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Reviving a laptop

The drive in my work laptop gave a S.M.A.R.T. error over the weekend. I never have had much luck with Hitachi laptop drives. Micron sent a replacement drive–an IBM, thankfully–and, doubly thankfully, the Hitachi hung on until today. So I whipped out Bart’s magic network boot disk–to which I’d added the 3c556 module necessary to get this Micron Transport LT on the network–and ran my copy of Ghost from a network drive. (It won’t fit on that disk, no way, no how. Not with all the other stuff crammed onto it.)
Depending on how far gone the drive is, Ghost can cope with failing hard drives, because you can use the -FRO switch to make it work around bad clusters to the best of its ability. So I initiated Ghost with ghost -z9 -fro (the -z9 tells it to use maximum compression, since the network is the bottleneck here) and made a copy of my disk to a network drive. An hour and a half later (ugh–do I ever miss Token Ring) I had a backup. So I swapped in the IBM drive and repeated the process in reverse. An hour and a half up, an hour and a half down. The data compression wasn’t the bottleneck.

And in the end, I had a healthy laptop again. The IBM drive is quieter and seems faster. I noticed it wasn’t the nice new 5400 RPM model (it’s a 4200 rpm drive) but it’s not a slouch. And it definitely doesn’t clunk as much as the Hitachi always did. I love Hitachi’s video equipment, but their hard drives have always given me trouble. IBM’s laptop drives have always been fine for me. And I know IBM took a lot of black eyes over the GXP desktop series, but think about the things that are known to cause problems with IDE drives:

Rounded cables
PCI bus overclocked beyond 33 MHz
Cables longer than 18 inches (the length of the wire–not the cable itself)
Certain VIA chipsets in conjunction with Sound Blaster Live! sound cards

IBM 75GXP and 60GXP drives were typically bought by people seeking performance. People seeking performance often do at least one of the above, intentionally or unintentionally. During the 75GXP’s heyday, the hottest chipsets on the block were made by VIA (Intel was still embroiled in the whole Rambus fiasco), and the sound card everyone had to have was the SB Live. I suspect the GXPs were more sensitive to these factors than some other drives and they really weren’t as bad as their reputation.

While rounded cables are good for airflow, they’re bad for signal integrity. Rounded SCSI cables are common, especially in servers, and have been for years, but SCSI takes precautions with its signals–most notably, termination–that IDE doesn’t. That’s part of the reason why IDE is cheaper. So yes, though ribbon cables do look really retro, replacing them with fancy rounded cables isn’t a good idea unless you like replacing hard drives. Get Serial ATA adapters and run your drives serial if you don’t think retro is cool. I’ve been conspiring for the last couple of years to get something semi-modern into my vintage IBM AT case, so I happen to like retro.

But I digress. I hope when the merger between Hitachi’s and IBM’s storage divisions happens, we get the best aspects of both rather than the worst.

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7 thoughts on “Reviving a laptop”

  1. I don’t know about the whole rounded cable being bad for signal degredation thing anymore. I personally follow Voodoo Computers and fold my ide cables out of the way, but a number of reputable computer companies use rounded cables. Maximum PC recently had an article saying that rounded cables were the way to go, because they had ‘fixed’ that signal problem and that actually, it was just an ‘urban myth’ and there really never was such a problem. I’d like to go Serial ATA, but there’s really no point because the bottleneck now is the PCI bus, and until AMD starts using HyperTransport or whatever the new bus standard will be, parallel ATA is fine, and doesn’t cost more to use, unlike Serial ATA (assuming you have to buy parallel-serial adapters, new cables, etc).

  2. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a dead Hitachi laptop drive in my shop; but I’ve seen plenty of dead IBM laptop drives, including my own…

    Just one guy’s experience, FWIW.

    BTW, you can buy an IDE cable to laptop HD converter for about 25 bucks; it’s faster than the network solution but not nearly as admirable. Just yank the HD and plug it onto another computer. I buy them in twos because they’re made cheaply and one will break just when you need it.

  3. Reto AT case:

    I like that idea Dave. It reminded me that I have an original IBM XT (it still works). I can’t decide if I should just hang on to it for another 20 or 30 years by which time it may be a true collector’s item or “soup up the innards” such as you want to do with the AT.

    I wonder if new OS text mode is compatible with an old CGA monitor? A CGA driver for Linux? I can just imagine people seeing a fast Linux server stuffed into an old AT or XT case and using the CGA monitor for video!! Of course, I would have to find the newest motherboard made that still had an ISA slot for the video card, I wonder how old the newest one of those MB’s is?


    Bruce Edwards

  4. Whoa. Lots of threads going here.

    Rounded cables: If I remember correctly, the grounds in a UDMA-66/100/133 cable serve a dual purpose: giving more grounding (duh) and isolating the individual data signals from one another. Rounding the cable defeats that second purpose.

    Laptop drives: I guess experience just varies. I see very few dead IBM laptop drives.

    2.5″-3.5″ converters: I had two at my old job. They saved me a lot of time and effort. If you ever have to recover data off a laptop drive, you need one. They’re cheap and worth every penny. And it’s really nice to be able to slap two 2.5″ drives in a desktop, boot into DOS, and clone them in minutes.

    Retro cases: The problem is finding motherboards that’ll fit. A lot of modern AT motherboards put the memory slots in places that are blocked by an IBM case’s drive bays. This wasn’t a problem with SIMMs, but with DIMMs it sure is because they’re taller. Maybe low-profile DIMMs will work.

    The other problem with XTs is their power supply is very, very lightweight (150 watts?) I put a 486SLC board with 8 megs of RAM and an IDE HD in a former friend’s XT case in the mid-’90s and the power supply failed before the end of the summer. I tracked down a replacement power supply that fit, but it took a while and it cost a fortune. I’d be inclined to leave the system alone, just because I have my doubts the machine would run for very long.

    My AT case, on the other hand, I bought empty for $10. Originally I put a 386DX-40 board in it, which I later replaced with a Pentium-75, and later still with an Abit IT5H (I think I ran a Cyrix CPU on it). I never had any problems with it, other than getting the IT5H to fit right (it had the same memory clearance problem). I did similar souped-up ATs for a couple of my college buddies, and Gatermann’s first PC was a former PC/AT with an Asus mobo and some early socket 7 CPU in it.

    I do believe a text-mode OS would work fine on a CGA or Hercules card though. So you should be able to run Linux off a CGA monitor, not that I have a working CGA card or display to try it with…

    And most modern AT mobos do have at least one ISA slot. I’ve got a couple of Soyo socket 370 ATs and they have two ISA slots. Give the closeout places a look if I haven’t deterred you; I think has some socket 370 AT boards made by Asus.

  5. Notebook drives to IDE (and PCMCIA): Wednesday on my Daynotes site, I stuck up a bit on a piece of unsupported equipment available from CSO, the DN-Boy. A virtual slam dunk under Win2k on a desktop through the PCMCIA slot and the same with a pen-based Win95 system. The carrier can also slide into a frame on your IDE chain (not tested as that’s not what I’m using it for; untested under Linux as yet also). $25 plus shipping.

  6. IIRC, it was eventually fairly established that it was the heat that the new GXP IBM heads were overly sensitive to — partly generated during writes, partly insufficient cooling when the drive wasn’t properly cooled in the case.

    I’ve run a number of IBM 2.5″ drives in several systems, and they’ve only been swapped out for reasons of greater size, never failures. Very quiet and good performance. Toshiba laptop drives have also been decent, some models with about half the peak power consumption than usual for the competition.

  7. Thanks, guys!!! I’ve been working on a laptop drive all day trying to get it to boot, but I don’t think it’s going to.

    Thanks especially to Jim for bringing up the 2.5-3.5 cables…I think I’ll give that a go just to get the data. Keep your fingers crossed for me.

    [BTW, it’s a Hitachi 🙁 ]

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