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From hard drive enclosures to mini PCs (Part 2: Preparing for conversion)

Hello again fellow readers and fixers! So last time, we talked about external hard drives, ultra small form factor (USFF) PCs and their respective use cases; and we gave some of the reasons why turning an old external hard drive enclosure into a fully-fledged compact PC makes sense as a way of reusing otherwise disused and unloved equipment and peripherals.

But before we can start the process of turning an external hard drive into a working computer, we first need a suitable candidate whose enclosure will form the chassis for our compact PC project. And I happen to have an external hard drive that would be a good fit for this build; it is a LaCie external hard drive from around 2008. It was a fairly bulky external hard drive that was released to the public with either 500 GB, 750 GB or 1 TB of storage for data backups, and relied on an external power adapter to keep itself powered on, and a USB 2.0 data cable for file transfers.

And so, the first step in readying the external hard drive for converting into a compact PC is to open it up. The good news is that there are no screws that need removing to take the enclosure apart; the bad news is that it was a bit of a pain to slide the front and back panels out of position with a small screwdriver, and I had ended up scuffing the base of the enclosure in the process…

Once the panels were free, it was just a matter of sliding off the metal cover to expose the 3.5 inch mechanical hard drive, which is a 750 GB model that is worth reusing as internal storage for another machine. The hard drive was taken out by first removing the four screws holding it in place on the sides of the enclosure, and simply pulling it out afterward.

Next to remove is the small PCB with a SATA connector facing inwards, and the power and USB type-B connectors facing out. It too was held in place with four screws, but this time on stand-offs that keep the PCB from physical contact with a metal panel covering most of the inside base of the enclosure.

With the stand-offs also removed, it was then time to remove the metal panel itself; because it was also held in place with plastic pins that were melted into the shape of pegs during manufacturing, it had to be physically torn free with enough force to break the pegs without damaging the entire base of the enclosure. This panel could be reused as part of a base for which a credit card sized computer can be mounted on top.

But why a credit card sized computer? Why not use a motherboard that allows for more powerful hardware? Well in this case, using a credit card sized single board computer together with the extra size afforded by the incorporation of the 3.5 inch hard drive gives us more options with regards to cooling, storage and other features. And our choice of single board computer, turns out to be a Pine H64 Model B. Why choose this single board computer, when a certain other board has much wider support? We’ll explain why we made that choice as we did next time. So until then, as always, stay safe, keep calm and just keep on fixing!

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Hardware Articles

From hard drive enclosures to mini PCs (Part 1: Why it’s worth the conversion)

Hello again fellow readers and fixers! If ever you needed a large amount of storage for which to back up all of your precious photos, documents and other data, in case your computer (or more specifically the internal hard drive or solid state drive) gives up the ghost, then chances are you have (or should have!) what is known as an external hard drive.

External hard drives come in various shapes and sizes, with the larger drives using 3.5″ hard drives that are commonly found in desktop PCs and digital TV recorders, while the smaller models use 2.5″ hard drives that can be found in laptops. But what if the drive, or the other components inside the external enclosure, go kaput at some point, or if you decide to replace the external drive with a new model? Well, why not try turning the enclosure into your very own fully-fledged ultra small form factor (USFF) computer?

Ultra small form factor PCs are highly compact desktop PCs that are designed to save valuable space in home or work environments, while still being useful for many of the same activities that would be done on standard-sized desktop PCs. To achieve such a small form factor, they tend to use more specialised motherboards, heatsinks and other components, and make use of 2.5″ SATA drives or M.2/NVMe SSDs and laptop RAM modules in order to save space.

Of course, there are various reasons why converting an external hard drive into a compact desktop PC makes sense. Firstly, there is a lot of fun that can be had in challenging oneself to turn a typical hard drive enclosure into a fully functional computer that no-one else has, and that makes good use of the available internal space.

Secondly, they are quite versatile in that they can be repurposed to fulfil various functions. They can make for a nice home theatre PC that can play all the blockbuster movies and shows that you know and love. They can be an awesome retro gaming machine that lets you play all kinds of arcade and home console video games. They can even be a tiny portable PC that you can carry with you and just plug into a TV or monitor while you’re away from home.

Thirdly, repurposing an old hard drive enclosure is a great way to bring back into use, an otherwise tired, disused or unloved item that would have been destined for recycling, or (worse) the landfill site. If the hard drive is still in good working order, then it can still be reused as internal storage for other equipment such as laptops, desktop PCs, digital TV recorders, and security camera systems.

So at this point, you may well be thinking, “What kind of computer will BitFIXit build?” Well next time, we will begin the whole process of converting an old hard drive enclosure into a working computer. For now, let’s just say it involves a credit card sized computer, but probably not the one you’re thinking of! Exactly what it will be – we’ll reveal next time. So in the meantime, as always, stay safe, keep calm and just keep on fixing!