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Better Computing Through Velcro: Make Your Laptop A Dock For External HDD's

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Picture of Better Computing Through Velcro: Make Your Laptop A Dock For External HDD's
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THE PROBLEM:

There's rarely a safe and convenient place to put a portable external hard drive when using a laptop in a mobile, non-desk situation.

Example:  You're working on your laptop and want to back up some files or work on some media that you have stored on an external drive.  You pull it out of your bag and look around.  If you're on a plane or train, at a coffee shop with a teensy-tiny bistro table, or lounging outside on a patio, you'll quickly realize there's no convenient place to put the external drive and be assured that while in operation it will be safe from liquid spills, getting whacked, or falling off of your lap or miniature workspace.

THE SOLUTION:

Adhesive-backed velcro strips.

THE CATCH?

A Geek Factor of  6/10  -  This isn't for the fashion-conscious or those wishing to keep their laptop un-customized.

WHAT YOU NEED TO DO THIS:

# 15 minutes

#  Velco or other brand hook-and-loop adhesive-backed fastener strips.  (comes in rolls or pre-cut lengths)

#  Paper towel or clean cloth.

# Scissors (with which to cut the velcro to size)

# Pencil  (to mark and measure the velcro)

#  Isopropyl Rubbing Alcohol or other grease-removing, residue-free cleaning agent.

#  Portable External Hard Drive  (or WiFi / wireless dongle, CD-Rom, tethered smartphone, etc)

#  Laptop

New Material Cost:  Under $10

 
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Step 1: Velcro Engineering (Or, Is My Hard Drive Safe?)

Picture of Velcro Engineering (Or, Is My Hard Drive Safe?)
The first and most immediate concern:  is velcro strong and reliable enough to hold an external drive and weather normal movement from the laptop without the risk of it falling off?

Short Answer:  Yes.

The Long Answer:  Hook-and-loop products are rated by 3 important characteristics:  Pull-apart strength, shear strength, and cycle-life.  The products also come in two main grades:  consumer-grade and "industrial strength" or "mil-spec" (i.e. military spec, or other governing-body specified and regulated).

Pull-apart strength measures how much force per unit area of velcro it takes to separate two pieces straight apart from each other.  This is usually anywhere from 0.8 - 2 psi for both versions.

Shear strength relates to how much it takes to "slide" the opposing velcro pieces apart.  It typically varies from 6 - 10 psi for most.

Cycle-life determines how many times the pull-apart / stick-back-together operation can be performed before the holding strength of the velcro degrades to 50% of its initial value.

This is where there is the biggest distinction between the two types.  Consumer-grade velcro that can be purchased from any number of general hardware and goods retailers usually has a cycle-life of a few hundred.  Mil-spec has a cycle-life ranging into the several thousands.

Some quick numbers:    

Discussed further in Steps 3 and 6, I chose to have two strips of velco on the hard-drive intersect perpendicularly with two strips on the laptop.

Thus, there are 4 points of contact between the hard-drive body and laptop, and given 5/8" wide velcro strips, the total area of velcro contact is 1.56 in^2.   Taking the lowest strength values (0.8 psi pull-apart, and 6 psi shear), this amount of velcro is therefore capable of withstanding 1.25 lbs of pull-apart force, and 9.3 lbs in the vertical, shear direction.

Most 2.5" portable external hard drives weight about 0.25 lb.  This means that in the pull-apart direction, the HDD could withstand 5 G's of acceleration before pulling off, and up to 37 G's before shearing off in the vertical direction.

Likely, for your HDD and laptop to experience those accelerations, it would only occur when they slammed on the floor after having been dropped from a height of several feet.  Normal use and fidgeting shouldn't be nearly enough to separate them.

The Usual Disclaimer:

Use your common sense when approaching this project.  I've calculated and real-world tested using the above specs; they're solid.  If in your own application of this 'ible you deviate significantly from the given advice by using too little velcro or attempt to attach an abnormally heavy hard-drive or peripheral, you are responsible for what may come of it.

Step 2: Is Your Laptop Screen Up To The Task?

Picture of Is Your Laptop Screen Up To The Task?
HINGE STIFFNESS:  Laptops come in all range of sizes and designs.   One thing that tends to differ between them all is how stiff the screen is to rotate open, closed, and adjust between positions

Testing is the easiest way to determine if your particular laptop screen will support the weight of the HDD without any possibility of it wanting to rotate open or close by itself.

If as is, your monitor takes a somewhat fair amount of pressure to swivel about its hinges, you should be fine, particularly if it has no problems with staying open at a 45-degree angle.  If there are any doubts, get out some duct-tape or packing tape and firmly attach the drive to the back of your monitor and see if the monitor stays in position.  If the monitor still requires a bit of push or pull in order to swivel it about its hinges, you should be OK.

TEMPERATURE:  Feel the back of your monitor after it's been in normal use to see how warm it gets in general.  If there are any particular hot spots, make note of them and do your best to avoid placing the velcro such that the HDD attaches directly over the area.  The reason being twofold:  1) to prevent over-warming of either the HDD or the monitor 2)  to prevent any potential heat-softening of the adhesive-backing of the velcro.

Step 3: Buying Velcro (TM) And Other Hook And Loop Fasteners

Picture of Buying Velcro (TM) And Other Hook And Loop Fasteners
Where?
In the US, the easiest place to find consumer-grade, "sticky-back" velcro is at hardware stores such as Home Depot, Lowe's, Ace Hardware, etc.  Office stores like Staples, Office Depot and Office Max will carry it too, as will general goods stores that also service towards crafts and hardware, such as Walmart, Target, etc.  Craft-specific stores such as Michael's and Jo-Ann's should also sell it as well.

Internationally....I have no idea, though similar types of stores to those described above should be in most places.  At the very worst, there are numerous online stores that sell velcro.

EDIT:  @doctoral pointed out that velcro straps and squares can also be found at discount / dollar stores as well.

What grade to get?  
If you don't plan on attaching/removing a hard-drive too often, the regular consumer grade you can find in the above retail stores should last for a while.  However, if you anticipate making use of it at least once every day or two, you'll easily exceed the typical 200 cycle lifetime of consumer grade velcro within a year.  In this case, you could either remove and reapply fresh regular velcro once the first application gets worn, or at the start you can get high cycle-life velcro.  The latter is sometimes sold in brick-and-mortar stores as "industrial-strength" velcro, while there are also a number of online retailers who sell it and can be found via a quick Google search.  For my own use I bought a 5' roll of 5/8" velcro (with a cycle life of 5,000) for about $6 at mcmaster.com

Sizing

5/8" wide strips are a safe bet, and the size that I calculated for and am currently using.  With this size, two strips are used on the drive itself and are placed to attach perpendicularly (rather than in parallel) with two strips on the monitor when attaching (see illustration in Step 6).  You could certainly go with larger strips, and even use just one large 2" strip instead of the two smaller ones, though this may depend on whether or not you have concerns of the hard-drive getting too warm from lack of air circulation.

1/2" wide strips are about the smallest I'd recommend, and in that case would be safest in placing the velcro strips such that they face in parallel with each other so as to gain more surface contact area.

Step 4: Prepping The Surfaces

Picture of Prepping The Surfaces
The biggest enemies of adhesives are dust, dirt. and oil/grease.

To make sure that the adhesive back of the velcro strips adhere properly, use rubbing alcohol or any other grease-removing residue-free cleaning agent to wipe off both the back of the laptop screen and the bottom of the HDD where you'll be placing the velcro strips.

Step 5: Cutting And Attaching Velcro To The Hard Drive

Picture of Cutting And Attaching Velcro To The Hard Drive
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First things first:  Does it matter which surface you use the hook or loop side of the velcro on?

Yes, I think so, reason being:  the hook side of velcro loves to grab at stuff (as it should).  If you're likely going to be pulling your laptop in and out of a bag frequently in day-to-day use, it will be better off if it doesn't have a few strips of grabby hooks attempting to snag the interior of the bag.  Plus, the hooks aren't comfortable against skin, so if you ever carry your laptop like a book this will be annoying.  

Therefore, use the hook side of the velcro on the hard drive, and the soft hoop side on the laptop itself.


STEPS:

*  Measure out and cut an appropriate length of hook-sided velcro.

*  Peel off the very end, and attach to the start point on the HDD

* Press down with your finger and continue to work down, while peeling the rest of the velcro backing

*  Once all peeled and pressed, use a hard-pointed object such as a pen top to rub/roll back and forth and make sure the adhesive is firmly pressed without any air bubbles.

* Repeat for second strip.

Step 6: Attaching Velcro To The Back Of The Laptop Screen

Picture of Attaching Velcro To The Back Of The Laptop Screen
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Velcro Patterning:  I chose to go with two perpendicular strips for ease of use and flexibility, though a parallel pattern could be used for extra strength if desired.  As it is, the perpendicular pattern is ample for keeping the drive attached.

Drive Placement:  Ideally, you'll want to orient the drive so it is as low as possible down the back of the monitor, centered over the hinge.  This limits the relative movement of the drive itself when adjusting screen angle or shifting the laptop.  Also, placing the drive so that it is too high or far from the hinge may lead to unnecessary stress upon the plastic casing of the monitor and the hinge over the long term due to the action required to detach the velcro.  

Don't forget to check where it will be in relation to your nearest USB ports and make sure your cable will reach.

STEPS:

*  Check with the drive where you'll want it to be located on the screen back

* Mark with a pencil the end points of where the velcro strips will go

* Be sure to use the loop side of the velcro.

* As in step 5: Cutting And Attaching velcro to the HDD - peel off a bit of backing, press, unroll, and continue till done.  This time, you'll probably not need to go over with a hard object, the hoop side velcro will press down pretty firmly with just your fingers.

Step 7: Done! Some Final Notes

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Attach your HDD and plug it in!


Some notes about using:

Don't adjust the viewing angle of your laptop screen quickly or abruptly when the HDD is reading or writing from the drive.  The velcro will act as a shock absorber to help dampen transmission of high frequency vibrations, but it has limits and extremely sharp movements could otherwise possibly lead to drive malfunction.  

It *is* OK to reposition the screen in a normal, smooth manner when the HDD is not actively processing data.  No additional caution is needed above and beyond that of usual when moving and positioning the laptop itself due to it's inbuilt HDD.

If you ever want to remove the velcro:

I've not done it myself personally, in theory you should only need to dowse the strips with a solvent of some sort like rubbing alcohol, nail polish remover, acetone, paint thinner, etc. It should work to loosen the adhesive enough to remove the strips, and then the remaining residue.
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ahead5 years ago
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That is funny, you could use it as a mobile "corkboard" too :)
thread_soul (author)  ahead5 years ago
 Nice!  The indoor/outdoor carpet was a very clever idea.  So you've not had any problems with the monitor getting too hot?  That's great if so, very functional for anyone who needs additional peripherals to be readily accessible.
No.
The only heat issue is from the usb devices: EHD, data card and usb hub. Not the monitor.
The hook-side skin adhesive underneath the devices may slightly pull-away when hot.  
Especially if the device surface area is small and "always-on". 

Thanks.
alpha10405 years ago
i hate to point this out and while it is a very good idea in theory and would work really well for a solid object like a desk this is a very bad idea in reality. Behind the lcd screen there is a metal sheet that the hinges are attached to. By putting pressure on the screen you will wear through the back plate a LOT faster. I do computer repair work as well as building systems for a living and iv seem this many times.
thread_soul (author)  alpha10405 years ago
Your feedback is certainly appreciated!  Though in this specific circumstance, I'm sorry, I feel I have to disagree with your conclusion.

To be frank, I've worked on and around laptops for more than 12 years.  I've never once encountered an issue related to complete wear-through of the grounding foil.  Busted hinges?  Plenty of them, though as an aside even that's become much less frequent these days.

Most laptops that I've seen the innards of within the past half-dozen years have either abandoned the "full sheet" grounding foil in lieu of smaller strips of edging foil, or have introduced foam pad points to inhibit the rubbing that you suggest.  These contemporary design features would alone be enough to prevent any velcro-related action from wearing through the foil.

Beyond that, however, prior to commenting you might not have had the chance to read that in step 6 of the instructable I recommend that the HDD is best placed close to the hinge and edge, thereby distributing any related forces directly to the case edging - and thus the screen mounting brackets rather than the back of the lcd panel.  My own tests on a couple of different laptops indicate that this essentially eliminates any flexing of the back panel casing, in contrast to if the HDD was placed in the weak center.  This conclusion, combined with the aforementioned design factors, makes it difficult for me to find it realistic that increased foil wear will result from this hack.  Many thanks for taking the time to comment!
I completely agree with your polite and well-thought-out rebuttal to Alpha1040's concern.   Let's be realistic:  Laptops don't live "forever"... not even close.

I too refurbish PCs and laptops. I run into broken hinges, coffee spilled into keyboards, cold solder joints, crashed hard drives, and dropped/broken laptop screens wayyy more often than the worn-thru backplanes Alpha1040 is warning us about... It may have been a risk in the past, but not in 2010.

What I *have* seen are damaged laptop USB ports, when a book (or some other heavy object) fell over onto a "thumb drive"/flash memory sticking straight out from the edge of the laptop. 

Instead of plugging USB "stick" peripherals directly into the laptop, I recommend users connect USB wireless peripherals via a very short (6") right-angle USB extension cable.  This substantially reduces the risk of damage to the laptop's USB port, and attaching the USB device to the back of the screen using your Velcro solution makes the installation nearly damage-proof.  

The question is:  Why haven't manufacturer's figured this out yet?   

Thanks for your great Instructable!

inness RLDMICRO5 years ago
That, my friend (and with such a brilliantly simple fix offered as a throwaway, I feel comfortable in calling you my friend), is a terrific idea, and removes the worry and anxiety I feel whenever I move my laptop with the wireless mouse drive attached. One does wonder why the manufacturers haven't thought of this. Were I a cynical man I would suspect either intentional disregard for the end user; or even more cynically, an intentional lack of implementation based on the 'disposable' theory of laptops so many manufacturers have seemingly promoted. Again, great idea!
RLDMICRO inness5 years ago
Ha!  I'm full of "throwaways".  You're not the first person to comment on it, but it's probably always gonna be that way.  The Inventing, Prototyping, Marketing required to make such thoughts anything more than throwaways is very unpleasant !  ... It takes all the "fun" out of the creative process.

It's actually gracious comments like yours that make it all worth while.  Thanks!

And, for what it's worth, I'm a big "Conspiracy" fan (even when the "conspiracy" can be traced directly to the level of the Human Genome...)

Point: => I think the laptop/USB designers just don't give a sh*t...  their firms are actually driven (and perhaps as it oughta be) by the Marketing Suits.
Recommend you start scoping out your next laptop... the mechanical weakness of the USB peripherals probably wont be fixed in my lifetime.
                                                                                                                   ;~)

my laptop has two USB ports on the back. it just so happens that they are right under were i put the external hard drive. so a book would hit the hard drive first.
thread_soul (author)  RLDMICRO5 years ago
 Thanks!  That right-angle USB extension cord is a clever idea, it'd be perfect for more persistent dongles like wifi, mouse, or even for getting better reception with a 3G adapter like @zzzomb mentioned.  It think I just may have to try that out.

Also, it just made me realize this could be a useful solution for anyone tethering their smart phone as a modem.  That way, it wouldn't be so inconvenient to tether through USB, and battery life can be spared by not having to connect via bluetooth in order to be able place the phone somewhere convenient as well as with good reception.
I've always wondered the same thing. It takes a 3rd grade handle on physics, simple machines, and levers to see that anything sufficiently long sticking into a receptacle puts tremendous torque on both internal and external components.

Unfortunately, even the right angle replacements are a little wide to provide sufficient safety. What they need is a plug roughly the size of Bluetooth adapter 'nubs' that has an immediate right-angle turn out of which the cable exits.
Funny how the track of the discussion so easily departs from strict "electronics" and becomes "Industrial Design".   I always find that "human", practical side of these projects wayyy more interesting than the guts.

As for your comment re "3rd Grade Handle on Physics"....  I think you seriously undervalue that "handle" when you describe it so casually:
Sadly, I suspect that "handle" can't really be "taught".

As proof, I'll bet you were taking apart devices at a young age... playing at "Physics" long before you actually "learned" it in Physics 101. 

Either you've "got" it, or you don't, like a musician with Perfect Pitch.

That's just my 2 cents...
m4s4 years ago
very neat concept indeed
thank you for sharing the details

www.sleektablets.com
junits155 years ago

This is a neat concept, however the drives can be less stable while mounted to the screen, now, I do understand that you calculated that this would be safe.  However mounting the drives like that could shorten their life cycle.  I myself use an SSD in my laptop, because I'm a little parinoid and, more importantly, because I got it for free.  Anywho this is still a good idea.

***

thread_soul (author)  junits155 years ago
Thanks for your feedback!  If you wish, could you elaborate upon your concerns?

"the drives can be less stable while mounted to the screen."

"However, mounting the drives like that could shorten their life cycle."

I ask because short of having some specific physics/specs to respond to, I can only reply that there seems to be a general amount of misapprehension in computing culture at large regarding the ruggedness of modern mobile HDD  - probably a perception carryover from failed HDD of yore that had much older, less robust actuator and head-parking designs.

Current 2.5" HDD are spec'd to operate both in vertical and horizontal orientations and the vast majority of them have shock and vibration ratings that are pretty difficult to exceed in any general situation, including any accelerations one might encounter in this configuration from adjusting the laptop screen.  In many instances dropping them isn't even enough to cause failure, but I wouldn't recommend testing that  :)

Most of the safety recommendations I proffer in this Instructable are taking a conservative stance in most respects, and in truth one could probably ignore them and still be relatively risk-free, but I'd prefer that things have an additional built-in factor of safety. Of course, it in the end it will always come down to one's own comfort level as far as choosing whether to do this project or not, but I can assure that at least according to the numbers and physics involved there's not any more risk here (and quite possibly, there's less) in comparison to traditional use as an external HDD or within a laptop.  Many thanks for commenting!
I tested it. it still works

I was referring to older HDDs, I also wasnt aware that newer mobile HDDs were as robust.  by my first statement i meant, a weaker scrren might not be able to support the extra weight.  and the seccond statement...that was answered by my first sentence.

crice65 years ago
or just go to www.dropbox.com and skip the EHD
thread_soul (author)  crice65 years ago
cloud-based backup is extremely limited in application, EHDs aren't.
MNSnowbird5 years ago

Great Idea.

To keep the hooks on the External Hard Drive from collecting lint and other foreign material when not in use cut 2 additional strips of loop material and put them on the E.H.D.
thread_soul (author)  MNSnowbird5 years ago
Good suggestion!
wout smeets5 years ago
 use an  usb splitter
HAL 90005 years ago
 I did this with my MSI Wind as soon as I got an external drive, its so handy. I didnt do the double parallel velcro strips, just one strip on the laptop and one on the HDD. It's really only big enough for the one HDD, maybe when i get a bigger surface I'll try this out. 
pravardhan5 years ago
If you know what is G-Force, then you would not have done this.

If the Hard Disk (Moving Parts type not SSD) is dropped with the Gravity, then the Head Pre-Amplifier IC will not work and the HDD will do a clicking noise and the HDD will not even detect.

RISK: DO NOT ATTEMPT TO DO THIS INSTRUCTABLE.
I have seen Extenal drives with shock ratings and don't think you've done your research too well.
I just bought a drive and enclosure for newEgg and Both have shock ratings.
I bought the drive to clone my laptop and upgrade it. I will take my old one and try this.
As for dollar store hook and loop, why not splurge a little and buy the 3M stuff used for sticking you pass to the windshield. I do not think it will let go under any circumstance.
mhkabir Phoghat5 years ago
 Me too. I got a Seagate  Barracuda and spilled coffee on it! Sh*t and dropped it from my lap. Got to say the ruggedness of the barracuda is huge.
Phoghat mhkabir5 years ago
I have  seagate also because I did my research
thread_soul (author)  pravardhan5 years ago
Thank you for the comment, perhaps there is a language misunderstanding here?

In Step One I calculated the strength of the velcro.  It is sufficient to hold the HDD up to 5 G-Forces.  There is very little risk in completing this project.  Instead, it may actually help people to prevent dropping their HDD.
tjfoth5 years ago
I've attached a external hard drive to my Macbook Pro as well.  One small difference is that I have a plastic cover from Speck on my Mac which I've attached the Velcro and hard drive to. Using the Speck cover spreads the force of attaching and removing the drive over the plastic cover. In addition, as the author noted, my Velcro is near the edge and near the hinge.

The reason I do this to the Macbook Pro in question is because this is my work computer.  When I want it to be "my" computer, I attach the external hard drive and boot from that.  I have a script that unmounts the internal hard drive... therefore keeping my work environment separate from my home environment.

I attach and remove the hard drive EVERY day and have done so for over two years with no problems.
doctoral5 years ago
Just so you guys know. I live in los angeles and the 99 cents store has velcro straps, dots, squares etc.
thread_soul (author)  doctoral5 years ago
 I didn't think about checking there, great suggestion!
debie5 years ago
 I did the same thing.I got tired of having my external hard drive fall on the floor every time I moved my laptop.  I have a plastic case for my mac, so I attached the velcro to that. It makes it so much easier to get around!
thread_soul (author)  debie5 years ago
 Ouch, I hope your drive survived those falls!  Not had it happen to me, but the fear was enough to make it an irritation and spurred me to sort out something to do about it.
PatientZero5 years ago
A variation of the desk tidy solution:

I once used two lengths (1.20m ea) of the soft velcro siding underneath the rear of my desk and then used the hook siding in short parts for strapping cables to the underside of the desk.

An easily adjustable cable tidy. Also, because the "fuzzy" strip was about 5cm wide, I could stick my router under the desk too.


thread_soul (author)  PatientZero5 years ago
A clever idea for cable management, will have to try it!
Have you ever tried using the 3M strips that attach Speedpasses(or Fastoll or whatever) to windshields? I used four of them to mount a CB radio and that stayed on pretty well, not sure of the specs. I do know that it doesn't work well in hot climates, but at failing temperatures a laptop would probably be dead anyway.
thread_soul (author)  JamesRPatrick5 years ago
 I've not, personally.  3M is the manufacturer of the brand name Velcro fasteners, so it would probably be safe to assume that those strips should have strength specs that are plenty sufficient, and the cycle life would probably be a few hundred cycles, but that's just a guess on my part.  An yeah, the temp should be ok, I'd bet attached to the windshield it would get much hotter than what would occur on the back of a laptop.
gundamyai5 years ago
good good ...
easy ... 
thank
zzzomb5 years ago
My mobile broadband 3g dongle was proving to be a hastle poking out the side of the laptop. Easily bumped. I tried a short usb extension cable to the dongle velcro'ed onto the rear of the screen like this. For a while it worked great, but then our Australian hot summer set in. It turns out that the ambient temperature combined with the heat generated from the device itself is enough to melt the self adhesive. This leaves the velcro in place, and the device sliding straight off like melted hot glue.

Solution? If you live in a hot climate, superglue should be fine to glue a velcro patch in place permanently. But instead, decided to superglue the actual usb extension cable itself, leaving the dongle poking out the top where reception works a little better and keeping it a bit cooler.
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