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Understanding IDE hard drives

Although IDE hard drives are no longer still being used, they are highly sought by collectors and enthusiasts.

open hard drive on table
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Hard drives using the IDE interface were popular many years ago, and they remain in use today.

This interface standard is the precursor to SATA, and many modern hard drives still support both standards for backward compatibility reasons.

It’s not always clear which of these two technologies a drive supports, but understanding the difference can help you select an appropriate drive or adapter card when building or upgrading your system.

The History of IDE Drives

In 1981, IBM released the IBM Personal Computer, which included a 5.25″ hard drive for storage. However, because of its high rotational speeds and slow data transmission rates, it had several difficulties.

For example, the ST-412 wasn’t introduced until 1983 and only had an access time of 85 milliseconds. While this was fairly fast compared to the standard 8″ floppy drive, which had about a 90 second access time, it still wasn’t very impressive by today’s standards.

To address these issues, Western Digital announced the Enhanced Disk Drive (EDD) in 1983. Instead of using an ST-412 drive as the base unit, an EDD was simply an interface card that could be placed into a standard PC.

The first version of this interface allowed single-sided 5MB ST-412 drives, and it used a direct memory access (DMA) controller to transfer data much faster than earlier interfaces. This made the hard disk drive much more useful in a PC environment, and it quickly became the standard.

Improvements continued to be made on this interface throughout the 1980s. The EDD was enhanced to use double-sided ST-506 drives with 10MB storage capacity in 1984, and Western Digital released the “Winchester” version of the hard drive in 1986.

These drives became widely used in servers and were still the prominent storage solution throughout the 1990s.

The IDE Drive Today

While you can find both PATA and SATA ports on most modern motherboards, virtually all hard drives now use the SATA interface. Therefore, if your motherboard only includes PATA or SATA ports, you will need to replace the IDE controller card with a SATA equivalent.

For example, if your motherboard has an old-style IDE port but no SATA connectors, you might consider purchasing a new adapter for use with your hard drive.

In most cases, it’s important to get SATA drives that older interface standards can also use. If your motherboard only supports PATA interfaces, buying a drive that only has a SATA connector will not work in your system.

Newer systems should make sure to get hard drives with both types of connectors to ensure maximum compatibility and usability between all devices in the PC.

How to Tell if a Hard Drive Is IDE or SATA

The ST-412 will be the most common IDE drive, having a capacity of 5MBs. However, if you happen to see one, consider yourself lucky since they are quite rare.

“You’ll find it hard to obtain IDE or MFM drives produced by any manufacturer if you’re attempting to build a vintage PC,” Jamie of Tekeurope, a UK PC components, and supplies specialist, explains. “We supply them when we find them, but classic PC lovers snap them up quickly.”

IDE Drive Installation

To install and configure an IDE hard drive, just turn it on and plug it into your computer through the HDD-to-Molex adaptor.

You should, however, check to see if any extra programs or drivers are necessary for it to function correctly. For example, Maxtor IDE drives require specific drivers supplied on the installation disk.

It’s also conceivable that you’ll have to change your BIOS settings to make them work as primary storage media.

This implies that you’ll need to set up these devices in the BIOS before turning on your computer. You’ll receive the dreaded ‘Bootmgr is Missing’ notice if you mix them up.

Final thoughts

Although IDE hard drives are no longer still being used, they are highly sought by collectors and enthusiasts. Despite their apparent inferiority to current SATA drives, they are an important component in constructing a vintage PC.

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