The Hard Drive.
by Chris Seidel


March 31, 1998    Tuesday

      Last week the hard drive on my powerbook failed. I don' t use my powerbook very often, but I love its portability. Anywhere you happen to find yourself you can power it up and have a whole computer sitting there in your lap. So the other night, I turned it on and it came up, but then it crashed. I tried to restart it, but it wouldn't start up. I could hear it making a faint clicking noise, and then a periodic little scream, but I could tell that nothing was spinning inside. The next day I took it down to a Mac store called MAC and talked to them about it. They listened to it and told me that the hard drive had failed. They said it would cost $300 for a new drive, and that if I wanted to recover the data from the failed drive it would probably be another $500. Yikes, that's a lot of money for a graduate student. I bought my powerbook when I started graduate school, and it was a little work horse, following me to the library and the cafes to write papers, and on the plane down to LA to visit my girlfriend while I analyzed data. It came with only a 40 megabyte hard drive. It didn't take long to fill it up and I had sometimes regretted not getting the other model that had an 80 megabyte hard drive for an extra hundred dollars. My friend Joe who had gone to Stanford had bought that model. But at the time, I had put all my resources into getting the model that I had, it was the absolute cheapest one I could find, weighing in at just over a thousand dollars, and I didn't have the extra hundred to get the larger drive.

The guy at MAC told me that the smallest drives made now were 270 MB. I thought perhaps I could find a company in the back of a magazine that sold some old smaller, discontinued drives but wasn't completely sure I could install it myself. I looked around in catalogs, and mac magazines but couldn't find any powerbook drives. So I went down to the University hardware support station and asked them about drives. $250 for a 500 MB drive installed. Not bad. But then I found an ad in the back of MacWorld for a company selling SCSI Apple drives for powerbooks, $149 for 240 MB. Sounded like just what I was looking for. I wondered if I would regret not getting the larger drive again for just a hundred dollars extra, and it included installation. But an extra hundred is an extra hundred, and I really couldn't afford it. So I ordered the smaller drive.

The drive came to the lab. It came with a torx tool and a little flashlight that plugs into the ADB port. I looked forward to taking my powerbook apart and installing the new drive. I had taken it apart the day I ordered the drive just to check that there was nothing obviously wrong with it, to check what kind of drive it was, and to confirm that all I had to do was unplug the old one and replace it with a new one. Sometimes mechanical and electrical gadgets are mysteriously complex and you really have to pay someone for that little bit of knowledge and expertise, that they have and you don't, to get what appears to be a simple task accomplished. Other times tinkering with things in the presence of common sense is all that's required but you just don't know it. So I took the powerbook apart again in preparation for installing the new drive. The old drive had a piece of plexi-glass stuck to the top of it with double stick foam tape to make up some extra thickness to help it fit in the little harness that held it in the powerbook. It looked like a last minute production jury-rig that Apple had come up with to deal with unexpected drive thicknesses or something. The new drive was sleak and black, made for Apple by IBM, slightly thicker than the old drive, but not as thick as the old drive plus the plexi-glass. The old drive was a Quantum. So I would have to make a little shim out of something so the new drive would fit snug in the harness. Luckily I had some poster board laying around, and some double stick tape. I wondered what the people at MAC, or at the University Hardware support would have done.

I put the new drive in. The homemade shim worked great. I put the computer back together, plugged it in, and started it up from a floppy disk. The new drive came to life with a happy whirring sound. It looked normal on the desktop and was empty, with 244 Mb of available space. So I mounted my zip drive and copied an old backup I had made last year of my previous hard disk by simply dragging the previous disk icon to a zip disk. I wondered if getting the computer to recognize the new drive as the bootable drive would be as simple as dragging the old copy to it for copying. What about boot sectors and all that stuff I have to worry about with UNIX and dos? I had faith in the Mac. Once the folder was copied to the new drive I restarted and voila. It started from the new drive, no problem. No hassles. As long as there is a system folder on the drive annointed with the little finder icon, that is all that is required. I was impressed with the elegant simplicity and comman sense that Apple had designed into their products. I didn't have to format the drive. I didn't have partition it. I didn't have to know the number of cylinders or worry about any bios settings.

Now that the computer worked again, and I didn't need the old drive, I could toy with the idea of taking the old drive apart to see what was inside and perhaps see why it wasn't spinning. Powerbook drives are very tiny, it was about the size of a pack of cigarettes but not as thick. The torx screws were too tiny for any of the torx driveers that I had, but the hardware store was still open so I decided to go for a walk.

On the way out of the building I ran into a bunch of people mulling around by the entrance gathering to go have dinner with that night's Merck seminar speaker, Steve Elledge, of yeast two-hybrid fame. The unfamiliar one was Steve. Funny how speakers and bigshots have an awkward normal stature when you see them unexpectedly in a group of people instead of in your minds eye as you read their papers, or as they stand up in the front of the auditorium giving their seminar.

The hardware store had many different brand names of torx drivers. One brand in particular had a set of slots for the smallest size, but they were all sold out of that size. None of the other brands went that small. I stood looking at the different selections, making sure I wasn 't missing anything. I tried the next to smallest size on one of the screws on the drive. It didn't quite fit, but to my surprise, if I pushed firmly and turned, it worked to move the torx screw counterclockwise. Perhaps I could simply loosen the screws with that driver and forego buying the wrong size or waiting for the right size to be ordered. I asked one of the clerks when shipments of the smaller size would come in, and he said they probably weren't going to sell that brand anymore. While he was checking I used the next size up to just loosen the screws such that I could remove them more carefully later with a lab spatula or a knife blade.

I walked back to the lab and used my spatula to unscrew the screws the rest of the way. I was excited to see what was underneath the cover wondering if the platter would be visible once the cover was removed, but I was also apprehensive. I had heard that drives are assembled in clean rooms, and that all it took was a piece of dust getting in to destroy the drive. Once I opened the drive I was dedicating it to uselessness. The coer came off very easily and just underneath lay the shiny gold colored round platter and head mechanism that was my disk drive. In the center of the platter was a little round area with two recessed pits. I realized I could put a ball point pen there and see if the platter would turn. Should it turn? was there a lock or gear mechanism that would keep it from turning? I put my pen there and pushed. It was stiff, and didn't turn. I pushed a little harder. It resisted, but suddenly it broke free and then turned quite easily back and forth! Either I broke it further, or it was just stuck before and now I had successfully unjammed it. I quickly put it back together. Should I try re-installing it and see if it would work now? This seemed very unlikely. Why would data recovery cost $500 if playing with the platter was so trivial? What about the dust I had let into it? In the lab we use sterile technique all the time to spread cells onto sterile petri plates. Dust doesn't seem to fall on them even though they're sometimes open for a minute or longer as we spin them on our benches waiting for the cells to soak into the media. I also didn't want to stress the cables and screws by taking the computer apart yet again, putting the old drive in, recovering it, and then taking the computer apart again to re-install the new drive. It would be nifty to have access to the data on the old drive in case I actually had lost some recent work that I hadn't backed up elsewhere. Plus it would be cool to have taken the drive apart, freed the platter, and actually have the drive still work when put back together.

So, I took my computer apart yet again, and swapped the old drive for the new drive. I turned the computer on, and presto! I could hear the old drive whirring up and the computer started up just fine! I quickly restarted it from a floppy so I could copy the entire hard drive to a zip disk. Afterwards I took the computer apart one last time and re-installed the new drive. I was happy to have replaced my old disk, and not spent hundreds of dollars to pay someone else to tinker with it.

Hard disk