didn't find much.

Seagate, Western Digital and a host of other vendors make consumer level packaged high-capacity USB drives that are available through retail outlets at very reasonable prices. Office Depot, CompUSA and Best Buy offer 500 GB models for around $80. Single tera-byte models go for around $130.

I'm in the process of consolidating all my music and photo files, so I went ahead and bought a Western Digital 500 GB MyBook external drive. Just as before, using the thing worked by plugging into an available USB port and a nearby power socket. Apparently, vendors are getting the message that standardization is a good thing because there was virtually no configuration needed by Kubuntu or the ASUS laptop.

There was a CD for XP and Vista in the box, but I didn't crack the seal when I moved the disk over to my wife's Vista laptop. It plugged in there, too with no drivers, or fussing around with settings.

Let's see...I could have an additional four terabytes of storage, if I bought a few more MyBooks. That's a lot of photos. And, on a laptop, no less.
As you might imagine, I had a bunch of data on my old HP Pavilion disk that I needed to transfer to the new machine.

I first tried a no-name USB drive enclosure that ran off of the USB port. I paid $10 for the little device and discovered that it wasn't even recognized under Vista, without loading the enclosed driver. Not only that, but my 80 GB 2.5 inch drive pulled 750 milliamps of current. Powering a device by USB is usually limited to 500 milliamps.

It started feeling like a home improvement project, as I traveled back again to the computer store.

This time I looked over all the models and discovered the Sabrent SATA/IDE external enclosure for about $25. The packaging said that it worked with everything from Windows 98 up, Mac OSX and Linux. It was designed for 3.5 inch disks, had an external power brick and thumbscrew attached covers.

Installation of the 2.5 inch laptop disk required the use of a laptop to standard IDE drive adapter. See graphic #2 for a picture of the laptop IDE adapter board. I also stuck a small piece of folded cardboard on top of the drive, before I bolted on the cover, to keep it from moving around inside the case.

Make sure you correctly plug the 2.5 inch drive into the adapter, otherwise it will show up as /dev/sdb in the system log and it won't mount correctly. The Sabrent SATA/IDE external enclosure has plug-and-play capability with my ASUS laptop and Kubuntu.

Down the road, I may pick up a 1 tera-byte drive and use it in the external enclosure. I'm confident that it will work just fine.

Reaching Our Destination

External media seem to work very well with Kubuntu. The external storage drives, SD card and CD device all functioned with minimal effort. I'm ready for a new adventure when USB 3.0 comes out?

Rob Reilly is a consultant and freelance technology writer. His interests include Linux, anything high-tech, speaking, and working with conferences. You can visit his web page at http://home.earthlink.net/~robreilly.

This article was first published on LinuxPlanet.com.

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