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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  • RaulF - Friday, January 18, 2008 - link

    I can't believe this, i call it Karma. This issue just happen to me last night, in the Antec P180. The funny part is that it was a locking sata cable, and everything was fine, until i pull the cable off and down came the plastic with it. I will try to Crazy glue the plastic today see if i can get all my data. Since i used it as a back up before installing my second raptor for raid 0. I have about 200GB worth of anime that i dont want to loose =(.

    P.S. Ordered a Hitachi 1TB HD today should have it tomorrow for back up and media services =). Lost time reader first time poster.
  • Kougar - Tuesday, January 22, 2008 - link

    Well, add another victim to the list. Although I was lucky enough to already use the locking SATA cables, I instead broke off part of the plastic housing on a SATA power connector cable on my PC P&C Quad Silencer unit. I tell the amount of force being put on the cable when routinely inserting the drive cage into the case, somehow put to much force on the power cable and it snapped the protective plastic that covers the end of the power connector.

    Now it is just an exposed power connector that I can't use on a drive, and I suspect it won't be the last... trying to contort four pairs of both data and power cables to fit four drives in the lower P180 cage without hitting the fan has been nothing but a pain even with a fangaurd. Lesson learned for my next case purchase...
  • MastahYodah - Sunday, January 20, 2008 - link

    Talk about karma; the same thing happened to me using the same antec p180 case. LOL!
  • NiklasB - Monday, January 21, 2008 - link

    Wellwell.. I did exactly this with a P182 and my brand new WDC Raptor drive
  • RaulF - Friday, January 18, 2008 - link

  • erikpurne - Friday, January 18, 2008 - link

    "You keep on using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."
  • kmmatney - Saturday, January 19, 2008 - link

  • CorbaTheGeek - Friday, January 18, 2008 - link

    "impervious," not "immutable."
  • Guuts - Friday, January 18, 2008 - link

    "immune" will work there, too.
  • Ryan Smith - Friday, January 18, 2008 - link


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