Tech Tip:Build Your Own External Hard Drive

Why pay more? Do it yourself!

by Craig Anderton



We all know the importance of backing up data, but admit it - when was the last time you backed up? Hmmm, I thought so...


Maybe what you need is an external USB 2.0 or FireWire drive you can hook up to your computer, then bounce data over while you're having dinner or watching a movie. External drives are also great for portability; take one on the road to supplement your laptop, or use it to transfer files among various computers.


But why pay for an external hard drive at your local Buy More when you can get a hard drive on sale, an inexpensive USB 2.0 and/or FireWire hard drive enclosure, and put your own external drive together in minutes? It'll save you some bucks, and it's not difficult at all - just follow these steps.


The pictures and descriptions relate to a typical IDE drive (also called ATA or Parallel ATA), but using a SATA or other type of drive follows pretty much the same procedure. However, there is a difference with power and data connectors, so make sure you buy an enclosure that matches the type of drive you're using. In any event, the hard drive itself should come with instructions on installation, much of which will also apply to using it with an external drive enclosure.


There is one caution: High-tech devices, including hard drives, can be sensitive to static electricity charges. A hard drive should come packaged in some sort of conductive material, like a conductive plastic envelope or conductive foam. Keep the drive in its packaging until you're ready to actually install it, and touch something metal to discharge any electricity before touching the hard drive. If you want to play it safe, buy a anti-static wrist strap from an electronics supply store (e.g., Radio Shack catalog #276-2397) to make sure you don't build up a static charge during installation.

Ready? Let's start.




Gather your hard drive, enclosure, and a Phillips head screwdriver.



Open up the enclosure, and identify the connectors. The power connector for a typical IDE drive has four pins and is white, while the data connector is black and has lots of pins.



With IDE drives, check the drive jumper configuration printed on the outside of the drive, and set the jumper to Master (I realize that's counter-intuitive, because it would seem an external drive would be a slave. But to the USB or FireWire bus, it's a Master on that bus). The insert picture shows the jumper in the Master setting.

With SATA drives, you don't need to deal with the "master" jumper issue, but you may need to add a jumper to "downshift" to a slower transfer speed if you have an older motherboard; the hard drive will include instructions on how to do this. If you're not sure, try the higher speed setting and if the drive locks up or isn't recognized, turn the power back off and set the jumper for the lower speed.



Patch the enclosure's connectors to the matching drive connectors, then place the drive in its enclosure.



Secure the drive to the drive tray with four screws. You're finished with the construction, so let's deal with the computer end of the process next.



Now you need to hook up the drive and format it. Connect the power cable or adapter to the drive (but don't plug it into a power source yet), patch a USB or FireWire cable as appropriate between the drive and your computer, and power everything up. What happens next depends on whether you use a Mac or Windows XP machine.


With a Mac, here are the settings to choose for cross-platform compatibility.



Mac: When an alert tells you the disk isn't recognized, select "Initialize." This takes you to Disk Utilities. To have the drive to work with Mac or Windows, click on "Erase" and under Volume Format, choose "MS-DOS File System." If you're Mac-only, partition and format as you would a standard Mac disk.


Windows XP: Windows will recognize the disk; if the new hardware wizard appears, choose "Install the Software Automatically" and Windows will install a driver. However, the disk still needs to be formatted. Go Start > Settings > Control Panel. Open "Administrative Tools" and select "Computer Management." Under "Storage," click on "Disk Management." Locate the disk in the lower right, right-click on the name of the new disk, and select "Properties."


Under "Policies," you can optimize the disk for quick removal (you don't need to use the taskbar's "Safely Remove Hardware" button) or better performance. Choose "Performance;" click on OK.



Selecting a new partition with Windows XP.



Right-click on the disk again, but this time, choose "Initialize." After it's initialized, right-click in the shaded space and select "New Partition," then select "Primary Partition." I create one large partition, but do whatever works best for you.


With Windows XP you have to format with the NTFS file system, so if you want to use the drive with a Mac, you'd better make sure your Mac OS can read NTFS (if not, there are third party utilities that can do this). Close out the wizard, and formatting begins.


Now that your disk is formatted, it's ready to use...and you saved some bucks in the process!