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ATPM 5.08
August 1999



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Review: PowerKey 600

by Evan Trent,


powerkey Product Information

Published by: Sophisticated Circuits, Inc.

Phone: (800) 769–3773


Web: PowerKey Web site

Street Price: $220


Sophisticated Circuits has really outdone itself with the PowerKey 600. As if it weren’t a cool enough piece of hardware, the software that accompanies it is absolutely first rate. The combination of outstanding software and hardware engineering makes for an incredibly useful product that is simple enough to be used and appreciated by even a novice Mac user. For server administrators and power users alike, the PowerKey 600 is a valuable addition to their arsenals.

The PowerKey 600 looks like a surge supressor but some may be surprised to find that it provides no surge suppression at all. While other reviewers (like the dumb f*@&s at Macworld) have been obtuse enough to label the exclusion of surge suppression as an oversight, I would offer a better explanation. First of all, Sophisticated Circuits provides surge suppression in both the Classic and 200 models of its PowerKey. Hence clearly the exclusion of surge suppression from the 600 is an intentional choice. Sophisticated Circuits recognized that many if not all of the users of the PowerKey 600 would be either server administrators or power users with good, strong surge supressors or, better yet, uninterruptable power supplies. Owning several UPS units myself, I appreciate the fact that the PowerKey 600 does not offer surge suppression and that it is simply a powerbar with six power outlets on it. Should one desire surge suppression, Sophisticated Circuits offers an add-on protector which provides 165 joules.

So if the PowerKey 600 isn’t a surge supressor, what exactly is it? Well, it’s an intelligent powerbar which can selectively switch power on or off for any of its six outlets. The status of a given outlet’s power can be dictated by the buttons on the PowerKey itself, software controls, scheduling, crash detection, or the coolest feature: Phone Ring Detection. Communication between the PowerKey unit itself and the computer is achieved via the ADB port.

The PowerKey 600 comes with software which is comprised of an extension and an application. One may configure the hardware setup of the PowerKey, which provides an opportunity to name each outlet (for example: printer, monitor, computer, etc.), to choose which outlet is for the CPU itself, and to determine which outlets should always remain on. hardwaresetup

A computer with “soft power” (one which has no power on/off switch on the back and is only switched on via the keyboard) requires that its outlet be marked Always On. Computers with “hard power”, (those with a power on/off switch on the back) should have their outlet set such that the Always On box is not marked. The explanation for this is simple. Any electrical device with hard power can be turned on and off by simply cutting power to its power supply. But machines with soft power operate differently. If power is cut the machine will surely turn off, but when power is re-established the machine will not boot up. Rather, machines with soft power are turned on via an ADB signal that is sent from the keyboard when the power on key is pressed. Because the PowerKey plugs into the ADB port of the Mac it is able to send this signal and boot a machine even if it is a soft power Mac. The hardware setup dialog also offers an opportunity to disable the buttons on the PowerKey unit itself, which might prevent a user from inadvertently switching power on or off to an outlet by bumping a switch or dropping something onto the PowerKey.

The PowerKey software is essentially an event editor. Events may be triggered under the following circumstances: the Power On key is pressed on the keyboard, the phone rings a specified number of times, a particular touch tone is pressed on the caller’s phone, when a user defined “hot key” is pressed, when the system is idle, when power returns (after a power loss), upon Shut Down, when the system crashes and when the crash timer expires.

Events can be one-time events, repeating or scheduled daily, weekly, monthly, etc. Events may also be qualified. They may be allowed to run during certain hours of the day, days of the week or days of the month, but not at other times. As for the events themselves, the PowerKey is capable of doing the following: switching an outlet on or off, starting up, shutting down or restarting the CPU, sleeping the system, executing an AppleScript, typing a keystroke, waiting a specified period of time, opening a file (or application), quitting an application, mounting a SCSI device, answering the phone (and awaiting touch tones), and adding a user defined entry to the log. Clearly the PowerKey is powerful and robust.

actiontype The beauty of the PowerKey software is that it’s so easy to use! In seconds I had mine configured and I didn’t even read the manual. However, the manual is outstanding and it is important to read. It offers some vital information. For example, the PowerKey software comes pre-installed with one event: User Start Up. The event is simple—when the Power On Key on the keyboard is pressed, the PowerKey boots up the CPU. The manual points out that if this event is deleted, the Power On Key will no longer boot up the computer! This is because the PowerKey comes between the keyboard and the ADB port of the Mac and hence it can decide how to proceed when the Power On Key is pressed. The manual also points out that, because Sophisticated Circuits is slick, there is an override key such that your Mac can in fact be booted. Sophisticated Circuits has left nothing to chance. powerkeyconfig

I have a few simple events set up for my server. For example, one of my events is titled Reboot After Power Failure. The event is triggered “when power returns” and all it does is “start up the computer.” The events get snazzier though. I have another event labelled Restart On Crash. It is triggered “when the system crashes” and all it does is “restart the computer .” It should be noted that this functionality is only available if the SRO (Server Restart Option) is present. Sophisticated Circuits is presently bundling SRO with the PowerKey 600 at no additional charge, but it must be purchased separately for the 200, for example. More on SRO later.

In my opinion, the coolest feature the PowerKey offers is Phone Ring Detection. I have my PowerKey configured such that if I call the phone line connected to it, it picks up after four rings. If I dial 1 and then #, it starts up my CPU. If I dial 2 and then #, it restarts my computer. If I dial 3 and then #, it cuts power to outlet #2, and then it reactivates power to circuit #2. This has the effect of rebooting my PowerTower, which is connected to circuit #2.

Now of course, some explanation is in order. The PowerTower is a soft power computer with no hardware on/off switch in the back. The power switch on the front of the box is, as with all Power Computing machines, a great little soft switch that will toggle the status of the machine, booting it if it is off and shutting it down safely if it is on. But it is not a hard switch. So why does cutting the power to the PowerTower and then reactivating power work? Because there is a little known feature in the Energy Saver Control Panel (actually an application) which facilitates this functionality. In the Energy Saver Application, under the Preferences Menu there is an item: Server Settings. Upon selecting this menu item the user may choose to have the Mac “reboot after a power failure.” Hence for “soft power” Macs it is still possible to reboot them by cutting power to the power supply and reactivating it, which the PowerKey can easily do by simply turning one of its outlets off and then back on.

The SRO package is very nifty. Essentially the way it works is this. The PowerKey monitors the ADB port for a particular piece of data which the PowerKey extension sends on a recurring basis. When the PowerKey fails to receive this data after a user-defined period of time, it considers the Mac “frozen” or crashed. The PowerKey then reboots the Mac via ADB (it can simply send the proper ADB signal for a Command-Control-Power On Key restart). The user may define how many seconds the crash detection timer must wait, having received no data, to consider the Mac “frozen.” The default value is 300 seconds. Very busy servers may want to set this value higher since the extension may not be able to send data to the PowerKey as regularly with so much processor overhead. One other problem that Sophisticated Circuits is careful to mention in the manual: not all crashes will result in a cessation of data transmission between the Mac and the PowerKey. The solution to this problem is to install MacsBug. MacsBug will pop up every time the machine freezes, and it will stop the PowerKey extension from sending data to the PowerKey unit. Hence the machine will truly be “frozen” and the PowerKey will reboot it. Easy enough!

Several Macintosh server packages offer integration with the PowerKey SRO package. The server software itself can communicate with PowerKey (rather than the extension) and when that communication fails, the machine is restarted. This is a nice feature because if the server software unexpectedly quits, for example, the machine may still not have crashed and the PowerKey extension might still be sending data to the PowerKey. But by having a particular application talk to the PowerKey directly, the server is guaranteed to be running properly at all times.

Do I have any complaints about the PowerKey? Nope. Not one. When I ordered my 600 from Sophisticated Circuits I received a personalized e-mail response answering all of the questions I had asked in the “comments” field of my order. Every time I asked a question of Sophisticated Circuits I got an exemplary response. It was fast, and it was loaded with information. Sales and support staff are absolutely top rate. My only wish is that the PowerKey 600 could connect to more than one Mac and monitor it for crashes. But of course, when I asked the folks at Sophisticated Circuits if I could do this, they said it was possible if I purchased a particular plug-in for my AppleShare IP server. Is there anything the PowerKey can’t do?

The only possible drawback to the PowerKey is that it will not work with non-ADB machines. For example, the iMac cannot use the PowerKey. However, because it is really designed with servers in mind, I think this is an acceptable state of affairs at the moment. Yet, as I am sure Sophisticated Circuits has considered, Apple’s next generation of servers may not be equipped with ADB, using USB instead. I expect that Sophisticated Circuits will be ready with a USB version of their PowerKey line at that time.

Everything I have tried with my PowerKey has worked fabulously. I have called in to my computer and booted it, rebooted it and rebooted the computer sitting next to it. The PowerKey can do all of this regardless whether the machine it is connected to is on or off! Crash detection works well for me and in combination with my UPS it guarantees that my server is up as often as humanly possible.

Sophisticated Circuits has designed a dandy of a gadget. The hardware looks cool, functions beautifully and is designed exceptionally well. The software is about as good as it gets. It’s simple and straightforward, yet it does everything you could ever want it to. If you have any need at all for intelligent power management, grab yourself a PowerKey.

apple Copyright ©1999 Evan Trent, Reviewing in ATPM is open to anyone. If you're interested, write to us at

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