A Lesson in User Failure: Investigating the Serial ATA Connector

Something you learn quickly in this industry is that working as a technology journalist does not make you immune to computer problems or the laws of physics that can be at the root of them. Just by doing our work we tend to break things now and then; overclocked processors become keychains, overheated video cards become surgical knives (make no mistake, PCB is a very capable blade), and gadgets become interesting conversational pieces. Much of this we'll make a passing observation on, but otherwise we don't talk about failures too often.

Every once in a while though, we will break something in a process that's genuinely interesting. Failure is its own reward, it teaches us how to not do something or do something better than we did before. And in those handful of cases, we like to get to the bottom of what went wrong, what we did wrong, and what can be done to avoid the issue in the future. In these cases, you the reader can receive some of our imparted knowledge without needing to also experience the pain and cost of the lesson.

So what have we managed to break this time that we find so interesting that it's worth writing about? We made what is in fact a very common mistake, and nearly turned a week-old hard drive in to a new source of magnets by breaking the Serial ATA connector on the drive. It's the kind of problem that sounds rather trivial, but due to the construction of many SATA hard drives, breaking the SATA connector is a death sentence for the drive because it's impractical-to-impossible to replace it, as it's part of the circuit board if not also part of the drive itself.

It's only appropriate to preface this by saying that we're not dissatisfied with the SATA specification, rather we find ourselves in an interesting situation. The thinner cable is far easier to route in a cramped case than a Parallel ATA cable, it doesn't impede airflow like a ribbon cable, and getting rid of hooking two devices to a single cable was a long-overdue change.

But - and we know we're not alone in this thought - SATA cables and connectors aren't quite as robust as the old PATA design. PATA cables could be worked in to rather impossible situations as the connector was extremely snug fitting, and the cable itself was extremely flexible when it needed to be folded longitudinally; it was hard to set up but also hard to break. We'll still take a SATA setup any day of the week, but we've come to the realization we can't abuse SATA setups like we could PATA setups.

As a consequence, today we'll share with you what we found out in dealing with our problem. What did we do wrong? What can we do about it? And just why is the SATA connector designed the way it is anyhow? Read on to find out.

SATA Anatomy & Failure Anatomy
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  • Patanjali - Friday, April 24, 2009 - link

    The SATA connector is underengineered for the stress that can be pent up in the cable.

    This is very annoying when it happens because to try and get the manufacturer to replace it is more trouble than its worth (supply pictures, etc, because they have neer heard of it). At least I can use the drive but have to be very careful every time I slide out its holder (and now every other to not create more) in the Antec Take 4 Rack case.


    Other annoying mechanical engineering designs are:

    - DBxx connectors = get snagged on any other cable with which they come in contant, and difficult-to-use finger screws with adjacent DB connectors.

    - RJxx connectors = ditto, except that the locking lever will break on one of those occasions. Even the shrouded ones are a nuisance because they can be very difficult to remove because of the amount of finely directed finger pressure required to deform the shroud enough to actually push the lever. The best seem to be those with side walls but not a covering shroud - fingers can get to the lever but other cables cannot snag it.

    - wide IDE connectors = where there is no pull tab on the cable as pins at one end will get bent as one of the attempts will pull out one end more than the other. Cables will become flakey if manipulated too many times to get them routed around a case.

    - most modern compact connectors = resulting from trying to reduce the connector face area on laptops, etc, but forgetting the transmission requirements that dictate a certain minimum cable size and stiffness. Examples are 4pin 1394 and DisplayPort (mini especially).

    - consumer audio cables and connections = resulting from trying to reduce the cable weight (opposite of the previous annoyance) so that use will cause the cheap cable or junction to fail before the expensive equipment does.
    Reply
  • Patanjali - Friday, April 24, 2009 - link

    Basically, most problems result from the mistaken belief of the designers that the connectors will only one be used once at initial installation, forgetting that one of the reasons to have connectors rather than permanent soldering is to be able to change them around as circumstances change. Reply
  • Ionman - Tuesday, March 10, 2009 - link

    I've found the SATA connectors to be the flimsiest of any by far... I live in India where dust is a real issue so that might elevate my problems. I have had problems with my RAID 0 array where my computer would refuse to boot even though the controller was detecting both the drives. A quick chkdsk from the windows cd would solve the problem. In the end i realized that it was the SATA connectors/cables that was the problem. Changed both the cables and voila problem solved. I've encountered the same problem one more time. Space is not really much of an issue on my pc and the cables dont have much stress on them, I guess. But its really frustrating to have a problem like this... takes days to figure out what is really going on. Reply
  • Mr Ravageo - Sunday, March 01, 2009 - link

    Good article, it makes you think about what you are doing when you stick your hands in hundreds of dollars of computer investment. As always, planning ahead will always save you time and money on anything, not just a computer build. For those linked here by newegg, I just bought a P182 and I love it; a good solid quiet case. While, I understand the choice of using the bottom HD tray for this demonstration (SATA connector failure/choice); the primary HD bay is in the top compartment. Unless you have super long video cards, this is where the main HD should go. In this compartment a straight cable will work fine. It is always a good to have many different types of connectors on hand (PSU extender cables, 90 deg SATA, etc).

    Happy Building
    Reply
  • anti nowhere - Wednesday, January 30, 2008 - link

    This is funny. This same thing happened to me about 2 years ago when I installed my very first and very new SATAII HD. I got out a flashlight and my pliers....lined up the pins and just pushing the cable with broken interface still on it, back into the HD. Then I glued that b*tch right back on there. Has worked ever since and with no problems. Next time I will throw the piece of crap away and buy a new one. Reply
  • Zepper - Tuesday, January 29, 2008 - link

    Yes we can find fault with the SATA mechanical design spec - the one for desktop drives is totally inadequate for the environment since it is the same as for notebook drives where the drive is installed once and generally stays there 'til it dies. Using notebook connectors in a desktop environment is absurd!
    . The power and data connection should be totally surrounded by plastic on the desktop drives like the mobo and drive connectors for PATA cables. That would up the strength by at least an order of magnitude - nothing stopping you from super gluing a slab of plastic along underneath your drive's connectors. The cables will still fit and and you'll have added breakage protection. And for those who haven't broken their connectors yet, here is a cable set that will add a bit of strength for you non-WD drive owners:
    http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N8...">http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N8... too bad they didn't add the metal "SATA 2" latches - I guess it was just easier to use the notebook female connector (comes in many colors but I've only seen them under this brand name). Use this plus gluing on a bottom rail for double protection. WD offers a similar cable for their SATA drives only.
    . Another option is to get a "Kublai Kage" (c) 2007 by me for your case - it comes with four, plastic, slide-in trays for the drives. It comes with the Silverstone Kublai cases (see my review of the KL01 here: http://www.techimo.com/articles/">http://www.techimo.com/articles/ -for pix) and will soon be available separately as the SST-CFP52 and you can get up to four of the SATA hot-swap brackets (SST-CP05) for the cage (the Kublai cases come with only one of them. One place has the CP05s now for $8.00 each, though list is supposed to be $5.00. Since you won't be manually plugging/unplugging and the connections are fairly well concealed, damage should be unlikely. $40.00 total for the Kage and 4 brackets makes this the least expensive SATA hot-swap solution available and will fit most any case with 3 free 5" bays. .bh.
    Reply
  • jdizzle1337 - Thursday, January 24, 2008 - link

    Ryan i LOLed when i read your article, because the exact same thing has happened to me with that exact same case (well P180B, but w/e ;P). Really ticked me off because it ruined my brand new Seagate 500GB Barracuda, and that was back when they were new and $200, not the $100 that they are now.

    After looking back at my situation i was dumb and threw the black sliver of plastic that fell off away, after realizing this is integral to securing and completing the SATA connection i attempted to superglue the cable to the SATA pins on the drive.....this causes the board to have a short circuit and thus it will not turn on. I have resigned myself to the fact that the perfectly new unused drive is junk. I have thought about seeing if i can RMA though Seagates cross ship warranty process, but i think they only cover internal failures as opposed to physical damage.

    Anyway my methodology for drive installation in the P18x is:

    A) Screw the drives into the drive cage
    B) Connect the SATA connectors to the drives
    C) Hold the cage over the slot that it goes into and let the SATA cables drop down into the drive bay area
    D) Slowly lower the drive cage into the drive bay while threading the SATA cables through the cord exit that leads into the main case area that holds the motherboard.
    E) Connect the SATA cables to the motherboard.

    You have to work gingerly, its all about lowering the drive cage into the bay slowly, and making sure a power connector doesn't get caught on tension and push into one of the data connectors. If you force it down or let it drop in on its own weight the drives farthest to the bottom will likely snap the back of their SATA connectors and the upper ones will have strained plastic around the connector. Just hold the drive cage by the little keyring looking thing and slowly lower it and you will be good ;P
    Reply
  • smut - Wednesday, January 23, 2008 - link

    and I sent into WD and they fixed it! I have since bought the latch on connectors and use the angled ones if need be. I continue to buy WD drives these days because of the customer support given. They RMA'd the drive and sent it back, good as new. If anyone has a WD drive you may be able to get it fixed, its worth a shot. The worst they can say is no. Reply
  • Symmetriad - Tuesday, January 22, 2008 - link

    Can you do a writeup on the ridiculous disconnect between motherboard and case manufacturers on power switch/front panel connectors next? The hideous lack of standardization has consistently been one of the biggest hassles of building a new PC for years. Reply
  • smut - Wednesday, January 23, 2008 - link

    I agree wholeheartedly with your comment! Its very annoying! Reply

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