How I repaired my dead external hard disk drive

I had an external hard disk drive that was dead.

The MacBook Pro would show the drive, but trying to access it resulted in errors or timeouts.

I was not in tears for the inaccessible and maybe lost files that were on the drive, as it was properly backed up in the cloud through CrashPlan.
Not having a backup of your mobile disk drive that not only has a bumpy life, but also might get lost or stolen, is pure insanity.

It was a nice LaCie Rikiki 1TB USB drive, small and sturdy in a pretty aluminium case.
Nice, but dead.
The warranty expired some time ago.
So I could have tossed it in the bin, though I was not yet ready to accept that.
I can be a bit of a hoarder…
First I had to make sure it was really dead.

As a first diagnostic test I connected the drive to other notebooks (OSX and Linux), but they also declared the drive dead.
Then I tried the drive with USB cables of other external disk drives, but those made no difference.

So I opened the drive case.

There’s not much to see here.
The case is nice, but has no extra protection like padding for the disk it houses.
The small printed circuit board (PCB) is the USB/SATA bridge, which interfaces the USB port on your computer to the SATA connector on the disk.
And then there is the disk itself, presumably dead.

Next test was to see if connecting directly to the SATA connector of the disk would work.
Up until a few years ago I would have mounted the disk in my desktop PC, but I no longer have one, it’s all notebooks nowadays.
Luckily I had a USB/SATA adapter that I bought in a combo deal with an SSD to upgrade my notebook’s harddisk.

You can buy these adapter cables for 2 Euro/dollar or less at e.g. AliExpress.

They’re extremely handy to have lying around.
I used the adapter cable to connect the disk to my Linux notebook, and the disk showed up!

All files on it were readable, and I could write new files to the disk.
To test the disk I ran “sudo badblocks -nvs /dev/sdc”.
It took a while to complete, but no errors were reported.

So the disk was just fine.
Only the USB/SATA bridge was dead, making the disk inaccessible.
Problem is that you can’t just buy a new one as a replacement.
The only solution was to do a complete transplant of the disk drive into a new case with USB/SATA bridge.

I could just order an external hard disk case for as low as ~3 Euro/dollar or order one for a few Euro more in a local (web)store, but there was a catch.

Most of these cases have room for a 2.5″ disk up to 9.5mm thick, which is the size of most popular notebook drives.
There are also disks that are 12.5mm or even 15mm thick.
These drives are often found in external disk drives.
The Toshiba disk used in the LaCie drive was indeed 12.5mm thick.
Looking around in local (web)stores I noticed that for a lot of cases they just not mentioned what the maximum thickness of disk would fit.
Only the external size of the case itself was stated.
Those cases that I did find that could handle 12.5mm disks were relatively expensive.
So back to AliExpress again, where I ordered a case from Orico.

After approximately 3 weeks it arrived.

Assembly was extremely easy, just open the cover, slide the disk in, and close the cover again.

No tools needed.

Connected to my notebook it showed up fine and worked flawlessly.
Here’s a screenshot of the simple disk performance test built into Ubuntu’s Disks application:

If you have a dead external disk which is out of guarantee you can try the same as I did.

It might be a good idea to buy a USB/SATA adapter cable right now and add it to your toolbox.
When the day comes you have to test a SATA disk, you can do so straight away.
If the disk works with the adapter cable, you can then order an external hard disk case.
Without an adapter cable it would be a gamble if the disk itself is broken, or just the USB/SATA bridge.
Keep in mind that you might be better of buying a completely new external disk if your disk is very old, or has a small capacity.
A new disk might then be more economical to buy.

Please note that some hard disks used in external drives have a USB/SATA bridge built right into the disk itself.
You can’t transplant these disks into a new case.
Large disks with a capacity of 2GB or more can use a special type of USB/SATA bridge.
These disks won’t work with another type of bridge, so they can’t be transplanted into a new case.

Oh, and always make backups…

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