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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  • superkdogg - Tuesday, January 22, 2008 - link

    I've broken off a couple SATA tabs on the drive side myself. It's exactly as you described in that they work fine, they just don't suffer a user's abuse like a PATA would.

    Luckily, it's almost always going to be fixable. You guys 'Macgyvered' it with tape, my solution was to treat the tab as part of the connector cable as well, only I used glue.

    I glued the tab first to the cable, then glued the other end back to the drive where it broke off from. It's not elegant, but it's as durable as it was before and there's no chance I'll lose the cable that connects that particular drive!
    Reply
  • spellbinder1966 - Monday, January 21, 2008 - link

    Yeah, I had the same concerns when I built two of my P180b rigs.
    I placed four disks at the bottom (coz I use the upper HD chamber to cool the video cards). I had to carefully bend them (it was so tedious).

    I think the 180° TO 90° SATA cables would help a lot (http://www.cablestogo.com/product.asp?cat%5Fid=927...">http://www.cablestogo.com/product.asp?cat%5Fid=927... but I believe the 180° to 90°-SIDE SATA cables will be much more appropriate. (http://www.cablestogo.com/product.asp?cat%5Fid=927...">http://www.cablestogo.com/product.asp?cat%5Fid=927...
    Reply
  • daddyo323 - Monday, January 21, 2008 - link

    As a case in point (no pun intended), I see many posts here from people who had the same problem with the Antec 180. IMO, case makers spend too much time focusing on the CPU/graphics cooling in their case, and not enough time on the welfare of the drives... Most drive bays look like an afterthought, with plastic parts and so-so ventilation... When you consider that the data you store can easily be worth many times the entire computer, and is NOT replaceable like a hardware part, the drive bays should be the most engineered part of a case... Yes, backup solutions are necessary, but case makers need to give the drive bays more love... Reply
  • johnsonx - Monday, January 21, 2008 - link

    Reading all the comments of those who have done this same thing, all I can say is:

    You all suck, I've never broken so much as one SATA connector. Gently little ones, gently!

    Ok, so I'm a cocky little s.o.b. this morning, haha!
    Reply
  • strikeback03 - Monday, January 21, 2008 - link

    For the most part I have just used the red SATA cables that come with most motherboards, optical drives, etc; and I assumed the lack of flexibility was a result of the design. Then I picked up a WD drive on Black Friday for a system at work, and the included cable was MUCH more flexible than the average ones I have used. Is there a reason these are not more widespread? Are they more expensive? Is there a reason the cable can't be round like FireWire to allow equal flexibility in all directions? Reply
  • Wolfie - Monday, January 21, 2008 - link

    Now Ryan, you know breaking things should just be left by playing UT but I guess we can forgive you this time. :)

    This is always good to know since I just obtained a setup that untilizes these types of connectors. And not to mention, UPS is not nice on equipment. Hence the reason why I had so many issues getting this box up and running. I thought these types of connectors where chincy at best. Maybe a different type of connector all together? Hrm, maybe I found my money maker...
    Reply
  • lbreevesii - Sunday, January 20, 2008 - link

    I had this happen installing(read: jerry rigging) a 500gb seagate into my GX260 slimline home server. I managed to fix it by super gluing the wafer back into place. Reply
  • MadBoris - Sunday, January 20, 2008 - link

    Funny, I have been cursing SATA connections for the past few days working on a couple systems.

    I am seriously surprised that the industry somehow thought this was a good connection mechanism. Sometimes due to video cards and other add-in's and the location of the drive cage coupled with the onboard controller, passing a sata cable to the drive becomes very difficult and even an unreliable fit. The cable only wants to bend in one axis. Yesterday looking at my machine one of my drive letters disappeared, after a check in eventvwr the drive apparently disconnected itself while I was sleeping (probably temperature fluctuations), I found it was a flaky SATA connection.

    SATA connections seem very flimsy to me in general, having anything but a straight shot, or a bend in only one axis on the cable, to the slot makes them appear very unreliable and unsure at best.

    Whoever thought this was a good connecting mechanism was really foolish, if I didn't have several bad experiences w/ sata I couldn't really say that. I'll take IDE over the unsure SATA anyday. I may have bent a pin in the last decade but never a critical issue. Some locking mechanism, and/or more flexible cable, is a no-brainer. The stupidity of some smart people can be surpising at times as with the sata cable and connection mechanism.
    Reply
  • MastahYodah - Sunday, January 20, 2008 - link

    The same thing happened to me a couple of days ago. I was able to put the connector back and hoped for the best. Luckily, the pc still recognized the drive; however I'm afraid to move or do anything inside the pc in fear of disconnecting it. Reply
  • hlee - Sunday, January 20, 2008 - link

    i tracked several "unreliable computer" problems to bad sata cables ... the computers would just reboot or crash whithout reason once in a while .. i found a broken plastic part like yours in one case but 4 others were not broken but just bellied out .. i figure that plastic bulge problem reduces contact pressure thus reliability .. my configuration has no undue stress on the cable and no excessive heat .. i saw 5 failures in less than a year (even different cable/drive manufacturers).. some systems would only fail once a week or even a month. just rebooting would fix them for another period .. after changing the cables to the new ones with the metal clips i had no more failures. that cured a lot of frustrating problems .. i reported this to a large local computer store/repair center .. but they didnt believe what i was telling them .. however they did admit that they had seen several early sata drive failures .. they just replaced the drives (and cables) often at customer expense .. i think the plastic lip on the sata cable is just too thin to handle constant contact force. it needs stronger plastic or a reinforcment like the metal clip to maintain contact force over life .. now whenever i see a "bad" or intermittant sata drive i just change the cable and that often fixes the problem. the store still sells the old type cables that dont have the metal tab .. although the improved ones are also in stock .. if you dont know about the problem then you might be buying trouble a few months down the road. i heard that one big computer manufacturer was sending new (but not improved) sata cables to customers that had intermittant conditions. the new cables would work for a year or so and fail again .. Reply

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