Bugs & Fixes: A surprise inside a portable drive

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Recently, someone I know called me with a serious problem with his Western Digital My Passport portable external drive. The drive, which was only a month old and had worked perfectly until the fateful day, failed to show up anywhere in any Mac software. It did not mount in the Finder. It did not show up in Disk Utility or other third-party repair utilities. As far as the Mac was concerned, the drive did not exist. This meant there was no way to repair the drive or otherwise attempt to recover data.

As some data on the drive had not been backed up (isn’t this always the case?), we tried to brainstorm a solution. Given the drive’s failure to appear in any Mac software, I speculated that the drive’s contents might in fact be 100-percent intact. The root cause of the symptom, according to my theory, was a failure of the drive’s USB port.

Assuming I was correct, I came up with what seemed to be a viable solution: Open up the unit’s plastic case and remove the connection from the SATA port on the drive to the USB port on the case. Next, connect the drive’s SATA port to a Newer Technology USB Universal Drive Adapter. This would bypass the drive case’s supposedly faulty USB hardware. We could then connect the drive to a Mac and (at last!) access the drive’s contents.

It took some time (and a phone call to Western Digital) to find out how to open the case, but we eventually succeeded. Unfortunately, this is where the road ended. We were never able to give the Drive Adapter a try. Why? Because there was no SATA interface to be found. What happened to it? Western Digital had eliminated the SATA interface from these latest Passport drives. Instead, the USB port is directly soldered to the drive itself, a proprietary change designed to conserve space inside the case.

As an aside, this change also means that you cannot remove the drive and use it to upgrade the drive in a laptop computer, as had reportedly been done with older WD Passport drives.

Given that most people will never confront this problem, I don’t consider the SATA limitation to be a deal-breaker. Still, it’s something to consider if you are in the market for a new portable drive.

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