Resolution, Prevention, and Closing Thoughts

In our case we were fortunate. The data pins on the SATA connector were fine, we simply didn’t have wafer to hold a cable on top of the pins. We ultimately managed to find the piece of the plastic wafer that broke off, and with a bit of tape MacGuyvered a solution with another, particularly tight SATA cable that allowed us to get the drive back in to working order. But this is luck on our part, just finding the wafer, let alone is breaking in a manner that allowed us to enact this fix is not common for other computer owners we’ve talked to with this problem.

But as we mentioned in the opening of this article, what happened to us was completely preventable. We’ll freely admit that what happened was due to negligence, and could have been avoided with a little more careful consideration. How?

By far, the easiest solution would have been to use the right cable. A latching cable would have prevented some of the downward deflection that caused the connector to break. A better solution however is to have used an angled SATA cable, in which one connector is at a 90 degree angle. Using a right-angled cable would have made our SATA flow along the width of the case rather than the depth of it, allowing us to avoid routing a cable towards the fan, and avoiding the need to bend it so sharply that it exerted any significant force on the drive’s data connector.


Image courtesy of Amazon.com

Unfortunately angled connectors are not a common part. Because they’re not practical to use in every situation (mainly those where the cable needs to be going the other way) we do not see drive manufacturers or motherboard manufacturers include angled cables with their products, instead they ship with traditional straight cables that are acceptable in most situations. This situation requires a builder to have the foresight to purchase an angled cable separately (a quick search on Newegg found one such cable for $2) which was what we were initially lacking.

Another option for our case would have been to go with one of a small number of reinforced SATA cable devices. The most notable of these would be the now-discontinued SecureConnect cable, which is functionally a cable with a far larger connector on the drive end that secures itself against the drive. Unfortunately Western Digital went with a proprietary route here in order that the enlarged connector would have something better to hook on to by putting extra pits on their hard drives, which means the cable can’t be used on non-WD hard drives like ours. There are a few smaller parts manufacturers that make similar devices that will work with any drive, but these wouldn’t be quite as secure; we do not have any on hand to test but we believe any such device would have still prevented the drive’s connector from breaking (and yes, we’re aware of the irony of such a device further closing the already small space between the drive and the fan).

 

Closing Thoughts

No matter how we decided to go about reinforcing our setup however, the point stands that in hindsight we should have done something as we had a situation that was likely to (and did) result in a connector breaking. We were fortunate that it broke in a manner that wasn’t a fatal problem (and that we found the bit of plastic wafer that broke off), but this can be a fatal error.

The moral of the story, and the reason we even bothered to publish this article is to share with you the reader an analysis of what happened, to pass on what we learned so that it doesn’t happen to you. The vast majority of computer builders will never even find themselves in a situation where they can break a connector, and even then only a fraction of those builders will actually break something, but it does happen. And out of any hardware that can be broken, most of us would rather lose anything else before a hard drive, due to the desire not to lose the data stored on it.

Our lesson then is this: don’t hesitate to use additional hardware to hook up a SATA drive if you’re in tight spaces. An angled cable is only a couple of dollars (and will likely outlast any other system component) can prevent turning a hard drive worth a hundred times that value from turning in to an oversized paperweight. The SATA connector is by no means fragile, but it’s not abuse-resistant, it requires a little more care than most of us are accustomed to when it comes to hooking up hard drives.

As is often the case, the effort to prevent the breakage would have been easier than the resolution.

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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