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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  • jmvillafana - Friday, January 18, 2008 - link

    It happened to me five years ago with the first motherboard I had with SATA option. Conector broke on the motherboard side. Having two HDD and two connectors I had no options, found the plastic piece and mended as you did. With luck and care, the board worked for four and a half years. A short life for a system, I never found out if the crippled connector shortened the life of the board. I actually unhooked and hooked the connector a few times through this time. My new systems have SATA connectors and I allways use latched ones. Reply
  • bobbozzo - Friday, January 18, 2008 - link

    Due to the lack of space at the bottom of the p182 case, I put my 2 hard drives in the middle bay, above the floppy bay.
    I also moved the fan from the bottom (the PS has a fan, why should it need another?), to the front of the case in front of those 2 drives... they stay nice and cool now.

    I broke a Molex power connector on a Deathstar once as it was too tight, and it the pins separated from the plastic and broke off the motherboard, from pulling the Molex connector STRAIGHT out as designed.
    Reply
  • JonathanYoung - Friday, January 18, 2008 - link

    Hi Mr. Smith,

    I would like to provide some constructive criticism on your article. There are some instances where you use "in to" when you should be using "into." For example: "that have shaped the SATA connector in to what we see today."

    I am not a grammar expert but this is something that caught my eye a couple of times and I thought you'd like to know.

    As for the content of the article, I think it is an excellent subject and something that many PC power users can relate to.

    Thank you!

    Jonathan Young
    Reply
  • kilkennycat - Friday, January 18, 2008 - link

    For example, take a look at the Antec P160 design and the hard-disk cage in that design, (including the hard-disk shock mounts). The hard-disks load sideways into that cage. All connectors are fully exposed for cable installation. And with the huge front-slots in the P160 (filtered) and a decent intake fan, the hard-disks are very nicely cooled. That 'up-side-down' P18x design with the power-supply at the bottom also has the doubtful virtue of requiring extra-long power-supply cables. And how many motherboards come with a set of right-angle SATA connectors anyway ?

    Pity the P160 seems to be out-of-production. Great that I have a new one stored in my attic for my next PC build. The 2 active thermal probes in the P160 with the associated front-panel display are a huge bonus in these days of hot CPUs and hot graphics cards. No need to run some silly temperature-monitoring program in the background. The P160 loads the motherboard on a tray... a very handy feature indeed when installing or troubleshooting. However, the tray depth is ATX --- a few of the latest 'way-out' enthusiast motherboards (e.g Asus "Striker") have a depth exceeding the ATX spec that would short out on the lip of the tray and collide with the tray fasteners.
    Reply
  • peternelson - Friday, January 18, 2008 - link


    Enjoyed the description of your experiences and it serves a useful reminder to take care with internal SATA cables.

    I feel it would also be worthwhile to mention ESATA (the official external SATA standard) which has redesigned the connectors in view of external use. In particular external connectors will tend to get more abuse (strain of devices being relocated, re-matings, bending).

    Since the internal SATA connector was known to have a potential to damage the device, rather than the cable when it snapped, the ESATA connector was redesigned so that ideally, when something breaks it is the cable connector (part of your relatively cheap cable) rather than the device connector (so you don't write off your expensive drive array).

    Although some vendors tried to take SATA externally using the original connectors designed for internal use, the official external SATA specification addresses that problem deliberately (as well as better electrical noise immunity).

    Thanks for the article.
    Reply
  • Lonyo - Friday, January 18, 2008 - link

    I managed to break the plastic bit on a 200GB hard drive by accidentally pressing the cable down while working on the innards.
    Luckily I was able to sort out a temp solution and get stuff off the drive, but that involved tape and cardboard, and currently the drive sits unused in a box.
    Early SATA connectors were a giant pain. I've also had numerous occasions when the cable has come loose from either the motherboard or hard drive, due to cramped conditions and the relatively inflexible cables and poor retention at both ends.
    Reply
  • Heidfirst - Friday, January 18, 2008 - link

    I have had exactly the same experience as jasonnovak.
    I'm sure that I didn't put undue stress on the connector but nevertheless the tongue came away stuck in the cable.
    On my drive it loooked to be held in place by a little tab/slot presumably with some adhesive - obviously not enough or it failed.
    Anyway, the drive still works but I can only use it with that 1 cable so it's now hotglued together.
    Reply
  • AlexWade - Friday, January 18, 2008 - link

    When SATA first came out, I bought me a 250GB Seagate. Back when I bought it, 250GB was expensive because perpendicular recording wasn't even dreamed about. Anyway, while shifting it around, I broke the connector on the hard drive. Fortunately for me, I never removed the connector. I jury-rigged something. It ain't pretty, but it still works to this day. I found lying around one of those paint mixing paddles you get for free (and which quite often my dad used on me, balsa wood never hurt so much) and wedged it under the hard drive. It worked. And that hard drive is still a functioning member of society. Reply
  • jay401 - Friday, January 18, 2008 - link

    quote:

    does not make you immutable to computer problems or the laws of physic


    I believe "immutable" means unchanging, and you want "immune" instead.
    Reply
  • Starcub - Monday, August 10, 2009 - link

    How did you get the quote feature to work? I get a pop up window asking me to type in the quoted text, which I do. When I click ok, the text box disappears, and no quote is inserted in my post...

    At least that makes me immutable to misquoting people ;P
    Reply

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