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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  • jay401 - Friday, January 18, 2008 - link

    oh, beaten by about an hour, lol oops. Reply
  • elpresidente2075 - Friday, January 18, 2008 - link

    It would be neat if they used a connector like the breakout box for VGA/DVI on the Macbooks. They have basically a little nub, approx 1/4 inches thick and 1/2 inch wide with about 1/4 inch of depth, with the contacts on either side. The cable is a male connector with the female on the unit. Quite possibly the most robust way of doing things I can think of at this scale. Reply
  • Cr0nJ0b - Friday, January 18, 2008 - link

    This first time I couldn't get the drive to be seen again by the OS, so I was out of luck...the second time, I had enough of a connection with my quick patch, to allow me to recover the data. I have to agree that it's all my fault that it happened, but in these modern times, did no one on the SATA committee see that this would be an issue? It's a really flimsy connectory...with no housing...It takes almost no force to break on off and the connectors stick out so darn far that the torque from their own weight plus the cable is a continual strain on the connector. This is something that should have been fixed IMO. Reply
  • Ryan Smith - Friday, January 18, 2008 - link

    To be fair, they already have done a bunch of work to fix the problem. Talking to Knut, we get the impression that the problem is very uncommon these days.

    The funny thing is that it seems to vary a lot depending on the manufacturer. For the photos in this this article I broke an old Maxtor hard drive rather than pull apart the repaired drive for photos. The Maxtor refused to break, in spite of bending it far harder than I ever did with the original broken drive it still took some time to wear it down. I can't imagine why, but it seems like some of this is just a roll of the dice, with the plastics used in the connectors not always holding up to the same conditions.
    Reply
  • RaulF - Friday, January 18, 2008 - link

    Same for me, im going to glue them today hopefully i'll get a conection. Reply
  • alfredska - Friday, January 18, 2008 - link

    I'm sorry that I don't share in everyone else's enthusiasm, but this is probably the most pointless article I've read on AnandTech to date. Reply
  • JohnnyCNote - Friday, January 18, 2008 - link

    Then why did you read it, and then take MORE time to post a comment? I come across articles all the time that I don't find interesting. I've found that by ignoring them, I can save a lot of time. You may find it will work for you, too . . . Reply
  • KikassAssassin - Friday, January 18, 2008 - link

    This is an issue I hadn't really thought about before when building my PCs, and now it's something I'm going to be watching out for more in the future (and I'm going to be checking my SATA connectors when I get home to make sure they're not being strained), so if reading this article prevents me or others from breaking a hard drive at some point, then it was hardly pointless.

    There's more to building PCs than looking at benchmarks, so I appreciate articles like this try to make the PC builder's life a little bit easier.
    Reply
  • jasonnovak - Friday, January 18, 2008 - link

    I've done the same thing before while trying to reposition a drive in a case... I didn't think I ever put too much stress on the connector, but it snapped off the same way, with the pins still on the drive and the PCB stuck in the cable end. I was able to carefully slip the cable end/pcb back over the pins, though I should probably glue the cable to the drive so the pins don't snap off at some point. Reply
  • ModelTech - Friday, January 18, 2008 - link

    I'd just like to say thanks for this article. I'm building a new system right now with a 182 case. When I order the drives I now know to order the SATA2 cables with a 90deg bend with them too. You probably saved me a lot of frustration. Keep it up. Reply

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