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iMac Users, Be Careful Where You Insert that SD Card

As a part-time but active freelance photographer, I copy a lot of photo files from SD cards to my iMac’s hard disk. I’m generally very happy with the iMac I bought late last year to replace the Windows system I had used for a few years previously. The iMac has a beautiful display, and since Adobe Lightroom 3 started to take advantage of 64-bit processing, I’ve been able to process hundreds of images on the iMac faster than I ever could before.

One of my few minor complaints with the iMac was that the placement of the USB ports on the back makes them hard to get to. My first solution to this problem was to add a USB hub. The hub sits on my desk under the iMac’s display where I can reach it easily. I put my SD cards into a small card reader and plug them into the hub.

At this point I have to confess that, if the iMac came with a User’s Guide, I never read it. So I had been using this wonderful machine for many months before I discovered, not long ago, that there are two slots on the right side of the iMac’s display: a larger slot for the iMac’s SuperDrive to accept CDs and DVDs, and a smaller SDXC slot designed specifically to accept SD and SDHC photo storage cards. I don’t have much use for the optical drive, but I was happy to discover the SDXC slot and stop using the USB-based card reader.

Oops! -- That is, I was happy until I got the two slots confused. When I first discovered the SDXC slot, I used it carefully, leaning around to view the side of the iMac when I inserted the card. But it soon became routine and I stopped paying much attention. And then, about a week ago, I blindly reached around to the side of the iMac and accidentally inserted an SD card into the optical drive bay. When an SD card is inserted properly into the SDXC slot, it doesn’t actually disappear inside the slot the way a CD does. A little bit of the card sticks out of the bay so, when you unmount it from your desktop, you can grab it and remove it. I knew I’d goofed as soon as the card disappeared completely inside the optical drive bay.

The optical drive bay has a fuzzy double curtain, presumably to keep out dust. It also makes it nearly impossible to look inside to, say, figure out what became of that SD card you accidentally shoved in. And it wasn’t clear what the best way to remove the card would be.

With some embarrassment, I explained what I had done to some of the Mac power users in the TidBITS author and editor community, and asked for suggestions. I was surprised to discover that I wasn’t the first person to whom this had happened, nor the second, nor even the third. And this was a group of highly capable, savvy users.

Paper Clips Rule -- Eventually I was able to extract the card from the optical drive. I unplugged the iMac completely, carefully turned the thing on its side (yes, this was awkward, given its weight) and, hoping to jostle the SD card up close to the fuzzy curtains, I very gently tapped the side of the iMac against the top of my desk.

Then I turned to the Mac user’s oldest and most versatile repair tool: a big, bent paper clip. I poked around blindly — and again very gently — inside the optical drive bay for several minutes without success until — eureka! — a tiny tip of the SD card peeked through the drive curtains. After that it was fairly easy to pull it out just a little more, until I could grab the end with my fingers and extract it.

After righting the iMac and plugging everything back in, I tested the SuperDrive and the rescued card. I’m happy to report that everything seems to be working fine. All’s well that ends without a repair bill or a trip to the Apple Store.

Elegance Versus Usability -- I’m happy to stipulate that I did a dumb thing, and I will certainly try not to make the same mistake again.

Even so, I think it’s pretty clear that the iMac practically invites this mistake. The placement of the two slots on the right side hides them elegantly from sight. But this elegant invisibility, combined with the proximity of the slots, makes it easy to slip up as I did.

Put bluntly, the position of these slots is a case of bad industrial design, and one that could be easily eliminated in a future iMac design. Apple could simply give the two slots more vertical separation on the right side of the iMac. Or, in moves that might involve more significant internal rejiggering, Apple could change the orientation of the SDXC slot from vertical to horizontal, or move it to the left side of the iMac.

Visual elegance and usability don’t have to be incompatible. I love my Magic Trackpad, for example, now that I’ve learned the various gestures that make it work. But with the iMac, the charge that Apple sometimes sacrifices usability in favor of elegance may have merit. Beyond the placement of the SDXC slot, I’ve observed a number of other industrial design decisions that seem to trade usability for elegance. For instance, you can’t adjust the height of the display (other than by stacking it on books), and the USB and other ports on the back side of the iMac are deucedly hard to get to. Then there’s the placement of the power button on the back of the iMac on the lower left side, which hides the button nicely, but makes it easy to put the iMac to sleep when grabbing the lower corners of the case to adjust its position or viewing angle.

There’s no question that the iMac is a gorgeous piece of design, and resolving some of these usability issues might hurt its aesthetics. Nonetheless, I hope Apple at least considers these usability issues in future designs. And in the meantime, if you have an iMac and use the SDXC slot, be careful where you stick those SD cards!


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Comments about iMac Users, Be Careful Where You Insert that SD Card

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Tim Windsor  2011-05-23 12:09
I did the same thing, then caught myself just in time.

I then immediately covered the optical media slot with two Post-it notes.

Yes, it's a little inconvenient for when I'm using that drive slot (rarely), but it's nigh on impossible to shove an SD card into the wrong slot now.

And, agreed. Uncharacteristically bad UI for Apple on this one.
Glad I'm not the only one. I cut a piece of film meant to protect my iPhone screen to fit over my CD/DVD slot.

I also wish Apple would include at least one USB slot on the side of the iMac for things I plug and unplug frequently.
Chris Pepper  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2011-05-23 12:24
Disappointed you didn't mention my suggestion: rotate the SD slot 90 degrees so it's horizontal, and impossible to confuse with the vertical optical slot. This would not require major work, or running cables the across the case.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2011-05-23 13:27
I thought about that while editing, and in the end decided that it might not be possible, given the way the LCD panel goes in, and how thin the edge of the iMac is already. But it's a reasonable idea and I'll add it back in.
The edge is not deep enough for a horizontal mount. The SD slot is 25 mm, and the edge is maybe 26 mm, which would create a structural issue. Not to mention that the electronics would need to be on a separate card instead of attached directly to the motherboard.
Firitia  2011-05-23 23:12
I have already done it twice. And every time I had to take the computer apart to get it out.
mike cupcake  2011-05-24 09:37
Putting a small sticker on the (visible) edge of the screen at the height of the SD slot might be a good solution for some.
Thanks for this.

How much more could it have cost to position the SD slot somewhere else? For that matter, the same could be said for placing a USB slot on the front of the iMac... having to rotate an iMac almost 180 degrees to temporarily utilize a zip-drive is just cheap of Apple.
It would have been nice to have the SD and one USB on the front, or on the left side, but since I use a wired keyboard it has not been an issue. I just use the keyboard slots. I had also been using a Griffin Simplifi.
Those are valid alternatives, Paul; although, the keyboard USB would not handle an external HD used in lieu of a zip/thumb for the same purpose. Call me crazy, but I think the intelligence-by-design argument which Apple likes to foster is woefully thinned by such choices. Not to throw the baby out with the bath water of course... but enough to note that the march to the lowest common denominator infects if not rules all.
audrey   2013-05-07 00:30
OMG - didn't even know my wired keyboard had USB slots! Thank you for solving two problems: so awkward to get at the back slots plus my card reader wasn't working. Plugged into the keyboard and voila.
Bruce Young  2011-05-26 20:50
I like the clever label idea.

And I definitely support the idea, wish, hope that there be some USB ports on the sides and --!Shocking!-- maybe even one or two on the FRONT of the Mac. (bless me steve for i have sinned).

Seriously though, I estimate 75 to 90% of the folks I work with complain about always having to fumble with the ports in the inconvenient back location. That design sometimes resulting in the related error of the user trying to jam the device or cable into the wrong spot.

The iMac is a case of some unnamed person's "clean design elegance" mandate winning out over simple user friendliness on getting to the ports.
J Walsh Hudson NH  2011-06-01 12:50
When "poking about blindly" in a slot-loading drive, you might consider the use of plastic sheet material rather than a bent paper clip. I'm particularly thinking of the leftover "frame" material from the everpresent library & loyalty card program shells. An edge of plastic colliding with the optical drives' lens would be much kinder than a paper clip.

I liked the idea about the "guiding tape patch" for the SD slot.

BTW, when did the SD card slot appear on the iMac? I don't believe it is on my 2007 model.
Daniel  2011-06-21 08:36
The SD slot was introduced with the 21" and 27" iMacs (late 2009).
Jorge Danyau  2015-04-05 12:14
HI, seams to me you are very good with the Macs, I need some help please, I'm new with this and I'm trying to copy to an SD card an upgrade to my Nikon camera, how can I do it?
William Porter  An apple icon for a Friend of TidBITS 2015-04-05 14:11
Jorge: Are you trying to update your Nikon camera's firmware? I'd recommend going to Nikon's website and reading the instructions there. One common way to install a firmware update is (1) download update on computer, (2) copy update to SD card, (3) insert SD card into camera, sometimes with some special key held down to tell the camera to do an update, (4) follow instructions on back of camera to perform the update. BUT PLEASE read the instructions for YOUR Nikon camera that should be found on Nikon's website, or that perhaps come with the download. Good luck.
Rob Lewis  2011-06-20 17:02
How about sticking a spare SD card partway into the correct slot to serve as a "flag" showing the slot's position? (But don't stick it all the way in, or the Mac OS will scold you if you pull it out without properly ejecting it first!)

And that reminds me of another beef I have with Apple. Say I have an external drive attached to my MacBook Pro. The system is sleeping. I need to quickly grab the laptop and go. But nooo! I have to wake it up, eject the external drive, and put it back to sleep before I can go. Either that, or be told what a BAD, data-risking loser I am for not ejecting the drive first.

Since the system is sleeping, I'm guessing there is no chance that there is unwritten data sitting in some buffer that will be lost if I unplug the drive. Why then must I go through the ejection kabuki? Is Apple trying to "condition" me to form good habits?
John V  2011-06-20 19:04
This happen to a friend of mine... so you guys aren't alone! He reached over and inserted the card in to the optical disk slot. He had to take it to the Apple store where geniuses at the bar tried for about 10 minutes to retrieve it. Then they took the iMac in back and after 20 minutes returned with the card and iMac. Silly design really!

Also another beef is the power button on back. It's so smooth you can't even feel it half that time. Wish Apple would either raise it or lower it so it's easier to find blindly. Or make it a different texture.
Bob Kerstetter  2011-06-20 21:12
So, you're feeling blindly to insert an SD card then poking around the superdrive with a paperclip before accusing Apple of "bad industrial design"? Sound like you're doing a lot of fire, ready, aim, then blaming others for your lack of common sense. Breathe deep.
David Harvey  2011-06-21 06:38
I do for the iMac what I do for my MacBook Pro; on my Macbook pro i put red dots where the USB ports are located saving me having to lean over to see where the USB ports are. I put white tape on the right side of the iMac to show where slots are.
Simon Youens  2011-07-02 20:55
I don't have an iMac, so I haven't had a chance to insert the SD card in the wrong slot, but I have been mystified by dead USB devices on a couple of occacions, before I realized I had put the USB plug in an RJ45 modem jack. The width is exactly the same.
Evan Croft   2011-07-19 11:22
This just happened to me, i've tried everything but take it to the apple store, and i agree, it was very dumb to put the SuperDrive next to the sd, when i tried retrieving it with a thin knife, it just pushed it farther in, and i need to use the super drive, what to do??!!
I did this, and on top of inserting the SD card fully in the DVD drive, a few weeks later I shoved a DVD on top of it and got that stuck too.

If you take it to the Apple store the out of warranty cost is only $40 to get the card pulled out. Well worth it considering the glass screen has to be pulled off.

If you really screwed up and damaged the DVD drive, the cost is $130 to fix. Fortunately I didn't break my drive.
Netter  2011-11-22 22:43
I just did ths. Turned off computer and unplugged. I doubled a thin piece of cardboard, cut out the shape of a hook on the open side and was able to scoop it out. What a poor design. Didn't spend any money retrieving my SD card.
I've done this twice and used a pair of tweezers once to extract the card. You're never going to see a USB port on the side of an iMac so those of you who wish for one might as well give up on that. Placing the ports on the back means a cleaner aesthetic, and while I too used to grumble about having to reach behind the thing, I purchased an Info Transhub from Newegg. It's a white rectangular hub that sits behind but to the right of my iMac, with 3 upright USB ports. Simple to plug and play and no more reaching.
Sileny Tata  2012-04-27 14:35
People have been sticking things into the wrong holes for many thousands of years. The golden rule is thus :- before pushing it, be sure you can get it back out again.
Accidentally shoved an SD card into the DVD slot this morning. First time in 4 years of owning my 2011 IMac. I very carefully pulled it back out by inserting a thin blade of a pocket knife over the top of the card and pulled it out. Bad news was a very small corner of the plastic SD card broke off and disappeared into the DVD slot. I tried to use another SD card into the correct slot and it wouldn't work. I then put a disc into the DVD slot with no problem and it worked fine. Can't figure why the SD slot won't operate. Possibly shorted something out with the knife blade when I inserted it into the DVD slot? Are the 2 slots connected internally in any way?
Pharmboy27  2016-06-19 00:43
My iMac 27" doesn't have any slots on the sides of screen
I don't know where to put the SD.
The computer was purchased April 2016
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2016-06-19 12:26
This article was written in 2011; the iMac design has changed since then so it's no longer an issue. The card slot is in back now, next to all the other ports.
William Porter  An apple icon for a Friend of TidBITS 2016-06-21 13:35
This is a fascinating question and in itself demonstrates that Apple's has room to improve.

As Adam points out, I wrote this article years ago, when the SD card slot was on the right side of the iMac just below the CD/DVD slot.

Nowadays (for the last couple of years I think) the slot is located on the backside of the computer. Which of course is why you can't find it: it's on the backside of the computer! The USB and other ports are back there too — "conveniently located". Not.

The thinner iMacs have a certain tech appeal. Still, dealing with those ports in the back is a pain. More than once I've disconnected my power cord when I tried to rotate the iMac around so I could access those ports. I guess the best solution is to buy a usb hub, let it dangle down where you can see it, and use that. Along with a dedicated SD card reader.

Anyway, you don't need to worry about sticking your card in the CD slot any more. Ain't no CD slot!
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