Friday, May 27, 2011

A day in Drive Enclosure Hell

I hoped to celebrate my return to Free Geek after a few weeks' travel by hunkering down at the laptop table, but as usual, fate had other plans. A woman came upstairs looking for help, bearing in her hands a USB drive enclosure:

Looks innocent enough, right?

She bought this from us just a few days before and after a short period of good behavior it decided to take the rest of the day off.

A few words on USB drive enclosures. They are basically made up of a box, a power supply, a cheap hard drive, and a bit of circuitry that presents the hard drive (typically something you'd install into a desktop computer) as a USB device. They have good attributes (they're really cheap) and bad attributes (they're really cheap).

But I have three particular pet peeves with them: First, they have terrible power management capabilities -- some of them won't even spin the drive down when it's not being used. Second, they heat up like crazy. You could use some of them for a cooktop. The one pictured above has no ventilation whatsoever, and heat kills drives. And third, whoever actually designs the cases IS A COMPLETE RAVING MANIAC. I think it must be one guy, because I can't imagine there are several engineers out there with such a depth of hatred for service people.

Anyway, I plugged it in and sure enough nothing showed up. Next question: is it the drive, or is it the enclosure? If it's the drive, I have to explain to somebody that they've lost their data. I remove the drive from the enclosure, install it in a computer, and fortunately it works. Good. Upon further examination of the chassis, I spot a likely cause:

Let's take a closer look at that IDE cable:

Yup, slightly shredded. When the drive is installed in the enclosure, the last step is to slide the metal case over the drive and the circuitry, and what happened here is that the cable got pinched and torn. It probably worked for a while until one of the exposed wires contacted the case, which shorted out some of the circuitry.

If you're not familiar with electronics, you'll probably have a Hollywood impression of a short circuit -- giant blue arcs and smoke and frying noises and screaming and exciting music -- and sorry to say, that's not what usually happens. In electronics, a short circuit usually won't cause cause anything visible to happen at all, but your electronics will be dead and really hard to reanimate. If you're lucky, you'll see some magic smoke for your trouble.

In this (lucky) scenario, the enclosure was killed and not the drive. I tried a different IDE cable but the spirit was already departed and the corpse cold.

Unfortunately we don't have many IDE enclosures -- just a selection of dead ones:
Y'know, I wish this enclosure had worked. It has proper-ish ventilation, a real metal chassis, an honest-to-god power switch, and even labeling of the power supply. And if it hadn't been broken, I would've been spared the next specimen:

I'm seething just looking at this wretched bit of plastic. Oo, it's got curves on the top! Oo, it has two-tone stylish grey plastic! Oo, it's made by Western Digital, a Reputable Brand Name In Hard Drive Manufacturing! This, friends, is the most awful implement of torture ever devised for a screwdriver. It features four of the worst ideas ever in chassis design:

1. Plastic pieces that you have to tear apart, once lubricated with your own blood. The dark grey plastic above must be gripped and pulled apart from the light grey plastic. The specially-designed serrated plastic edges immediately catch at any nearby flesh, each featuring micro-polymer spines designed to lodge under nail beds.

2. Magic plastic clips. These are designed to be assembled quickly and cheaply, but never to be disassembled. Some user manuals recommend that you actually jam a credit card in the plastic seams to get them apart. (This would be the second ill-advised use of a credit card on the same product.) Using a screwdriver will mar the plastic badly even under the most careful stewardship.

3. Screws hidden under labels. Western Digital, I trusted you. I trusted you.

4. And for the championship, SCREWS HIDDEN UNDER STICKY FEET.
WTF, Western Digital? This is outright malicious.

So I sweated over that plastic piece of crap for probably half an hour, finally tore it open with much swearing and spattering of blood, and mastered its wretched secrets -- only to discover that it, too, was broken. There was nothing to do but throw the pile of pieces onto the floor, jump on it and scream, then put it in the recycling bin. And find another one (another lesserly-diabolical Western Digital) that actually worked and put the drive into it instead.

But I have one hope for this post: maybe someone will Google "How the $&@! do I open a WD1600B008 USB drive enclosure?" and come here. And when they discover what an awful bit of turd they possess, they will track down whatever engineer is responsible and beat them to death with it. I haven't got the energy to do it myself.


I'm actually feeling much better having written that. The productive upside of all of this: three broken USB enclosures were consigned to recycling; another was tested and sent out into the world again; a woman's files were successfully rescued, and their owner returned to a state of happiness; and after all that I did get a chance to work on laptops.

Oh, yes: I have never seen so many familiar faces at Free Geek as I did yesterday. Rick, Joshua, Brian, and others -- welcome back! Or were you just avoiding Thursdays? :)


  1. I'm proud to report that this post is #1 on the Google results list for the aforementioned search: "How the $&@! do I open a WD1600B008 USB drive enclosure?"

  2. Thanks for the laugh. I agree, the design on most leaves a lot to be desired.