Hard Disk Archaeology With The StarTech USB2SATAIDE

For many, many years now I’ve had a small but growing stack of hard drives I just haven’t found the time to archive and throw away. They’d got to the point where I didn’t expect to be able to rescue anything from them, but I figured attempting to do so would make a great article so here I am.

Old hard drives are an interesting beast- with the switch from IDE being top dog, to SATA and now various flavours of solid-state storage hooked right up to your computers motherboard, they’ve been left somewhat in the dark. Like a collection of old shareware CDs they probably still have something interesting on them, but the ever shrinking form factors of modern computers have long left out the hardware you’d need to interface with them.

So how the heck do you hook an old hard drive up to a shiny new USB port? How do you get that necessary 12v for desktop style hard drives? Well, I have the answer. Enter the StarTech USB2SATAIDE, which StarTech were kind enough to supply me for this post. StarTech’s all-the-crusty-old-hard-drive-types-since-IDE to USB adaptor solves these two problems handily with a pair of cute multi-way adaptors; one for power and one for data.

The Tools

The power adaptor is a top notch (but nevertheless commodity) 12V wall-wart with interchangeable plugs good for 100-240V input and 12V output at a respectable 2A. That’s plenty, since my hungriest dinosaur hard drive needed only 720mA (that’s 0.72A). It has a good quality captive bell-wire cord that terminates in a DC jack. This jack plugs into the connector on a small split adaptor that breaks out into a 4-pin molex and a SATA power connector. StarTech have picked a decent power supply to back up your kit, so you can be sure there will be no power-related issues with reading data from your dusty old drives.

The USB adaptor is well enough built, but not quite up to the battleship, extruded aluminium class that many StarTech designs sport. It’s a solid enough plastic, though, and the adaptor is lightweight and compact and sports a captive cable. That means you wont have to scrabble for a cable when you want to use it.

A quick google for similar adaptors turns up a whole plethora of devices that look remarkably like StarTech’s. I’d suspect it uses a tried and tested off the shelf part, but has clearly undergone some design tweaks so that StarTech can make it their own. First and foremost it’s particularly understated with no obnoxious trash tier blue transparent plastic (ugh) and none of the silver braided USB cable that’s such a memorable hallmark of cheap tat. Second, it has no blue LEDs, instead opting for a traditional Red LED to signal USB connectivity/power, a Green LED to signify a SATA activity, and another Red LED for IDE/Busy.

On one side is a connector for an IDE laptop hard drive, on the other a connector for an IDE desktop hard drive and on the end is a female SATA connector which you can use to connect a SATA drive with the supplied cable.

StarTech have beaten the ugly out of a fairly commodity adaptor and made something clean, utilitarian and attractive in a consistent black that looks suitably professional and differentiates it from the rest of the market.

The adaptor uses a JMicron USB to SATA & PATA combo bridge controller and seems perfectly happy with both an IDE and SATA drive hooked up simultaneously (which is good because it says it should in the datasheet). It supports the 480Mbps throughput of USB2.0 which isn’t going to break any hard disk speed records, but is enough for rescuing and archiving your old data.

Searching for the JM20337 specifically reveals issues with data corruption relating to incorrect vendor implementations of the chip and one user recommends removing a resistor from some devices. Opening up StarTech’s USB2SATAIDE, however, revealed a somewhat different layout which has a matching RD4 resistor (4.7k Ohm) but no matching 4.7K R15 placement that I could find.

The Expedition

With my trusty USB2SATAIDE in hand, I ventured into the metal jungle of ancient drives. I had a collection of test subjects to see how far I could push, but by far the most interesting was the Fujitsu MPC3032AT. This beast is a late 1998 vintage desktop IDE drive with a whopping 3.24GB of storage. While it wouldn’t raise an eyebrow in an era where 5x that much RAM is commonplace, this dinosaur had a home in my self-hosted Mandrake linux shell box.

Also in the running was an IBM Deskstar from late 2001 and a Quantum Fireball EX also of a 1998 vintage but looking decidedly newer than the curvy Fujitsu, a modern-ish 2.5″ SSD (because I needed something SATA) and a failed Western Digital Scorpio 2.5″ IDE drive from an old Mac, because I needed something with the smaller IDE connector.

I didn’t expect any of these drives to function at all (save for my newer SSD), but I was actually pleasantly surprised. While each one, with the exception of the failed Mac drive, required me to run TestDisk, specify MBR and scan for partitions (sometimes entering the correct cylinders, heads and sectors numbers conveniently written on the disk labels) once I’d recovered the MBR and written the discovered partition table I was able to browse the disks at my leisure and poke around files so old I’d forgotten they even existed.

Yes, even the Fujitsu fired up but disappointingly it was an old Mandrake Linux 10 installation (placing it around 2004 onwards, before the switch to Mandriva) that had nothing of note but some installs of a vanilla eggdrop bot from my long forgotten days of hanging out in random IRC channels with fellow programmers.

In fact the only thing disappointing about this whole expedition was the contents of these drives. I’ve lost so many old website designs, so much artwork and so many programming projects to the annuls of time and I’d hoped to maybe reach into the past and rescue something noteworthy that I could tidy up and share. No such luck! Still, safe in the knowledge I’m not consigning anything of note to oblivion I can finally get rid of these damned boat anchors!

In Summary

Well, it worked with disks from 1998 that have been in the bottom of a box for over a decade. I think it’s safe to say it does what it says on the tin. If you’ve got some old drives to archive and throw away or drives recently rescued out of a computer that you need to recover then it does the trick.

It might be a touch expensive, perhaps even a lot expensive, at around £40 but you get quality parts and a good quality AC adaptor with none of the gaudiness of cheap alternatives. Additionally it appears that StarTech have avoided the mistakes of cheaper competitors and not introduced any data corruption issues in their hardware.