Transparent Hard Drive Gives Peek At The Platters

Solid-state drives (SSDs) are all the rage these days, and for good reason. But that doesn’t mean the era of the spinning disk is over, as traditional mechanical hard drives still offer a compelling value for mass storage applications where access times aren’t as critical. But the components inside these “slow” mechanical drives are still moving at incredible speeds, which [The Developer Guy] has nicely illustrated with his transparent hard drive.

Now unfortunately the technology to produce a fully transparent hard drive doesn’t exist, but laser cutting a new top plate out of acrylic is certainly within the means of the average hacker. The process is pretty straightforward: cut out a piece of clear plastic in the same shape and size as the drive’s original lid, put the appropriate mounting holes in it, and find some longer screws to accommodate the increased thickness.

Because this is just for a demonstration, [The Developer Guy] doesn’t need to worry too much about dust or debris getting on the platters; but we should note that performing this kind of modification on a drive you intend on actually using would be a bad idea unless you’ve got a cleanroom to work in.

In the videos below [The Developer Guy] records the drive while it’s in use, and at one point puts a microscope on top of the plastic to get a close-up view of the read/write head twitching back and forth. We particularly liked the time-lapse of the drive being formatted, as you can see the arm smoothly moving towards the center of the drive. Unfortunately the movement of the platters themselves is very difficult to perceive given their remarkably uniform surface, but make no mistake, they’re spinning at several thousand RPM.

Have an old mechanical drive of your own that you’re not sure what to do with? We’ve seen them turned into POV clocks, impromptu rotary encoders, and even surprisingly powerful blower fans.

28 thoughts on “Transparent Hard Drive Gives Peek At The Platters

  1. BASF in the late 70’s / early 80’s made a 24Megabyte hard drive with a plexi cover in an 8″ floppy form factor. Unfortunately, the main body was out of a fiber reinforced plastic, so it both had to be shielded from adjacent drives, etc, and had a tendency to warp at higher temperatures, so the heads would go out of tracking alignment with the disk platters.

    1. I seem to remember seeing a Quantum hard drive with clear top as well. I think it was a store display only model since I can’t find any but the pictures were shown in a Macintosh magazine.

    2. Back in the early 80’s, our data center had a number IBM 3330 compatible drives that featured a clear top allowing one to see the head assembly in action. The head assembly was so massive that exceptionally active drives would actually “walk” a few inches and had to be periodically pushed back into place.

    3. I had plastic 5 mega bytes harddisk clear plastic 8 inch hard drives ,and they had changeable disc cartridges, they weigh, a lot , this was a very long Time ago like I was programming and storage programs on paper tape

      ROY MITSON

    4. Our PDP-11/44 at Uni received a 100MB winchester with a transparent lid in about 1985.
      The lecturers were so proud of it they never slid it back into the rack, it was on permanent display.

  2. Back during the early days of computer modding in the late 90s/early 00s when computer cases usually were beige or black, RGB lighting wasn’t a thing and pre-made mod components didn’t exist and everything was DIY this actually was a mod that wasn’t TOO hugely uncommon. Harddrives were in the 80-120GB range and -compared to today’s drives- still a bit more rugged and likely to survive such a modification. Lacking a cleanroom, you were adviced to do the mod in your bathroom and first let the shower run hot for half an hour, basically steam out the room to provide a less dust-ladden environment, and then perform the swap to the acrylic lid inside a large clean ziploc bag while inside your improvised clean room bathroom. I did the mod myself on an old 80GB Western Digital drive, and it survived just fine until a few years later I retired it.

    1. Wow, back then the “biggest” mod I saw was the acrylic sides, UV or blue cold cathode tubes, braided IDE cables and everything coated in fluorescent green. Oh, the memories! But honestly, I didn’t know about this mod.
      The 3.5″ one is a 250 gig (and dead, the disk spins but nothing else), the 2.5″ is about 160, so similar. I just blew the dust out, but the shower sounds like a pretty neat trick.
      I planned to make a small cleanroom, but it will end up as a painting/cleaning/maybe sandblasting cabinet. Much more useful for me.

    2. Yeah, I did it too with an 8GB drive, with leds inside, that worked fine for several years. I used it as a bootdrive in a LAN server. If it failed I didn’t really care. Thats the era when you actually went to LANs to play local games and have fun. There was competitions to mod computors, and we were quite a few who scratchbuilt computor boxes, and we went nuts back then. Dreamhack way back then was fun, and a completely other experience than it became.

    3. I remember reading guides for that mod. I never did it myself as I couldn’t afford to wreck a drive. But the ‘clean room’ method you described was pretty much the same as the ones I read about.

      Also, Western Digital did bring out a drive with a window in the mid 00’s but I recall reading later that they had problems with them failing prematurely.

    4. Brings me back, I had a old 6.4GB drive I didn’t care about and used a Dremel to modify the top cover to it and then epoxied on a plastic plate I made from a CD jewel case. I used the bathroom as a makeshift clean room as well. Had the drive in the case so when you looked in the side window you could see the drive. Funny thing was I got more comments on the custom made IDE cable then the drive.
      RGB was around then but it was too girly back then. I had a painted my case fire engine red then used a black crackle paint over it. I had also painted the gray framing of the case with some red automotive paint called Metal Cast. Had some red LEDs inside as well.

      The drive lasted quite a while, I mostly used it as SWAP space for Linux. Sadly it died from when the house got hit with lighting a couple of years later.

  3. Anyway, cool project. But I wouldn’t use it on everyday use.

    I wonder how reliable the data will be, since the system is no longer inside a fully electrically shielded surrounding (the Faraday cage is missing a wall). How would it perform if you hold your cell phone next to it during a call? Interesting experiment would be with metal and with plexiglass cover. Could be bad either way, never tried… hmmmm…

    I also wonder how the plexiglass would be dealing with the constant stream of air rubbing against it. It will most likely build up a static charge, but how high can it get and if high enough where does it go? But a thin coat of some transparent conductive spray especially for ESD related purposes might solve that issue easily.

    1. Not very reliable. Besides the dust issue, modern drives also operate in a partial vacuum to reduce friction (and static) on the moving parts. That means they’ll heat up higher and faster without that vacuum. Some of the newer ones are filled with helium, supposedly to increase reliability, but I don’t think real world use backs that up last I took a close look.

      1. While I’ve heard of companies looking into HDD’s with a partial vacuum (like L2 Drive) I don’t believe any production HDD uses a partial vacuum. They’re all nominal pressure (and usually vented as jpa says) and rely on the air film (or helium film) to “float” the head above the platter. A partial vacuum requires a new mechanism to keep the head precisely ever-so-close-to-but-not-touching the platter. A bigger problem with a vacuum is maintaining it in a cost-effective way in a mass-produced, competitively-priced HDD.

        Using helium supposedly lowers the head height (increasing data density), lowers aerodynamic friction and turbulence (thus lowering heat and power), and reduces damage to protective coatings. I don’t know if benefits outweigh the additional cost, though.

  4. Hard drives (at least the ones from the 80’s) were pretty tough. I remember the Seagate exhibit at Comdex in the late 80’s where the had dozens of hard drives without covers running on live computers of various types. They even had a few running in aquariums. (no fish though.) The engineer I spoke with told me that if they survived spin-up they usually lasted for the entire show. (Of course there were also the Mini-Scribes from the mid 80’s that could not survive transport from Asia to the U.S.)

    1. I worked on those Seagate drives in the late 90s and we had “Comdex mode” implemented in the code. That was a special self-seek mode that cycled through periods of random, sequential, and butterfly seeks. Every year they would prepare some clear cover drives and we would prepare some code for the dog and pony show so they could show something on the latest contemporary drives for that year.

      I guess the seeks were a way to make the HDD visually interesting. Otherwise watching one at work is pretty boring.

  5. A common sight at your local computer hardware shop from about the late ’80s to mid ’00s was a plexiglass display case with a HDD inside rigged to randomly seek all day. Surely they weren’t useful for actual storage, but they looked cool.

  6. When I was an IT professor of a small private college, I had my hardware class put together a transparent computer (hdd included), complete with a powerpoint presentation explaining what each component was and what it did. Threw the whole thing into the department display case for a few months.

  7. In the early 90’s (91 or 92) I had a 40mb (I think it was a Seagate st251) 40MB drive that was unique because the top cover was completely flat. That meant that you could remove the top and put plastic wrap over it and it wouldn’t touch any components. Which is exactly what I did. No clean room, didn’t know the hot show bathroom trick- just did it quick! I was 15 or so at the time. I later put the cover back on and sold the drive in a used computer. Mind you I tested the heck out of it and made sure it survived a low level format! Another fellow has done something similar with what I’m pretty sure is the same type of drive I used.

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