Retro Desktop: PCI to SATA Card vs. IDE to SATA Adapter

Ever have one of those times when you’re telling a friend about something you’re doing which you are super pleased with and they suck the wind out of your sails by saying something like, “Really? You should have done this!”? Well, that happened to me recently and I thought I would share so you could learn from my… experience! 🙂

Setting
I have a 233MHz Pentium MMX based Compaq Deskpro 4000 that I use for DOS and Windows 98, primarily to relive my music tracking days using Impulse Tracker.

Problem
I don’t want to listen to the sound of the hard drive all the time. I always wanted a silent computer, but it’s especially important to me for music production.

Solution 1: Compact Flash Card to IDE Adapter
I have one of these and they do work well, however they do not hold up well when there is a significant amount of disk writing activity, as they do not have any wear leveling software and other related issues. As such, I have experienced file corruption, read errors, and system freezes in DOS, Windows 98, and Linux when using an CF card as a native IDE hard drive. It works very well for DOS, almost flawlessly, so will likely be fine for people who aren’t writing many large files.

Solution 2: Solid State Drive
A modern serial ATA (SATA) solid state drive, especially the small and cheap ones, are ideal for use with retro desktop computers apart from one minor detail: Old desktops pre-date the SATA standard, so you won’t find any SATA ports on computers older than the Pentium 4. But, I happened have an extra 30GB OCZ Onyz SSD kicking around, which served as my Linux boot drive until I ungraded to a 120GB drive a few years ago, so I was keen on putting it to use in my Deskpro!

With this in mind, I needed to look for a solution to make a SATA SSD compatible with my system. In the past I have used a PCI card to add IDE ports to a computer that didn’t have an IDE ports, so my first thought was to see if I could find an inexpensive PCI SATA card. Sure enough, I found just such a PCI card on ebay from a seller nearby in Ontario and I ordered one!

The biggest problem one can have with using storage devices attached to PCI cards is that the BIOS on some motherboards simply will not boot from them. Not thinking to use my dusty old Promise Ultra 133 TX2 IDE controller card to test the Deskpro’s ability to boot from PCI card attached storage, I waited for the PCI SATA controller card to arrive in the mail before I found out if it would work as I had hoped.

VIA VT6421A based controller card added to the system!

The Deskpro 4000 was not able to boot from a SATA hard drive or SSD attached to the controller card. However, when testing with Windows 98 installed on the IDE hard drive attached to the motherboard, the PCI controller card drivers allowed the attached storage to be utilized by the system. Unfortunately I was not able to find any DOS drivers for the card so it can’t be used by Impulse Tracker, as I need to use that in real DOS.

Conclusion
To make the most out of the situation, I decided to compromise and use a larger 1GB CF card to boot Windows 98 (as apposed to the 256MB CF card I was using for DOS – both cards we previously used in our camera), so that I could use the system in silence and still make use of the 30GB SATA SSD. It just meant that I would have to run Impulse Tracker from the CF card and copy over any files I want to use at that time from the SSD to the CF card…. blah THIS SUCKS!

And that’s where my friend Chris came in and said (via Messenger from other side of the continent), why don’t you use one of these?

Why didn’t I think of that!!!??? 🙂

Not only are those IDE to SATA adapters 1/4 the price I paid for the PCI SATA controller card, they are also invisible to the motherboard and thus will allow a SATA SSD to boot like any other drive. Sigh…

I have yet to purchase and test an IDE to SATA adapter in my machine, but I would imagine it would work just fine. It would be nice to order one from someone in North America, as shipping from China/Hong Kong takes like five-ever (still waiting for 5 head phone plugs I ordered in April for $2), but shipping and lack of personal testing aside, I absolutely recommend going the route of using a cheap 4/8/16/32 GB SATA SSD with your IDE era retro desktop via one of these adapters. SSDs are quiet, fast, reliable, and they hardly use any electricity at all, making them superior to old IDE hard drives in every way.

If you’re into the retro sound of a traditional hard drive, that’s great, you can carry on using one. If not, get yourself a SATA SSD and an IDE to SATA adapter – I know I will at some point!

Here are some pictures of my progress and setup.


Ps. If you’re feeling particularly creative you could fashion a 3.5″ drive bay for your 2.5″ SATA drive that looks similar to a floppy drive, saving you the need to open the case should you wish to remove the drive. You can probably buy hot swapable bays like this, but I am not sure they would work with the IDE adapter and I would not risk using the hot swap feature itself.