The need for speed part 2: Portable hard drives

For the video editors in our family who need to move big files around, apart from internet upload speeds, I was also researching the fastest connection types for portable hard drives.

Theoretical speeds:

  • USB 2: 60 MB/s
  • Firewire 800: 133 MB/s
  • USB 3: 625 MB/s
  • Thunderbolt 2: 1250 MB/s

(USB 3.1 will apparently be up to 1250 MB/s when it’s eventually out there.)

USB hard drive manufacturers even quote the full USB 3 speed on their specs. But these don’t reflect real-life usage when moving data to/from drives.

The bottleneck is the drive itself, and PC Pro found in tests that USB3 and Thunderbolt 2 basically achieved the same speed. Below I’ve put these results together with some MacWorld tests using a 7200 RPM drive.

So the practical speeds are:

  • USB2: 41 to 42 MB/s
  • FireWire 800: 55 to 74 MB/s (depending on read or write)
  • USB3 or Thunderbolt 2: 112 to 116 MB/s

MacWorld also found that with SSDs, there was some additional benefit for USB3 and Thunderbolt, with Thunderbolt being between 6% and 35% faster than USB3. Presumably a similar boost would be available on USB3 flash drives.

Why is Thunderbolt so much lower than advertised? Probably because it’s not just designed for storage devices. It can also be used for displays, which need a much faster data transfer rate.

Interface speeds using portable hard drives

The Thunderbolt tax

Thunderbolt in drives is much much more expensive than other interfaces: for example for LaCie Rugged 2 TB drives at this place in South Melbourne, you’re looking at A$239 for USB 2/3, A$279 for USB 2/3 and Firewire, or A$389 for USB 2/3 and Thunderbolt. So it’s basically a $150 or 60% premium.

Thunderbolt also severely limits the range of drives you can buy. Most brands aren’t touching it.

My budding video editors have access to machines at uni that do USB 3 and Thunderbolt.

But at home we had neither; our old-but-still-good 2008 vintage “3,1” Mac Pros have USB2 or Firewire 800. They can’t be upgraded to Thunderbolt, but they can be upgraded to USB3 (for about US$60 each plus postage; cheaper than the “Thunderbolt tax” for single a high-capacity drive). So I’ve gone with USB3.

Yeah eventually I’ll have to replace the Mac Pros — they were secondhand when we got them 3 years ago — but they do have a bit of life in them yet… though one seems to be playing up a bit, grrr.

Back to some transport stuff in the next post

The need for speed part 1: Internet uploads

Not to pre-empt anything, but this year I expect to have two film and television students in the house.

For this, I’m considering upgrading my Internet.

We’re currently on iiNet Naked ADSL2+ costing $69.99 per month (for 1000 Gb of data, of which, to my surprise, we’re using about a quarter). Actually I’m paying an additional $10 for VOIP, but I’m planning to ditch it because we rarely use it, and it seems quite unreliable — the handset frequently can’t get a signal. I don’t know precisely where the problem is, but given everyone in the house has a mobile phone, it seems an unnecessary cost.

Why upgrade the Internet? Well one of the things the boys have highlighted is the relatively slow upload speeds.

This is important for film students, because these days everything is digital, and moving big video files around quickly is important.

Computers at PAX 2014

Current speeds

Our download speeds are okay. Our upload speeds… aren’t.

Using the iiNet broadband test:

  • Latency 12ms
  • Jitter 3ms
  • Download 7.63 Mbps
  • Upload 0.68 Mbps

Using the Department of Communications My Broadband test:

  • Latency 15ms
  • Jitter 0ms
  • Download 7.54 Mbps
  • Upload 0.53 Mbps

This isn’t good. By my calculations it means that a 50 Mb file (which is not that big by modern video standards) would take 12 minutes, and that’s assuming no other bottlenecks.

A 500 Mb file would take over two hours.

Theoretical speeds

This explainer web page from Optus compares theoretical speeds, and notes that the limit of ADSL2+ upload is 820 Kbps (eg 0.82 Mbps).

The ADSL upload speed is so slow that when Isaac wants to send a big file to Dropbox (or whatever), it’s often quicker to go into campus (about an hour’s trip away) and do it there, then come home again. I suppose it gets him out of the house, but it’s not brilliant, is it.

It’s not just study. He’s starting to do post-production work as a part-time job. This is the kind of agile digital economy PM Turnbull often drones on about.

Cable internet is faster; around 3 times faster for uploads. DOCSIS theoretically allows faster upload, but queries from customers were answered in a vague way by Telstra. The speculation is the Telstra and Optus cable internet networks are set up for cable TV, which are pretty much all download.

If only we had some kind of universal super-fast internet service providing a future-proof fibre connection to everywhere. Some kind of Network of Broadband right across the Nation.

Well, I checked. NBN (especially proper NBN, fibre-to-the-premise/home, but even fibre-to-the-node) would be great, and would improve upload speeds by up to 50 times, but isn’t getting to my area anytime soon.

So what are the options?

Given their enlightened social media operative Dan, I’d be more than pleased to sign up for Optus Cable… if they serve my street. This is confusing as their web site variously says Yes or No depending on how I enter the address. I suppose I’m going to have to ring them up.

Also notable: complaints about speed from local Optus cable users.

Telstra cable does serve my street. Theoretically may get me about a threefold increase in upload speeds (around 2.4 Mbps), for $95/month for 500 Gb or $115/month for 1000 Gb — and appears to include a home phone service.

Importantly, with cable there are no guarantees about speed — it depends on network congestion.

I’m sure I’m not the only one in this position. Assuming I don’t want to pay a heap of money for a fibre connection myself, are there any other options?

Old photos from January 2006

Continuing my series of posts of ten year old photos

New Year’s Eve 2005/06 was the second year of all-night trains, and I sampled them for myself.

Flinders Street station at about 1am was pretty busy. Still some crowds outside, very much a party atmosphere as I recall. The platforms and trains were pretty packed, but moving well. The smaller photos are from some video I shot. The last (bottom-right) photo is after getting off the train at Footscray.
Flinders Street Station, approx 1am 1/1/2006

New Years Eve trains, approx 1am, 1/1/2006

At Footscray, people were waiting for the 82 tram, which wasn’t running all night. This seems to happen every year. Perhaps they ought to simply run every tram route all night on NYE?

The redevelopment of Spencer Street/Southern Cross Station was nearing completion, but wasn’t quite finished yet. The renaming (throwing away 146 years of brand recognition) had taken place in December 2005. No sign of The Age building, which was built some years later.

(View it on Flickr)

Inside the station. Note the temporary V/Line destination displays.
Spencer Street/Southern Cross station, January 2006

Spencer Street/Southern Cross station, January 2006

Mid-January, Sorrento Beach

(View it on Flickr)

Mural marking former site of South Melbourne tram depot
Site of old South Melbourne depot, January 2006

Old desk, old computers at home. I think this was snapped for listing the desk on eBay.
Computers, January 2006

In 2006, some signage at loop stations still indicated trains to Mornington (closed in 1981) and suburban trains to Warragul (electric trains last ran there in 1998)
Map at Parliament station, January 2006

Melbourne’s landmark Nylex clock had been restored in 2005, but had failed again by early 2006.
Nylex sign not working, January 2006

Chaos at work as someone violated fridge etiquette
Work fridge anarchy, January 2006

Eureka Tower under construction. It was completed in June 2006.
Eureka Tower under construction, January 2006

New seat layouts, and the train load standard is increasing from 798 to 900

So, now we know which train is which

If you’re a regular on Melbourne’s trains, particularly in the southern and western lines, you’d have noticed the recent changes to seat layouts, but the process of reducing the number of seats on metropolitan trains actually started some time ago, during the huge patronage growth of last decade.

Back in 2008, it was flagged that the second major order of X’Trapolis trains would have fewer seats, with a wider aisle, and more handholds. Further X’Trapolis trains ordered have been of the same design, and subsequently the older trains of that type were altered to also have 2 x 2 seating.

This made a lot of sense. In blocks of three seats, it’s common to see people failing to fill all three (the middle seat in particular is very cramped), choosing to stand instead, and the narrow aisle made it difficult for crowds to circulate around the carriage, especially when there aren’t many places to hold onto.

X'Trapolis train

In 2009, then-operator Connex showed off a trial Comeng train design, which cut about 15 seats from each carriage. As of a few months ago you’d still see these three carriages around on the network.

Changing the load standard

In 2012, it emerged there was a proposal to modify the entire train fleet along these lines, and amend the load standard. This is confirmed by a Metro operations document which came to light last year.

Currently the load standard is 133 per carriage, or 798 per 6 carriage train.

It’s worth re-iterating that the load standard is NOT a maximum capacity; it’s a measurement of crowding. It originated in the 1999 privatisation contracts — if trains carried more than 798 people, it was meant to trigger action to add more capacity, such as adding extra services. (In practice it rarely seemed to trigger anything.)

The proposal is that the load standard be increased to a nice round 900, or 150 per carriage.

If one accepts that seats should be moderately reduced in number, making more space for standees, this actually makes sense — there’s no question that the new designs increase the capacity of each carriage.

Mass removal of seats: Comeng and Siemens fleet

Fast forward to 2016. In the past year, current operator Metro has made modifications to many Comeng and Siemens carriages, basically removing all of the seats closest to the doors.

This was done firstly on the Alstom Comeng fleet (which are recognisable from their green poles, handles and seat backs) and now similar modifications are being rolled-out on the EDI Comeng fleet (yellow poles, handles, seat backs). The latter are a bit different — because the closest remaining seats face the doorways, metal barriers have been installed as well, so people sitting have some space from standees.

Increasing numbers of Siemens carriages also have similar modifications, and their changes appear to be being done while replacing the horrible old plain blue seat cushions.

New Comeng train layout, December 2014

How many seats gone?

It varies by train type. My rough counts (NOT verified):

In the Siemens trains, it’s a removal of about 16 seats per carriage, or in a 6-car train a total of 96 out of 528, or 18.2%.

In the Alstom Comeng fleet, about 12 removed per carriage, for a total of 72 removed out of 536 (13.4%).

In the EDI Comeng fleet, I think it’s 17-24 per carriage, a total (if I’ve got my sums right) of 116 out of 556 (20.9%)

In the X’Trapolis trains, it was 12 removed, or 72 out of 528 (13.7%).

(By comparison, recent B-class tram changes reduced seats by over 30%, though that was partly countered by “bum-racks”… which ultimately don’t save much if any space, I reckon.)

Siemens train: new layout February 2015

The result

The new design isn’t ideal. Clearly it’s a compromise between providing more standing space and making a modification that’s cheap and quick and easy to do — in many cases, whole 2-3 seat units are removed, rather than trying to chop up existing units, so aisles are still narrow on the Comengs. Door positions are not modified — that would be very expensive.

In the Comeng and Siemens trains there still aren’t enough handholds, so while there’s now more space around the doorways, the bulk of standees still remain around the doors.

(Why aren’t there enough handholds? I was told repeatedly during late 2000s that it was due to a fear of vandals swinging on them to kick out windows. It’s unclear if that ever actually happened, or if it was some paranoid fantasy from some desk-bound risk assessor. Either way, the change in X’Trapolis design indicates it’s no longer feared.)

Comeng train

Priority seats

For a while in the reconfigured Comeng and Siemens carriages, there were now virtually no Priority (disabled) seats. Almost all of them are the seats that have been removed. As this blog post points out, this is a big problem for some users, such as the vision-impaired. Apparently part of the issue was they ran out of stickers! New stickers are appearing now, though of course these seats are now farther from the doors.

A recent legislation change means that able-bodied passengers must now give up any seat to those with special needs. But this change hasn’t been communicated at all, and the wording is ambiguous, saying that it:

applies if all designated special needs seats to which a person with special needs has reasonable access in the bus, tram, carriage of a train or premises are already occupied by persons with special needs.

What if the carriage in question has no designated special needs seats? This has been the case for some carriages while the stickers are sorted out.

What if the only priority seats are unoccupied, but are at the opposite end of the carriage — some Comeng “M” carriages now have them only adjacent the driver’s cab (though perhaps that’s temporary) — and the person can’t easily get there?

Passenger reaction

Some people really like the new design. If you’re resigned to having to stand anyway, this provides more space in which to do so. I overheard one person exclaim “ooh, spacious!” when boarding, just after the new designs started to be introduced.

Of course, some are miffed about reduced seats, particularly those having to make long trips on busy lines. In the PM peak they might have to wait for longer for a seat to become available. There are tales, for instance, of people having to stand from the City Loop all the way out to Dandenong.

Is it good, is it bad? There’s no one right answer — different people have different views, and different needs.

I’ve certainly seen cases (typically after cancellations) where trains have been so crowded that with the old design, people would have been left behind on the platform.

But the issue of Priority Seats clearly needs to be resolved.

And ultimately the question is whether it reduces dwell times, allowing more trains to run, which can help counter the reduction in seats in each train.

When will the load standard change take effect? Not sure — some carriages haven’t been converted yet, but I’m guessing this year.

Stamps going up to $1

What can you buy for $1?

You certainly can’t buy a newspaper. The Herald Sun costs $1.40 on weekdays; The Age costs $2.50; The Australian is $2.70.

So I’m finding it difficult to be too outraged at standard stamps going up to $1. In fact this letter in Saturday’s Age perfectly sums up how I feel about it:

For $1, I can send a letter from the most out-of-the-way PO in the local store in Victoria for delivery to the most remote location in the Kimberley. What else can I buy for $1? Not much. Can a competitor deliver a letter from one side of Sunbury to the other for $1? No. People still use mail when it is the appropriate method. We long ago switched to fax then email where appropriate, including because they are cheaper and quicker. The price increase from hardly anything to not much will not change most decisions. Please, public, stop complaining about this trivial price increase.

Don Hampshire, Sunbury

70 cent stamps, 2015

Granted, it’s a jump from the old price of 70 cents.

Notably, concession stamps are available for concession card holders — up to 50 per year, at 60 cents each, so hopefully those on lower incomes (including seniors) who still send a lot of letters won’t feel a huge impact.

But for most of us, technology means regular letters are just not something we send as often as we used to. I still send a few Christmas cards in December, but I probably receive more parcels (via online shopping) than I send letters.

On the occasion that I do send letters, a dollar (or even $1.50 for “Priority”) for transporting physical paper, whether it’s across the city or across the country, still feels like a bargain to me.