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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  • FUXX - Friday, January 18, 2008 - link

    You could try swapping out the controller card on the hard drive. I've had pretty good luck doing this on a Seagate 80GB drive and a Maxtor 200GB. After an electrical storm I thought the drives were toast but after a controller card swap I was able to recover the data. Make sure to get the exact same controller though, it took me a while to find the proper one on ebay. Sometimes the same model hard drive would have different controllers depending on when it was manufactured. If you end up with the wrong one you might be hearing the click of death!

    Also, swapping hard drive platters is highly NOT recommended. :)

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  • yyrkoon - Sunday, January 20, 2008 - link

    I do not think they're worried too much about data recovery, and they probably know about swapping out the drive controller PCB already ; ) Works pretty good does it not : )

    Now to the article writer. Maybe it is because I tend to speed read articles as such most of the time(but I did read the article twice) it was not made clear to me, but did the data connector part of the PCB break off while moving the drive in or out, or did this happen while the drive was in already operational ? I just ordered one of these cases for myself(gun metal gray) and it would explain why I got a good deal on it after rebate if this is the case (sorry no pun intended). $45 for this case is not a bad deal, even after buying 4x right angle SATA connectors, but I would really hate to loose 3TB of data because all my HDD data connectors snapped off : /

    Another question I had, was do you think this could be brand specific ? I have a pretty good idea I know which drive you guys were using, and I do not use that drive, or even the same brand, but if this IS brand specific, I think your readers should know. At the very least the OEM should know, so they could fix this issue on future models.
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