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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  • 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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