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.

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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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  • iamezza - Sunday, January 20, 2008 - link

    I have broken the SATA power connector on my HDD AND on my power supply connection, when trying to install 4 HDDs in the lower bay of a P180.

    I think both the Data and Power SATA connections are fundamentally flawed and no matter how much they 'update' them there is no way to make them good.

    An example of an extremely reliable and robust serial connector is the ubiquitous USB plug. The USB plug is so simple to plug and unplug, yet is robust and it doesn't become accidentally unplugged! Why bother to re-invent the wheel?
  • LeeKay - Sunday, January 20, 2008 - link

    I did the same thing with 3 drives no less 2 320GB Segates and 1 500GB Hitachi on my new system build into my new pc using the lower drive bay because the upper was impeding the 8800Ultra.

    I fried a 12v ground power trace on one of the drives, chipped off part of the sata connector on another and just snapped off the other one like you did. My problem was that the 500gb was to be my main drive so I tried to use a connector like your blue one with the power and the SATA conector on one plug but the problem was the pc is moved around alot and the connector would lose contact with the gold pins so I took an SATA cable and broke the plastic guard arround the pins. I took my dremel and I cut out the area leading to the pins on the board. I unsoldiered it and then I took the cable and soldered it directly to the board all 6 contacts and then I secured the cable with a metal bracket i cut to size from the back plate drilled small holes in the plate and drive and screwed it in place to hold the cable in place and to stop it flexing. Now it works great.
  • Ichinisan - Saturday, January 19, 2008 - link

    It seems that the major flaw of the proprietary WD "SecureConnect" cable is that it covers the SARA power connector, requiring you to use the 12v connector. Taking away your choice is a problem in some situations. For instance: My legacy-free, super-mini PC chassis expects your SATA drive to use the provided SATA power connector.
  • Snooper - Saturday, January 19, 2008 - link

    I've got four HDs in the lower HD cage on my P180. It definitely took a bit of work to get all the cable to lay in place without rubbing against the fan or bending the cables too tightly.

    But it can be done. Just don't try to force things...
  • Voldenuit - Saturday, January 19, 2008 - link

    I've had the same thing happen to me, but with the SATA power cable instead of the data cable. Fortunately, the drive (A WD 250 GB SE16) had a backup molex power adapter. Wish manufacturers included this as a standard (current WD models have dispensed with them).

    My opinion is that the SATA connector is fundamentally flawed by design. It is too thin and fragile, and the little right angle hanging off the end is just a disaster waiting to happen.

    I wouldn't go back to PATA for the world, but I wouldn't mind seeing a more robust design, even if it means having to switch cables.
  • mongolhorde - Saturday, January 19, 2008 - link

    I had this idea the other day, looking at a CoolerMaster Cosmos 1000 case. It has a section with pull-out drive enclosures for the hard drives, at the bottom, which undoubtedly would require right-angle SATA cables. If people would be willing to pay slightly more, why not make a variant model with an SATA-II compliant backplane? Put both the SATA and SATA power connectors, lined up for the drive cages, behind the drive cage. Then, past the drive, provide the same connector as on the mother board / back of drive for the user to connect up the SATA data cables and power cables.

    Nothing fancy like in a server, where you maybe have one incoming power lead, just a circuit board with a series of traces to carry the power and data to the drives.

    Charge a bit more for that model, or maybe find a way to make it an end user installable accessory...

    Help people avoid the situation the article talks about.
  • Cullinaire - Saturday, January 19, 2008 - link

    Mac Pro anyone??

    Good idea though, I'd really like to see this happen. Even better if the backplane is sold separately.
  • RaulF - Saturday, January 19, 2008 - link

    Well crazy glue just worked for me yesterday guys, i also notice i had damage the SATA cable and that's why the drive was not being recognised. Make sure you inspect the cable conector for the little contact wires. I manage to get my stuff out and will use the handicap HD in an enclusure as my external to take info around to a friends house when i need it.

    Thanks for the article anand, hopefully manufaturers will beef up the plastic on the connectors from now on.
  • notposting - Saturday, January 19, 2008 - link

    couple issues with this article:

    First, remove the lower fan from the P180--the PSU will be able to handle exhausting it's own heat and the airflow will be enough to keep the HDs cool enough, that's the point of the separate chambers.

    Secondly, the complaint about the HD orientation and the half shroud on the port connector is invalid. Flip the HD. Derr, it's fixed!
  • pjpizza - Saturday, January 19, 2008 - link

    In the fall of 2004, I bought a 74GB WD Raptor. As I had not had any SATA devices before, I just did what I normally do: shove the thing in! To my horrible discovery, I had broken the SATA connection on the WD... :(

    Luckily, I too had some McGyver tape handy, and I've used it ever since...

    Still, makes you wonder why they can't spec the type of plastic used on the the SATA device to keep the connection from breaking... I thought they would be AT LEAST as durable as PATA, I mean, come on? Newer tech should be better then old tech in all aspects.

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