Build/create Your Own External Hard Drive

Have an old internal hard drive gathering dust? Turn it into a speedy external drive in five simple steps.

By Pelumi Paul Jacob (greatprof)

An internal hard drive is a terrible thing to waste. If you've got one sitting on a shelf (or about to land there after a system upgrade), it's easy to give that old drive new life. In just a few steps, you can slip the castoff into an inexpensive enclosure—and create a fully functional external drive that boosts your storage space and lets you take large amounts of data with you.

Step 1: Choose the right enclosure
Many newer drives employ SATA, which uses a much smaller connector (above). Older IDE drives connect via two rows of pins (below).
Consider two key factors when choosing an enclosure: size and interface. Size is easy: If the drive came from a desktop PC, it's probably a 3.5-inch model—though, if it dates from the late '90s, there's a small chance it could be 5.25-inch. Most notebooks, meanwhile, use 2.5-inch drives. These three size classes don't match the exact physical dimensions of the drive (a 3.5-inch drive is about 4 inches wide, for instance), but you need to know the class you have to choose a matching-size enclosure.
Next, determine the interface your drive uses and look for an enclosure with a matching internal connector. If your drive is more than a couple of years old, it probably uses IDE. (Look for two rows of pins—40 total—on the back-edge data connector.) Steer clear of SCSI drives (some have similar-looking 50-pin connectors), as they're poor candidates for economical reuse. Many newer drives employ the Serial ATA (SATA) interface, which has a much smaller, flat, and pinless data connector.
For coverting an internal 3.5-inc IDE hard drive to an external unit, we used a $34.99 X-Craft 350 USB enclosure from Cooler Master.
Next, consider the enclosure's external interface—how the box will connect to your PC. Most enclosures support USB 2.0, and some add FireWire to the mix. If your drive uses an internal SATA interface, consider an enclosure with an external SATA (eSATA) interface, which promises significantly faster maximum data-transfer rates than USB or FireWire. Few PCs have eSATA ports, though. One solution is to install a SATA interface card—your desktop PC needs to have an open PCI slot, or your notebook an available CardBus PC Card slot. (Plan on spending around $45 for a PCI SATA card or $60 for a PC Card equivalent.) Or, if your desktop already has internal SATA ports on its motherboard, you can install an inexpensive cable and bracket that extend one or more ports to the back of your PC's case, effectively creating an eSATA interface. (Some eSATA enclosures include this hardware.)
Other features to look for in an enclosure include a built-in cooling fan—highly recommended, especially if you'll leave the drive running for long periods. Less-critical items include a stackable design, or decorative elements like LED lighting or transparent casing. A few models, such as the $89.99 Powmax Movie World 3.5" Aluminum Enclosure, even let your hard drive double as a media player you can connect to your television.
As for price, most hard drive enclosures range from $10 to $100, depending on size, interface, build, features, and extras.
Tip: If you just want to temporarily access an old internal drive, consider NewerTech's $24.95 USB 2.0 Universal Drive Adapter. It's a cable that connects your bare internal drive to a USB port, without the casing. Compatible with all drive sizes and both IDE and SATA interfaces, it's fine for one-time copying tasks.

Step 2: Install the drive
First, connect the data cable, then press the four-pin power cable into place. Use even, firm pressure.
If you're handy with a screwdriver, installing your drive in the enclosure should present little trouble. Before doing so, however, make sure the drive's Master/Slave/Cable Select setting is configured correctly. (This applies only to IDE drives.) Look for a small grid of pins on the rear edge. Typically, two pins will be bridged by a removable bit of plastic called a "jumper." The enclosure's instructions should explain the required settings; based on our experiences, the jumper usually should be set to Master. Check the drive's manual or its maker's Web site if you're unclear how to set it.
Once done, simply open the enclosure, connect the drive to the internal interface and power-supply plugs, and secure it using the provided screws. The enclosure's instructions should walk you through the job, but the procedure varies little from one model to another.
Tip: Don't rush. If interface pins get bent or broken, you could render your drive useless. 

Step 3: Plug it in
You can format your new drive from Windows XP's Computer Management window. Be sure that the drive you're formatting is the new external one, not another drive or partition.
It's time to connect the enclosure to your PC. First, plug in the enclosure's power supply (if it has one—many 2.5-inch drives draw power from the interface). When you switch on the enclosure's power, you should hear the hard drive spinning up. Now plug the enclosure into your PC's USB, FireWire, or eSATA port. If you're using a Mac or Windows XP/Vista system, the machine should automatically detect the drive. Windows 98 and Me systems will probably require a driver CD, which should come with the enclosure.

Step 4: Format and partition the drive Before you can start using your repurposed drive, you may need to format it. A new drive will definitely need formatting; an older, already used drive may be good to go. The only sure-fire way to find out is to connect the enclosure, see if Windows recognizes the drive, and try to access it. If Windows doesn't immediately assign it a drive letter or let you access the contents, you'll need to reformat. (You may want to do that anyway, just to start with a clean slate.)
In Windows XP, right-click My Computer, and click Manage. (Alternately, click Control Panel > Administrative Tools > Computer Management.) Under the Storage section, click Disk Management, then look to the right-hand pane for your new drive—it should be the one with the black bar next to it. Right-click that bar, and select New Partition. This will launch the New Partition wizard, which will take you through formatting and partitioning the new drive. The process is the same in Windows Vista if you choose Classic View within Control Panel; otherwise, access the utility via Control Panel > "Create and format hard disk partitions."
Once formatting begins, grab a snack. It can take an hour or more, depending on capacity.

Step 5: Use it! Once formatting's done, you'll have a plug-and-play hard drive that functions like an internal drive. Test it by copying files to and from the drive.
As you may have noticed when it was an internal drive, your external drive's available capacity might fall shy of the manufacturer's specs. (A 320GB drive, for example, often shows only around 300GB available.) That's a common scenario owing to how drive sizes are calculated. You can't do anything about it, but know that it doesn't indicate a malfunction.
Tip: If you unplug your drive while it's reading or writing, you could damage it and/or corrupt your data. To be safe, double-click Windows' Safely Remove Hardware icon (in the system tray), choose the entry that corresponds to your external drive, click Stop, and hit OK to confirm. A message notifies you when it's safe to unplug.
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