I have two large shoe boxes of old hard drives.

They range in size from tens of megabytes to tens of gigabytes.

I have a somewhat modern desktop PC that has a single PATA controller (alongside a SATA controller). It's probably ATA-133 or something along those lines.

Can I expect even my oldest "IDE" drives (tens of megabytes!) to be addressable by the modern controller? Or shall I have to go find a 386 in a yard sale?

I have both 40-pin/40-conductor and 40-pin/80-conductor ribbon cables available.

  • 1
    Please be prepared for data corruption over time; be armed with a copy of ddrescue and run it on the disks as soon as possible, preferably writing to a large, fast, modern disk.
    – wizzwizz4
    Apr 12, 2018 at 15:15
  • 1
    Yep, ddrescue and I are old friends. :)
    – daveloyall
    Apr 12, 2018 at 15:15

1 Answer 1


The controller shouldn’t cause problems, because the interface is largely backwards-compatible — so unless you have a drive which doesn’t quite adhere to the “spec”, it should be able to talk to the controller. (There wasn’t really a spec for the first IDE drives, so take that with a pinch of salt...)

What will cause problems in anything vaguely recent (Pentium 4 or later), when trying to connect old drives, is that your system’s BIOS will probably expect to retrieve information about the drive from the drive itself. Drives older than ~1994 don’t support this, and need to be configured manually in the BIOS (this is where drive type 47 and such like comes in, along with the information written on the drive itself). I know for example that my P4P800 system doesn’t even boot if an old IDE drive is attached to it, and its BIOS setup doesn’t support any manual configuration of drive characteristics.

You shouldn’t need to go as far back as a 386 to be able to read from the drives though; a Pentium, Pentium Pro or even Pentium II should be old enough to have the appropriate support in the BIOS. That way you can run a recent-ish Linux distribution (and avoid having to use an insanely slow system...).

  • "There wasn’t really a spec for the first IDE drives, so take that with a pinch of salt.." And even after the various versions of ATA specs came out, some manufacturers didn't adhere to them exactly. Some found that following the specs on the impedance and termination on the interface did not do that well. Western Digital's "only drive on channel" jumper setting may have been related to this. Apr 12, 2018 at 18:28
  • Oh gosh, you are correct. I wonder how many of these drives will require correctly specified C/H/S information!
    – daveloyall
    Apr 12, 2018 at 19:22
  • Does any USB-->PATA controller support old hard drives that require manual configuration?
    – daveloyall
    Apr 12, 2018 at 21:03
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    That’s a good question, I doubt it somehow — I don’t see how a USB controller could support old hard drives like that (at least, not without manual configuration). Apr 12, 2018 at 21:06
  • StarTech.com offers USB 2.0 and USB 3.0 versions of a ATA/SATA adapter dongle. Looks to be a nice product, but the FAQ explicitly states that the device doesn't support older hard drives ("generally less than one GB"). They say the chipset in the device only supports ATA-4 and up.
    – daveloyall
    Apr 12, 2018 at 22:02

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