Convert a Laptop IDE Drive to an Affordable Compact Flash SSD.




I have a couple of older laptops that I use to monitor my security cameras within my home, both are Dell models, one is a C400 with a Pentium 3 and the other one is a D600 with a Pentium 4. Both laptops are powered on 24 hours. The P3 is over 12 years old and so far I replaced the hard drive 3 times; the last time it happened I was wondering what my options were since new IDE laptop drives are becoming harder to get.

I considered Solid-State Drives (SSD) as an option but they are not easy to find or affordable, especially with the IDE interface; I also felt uncomfortable spending that kind of money on equipment this old.

As I was about to look for replacements for both laptops I came across my old camera's Compact Flash (CF) memory cards and my Compact Flash to PCMCIA adapter that allowed me to transfer the pictures to a laptop much faster. I wondered if I could put these to good use, so, to try it out, I used the smaller CF card I had (1 GB), installed Linux and made it bootable; I put it in the CF to PCMCIA adapter and inserted into the C400 hoping the laptop could boot from it. No go, no matter what I tried, the laptop and BIOS was too ancient to boot from the PCMCIA card.

I then thought " I wonder if anybody even thought of making a CF to IDE adapter"... so I Goggled it and I was pleasantly surprised that they exist and are cheap too! They ranged in price, I saw one I liked for $6.99 plus $11.00 shipping but ended ordering a couple from eBay that where $1.57 each with free shipping as I figured I was taking a chance anyway, go cheap just in case it doesn't work.

Of course this set up will not be as fast as using an actual SSD, but in my case this is not an issue as I only use the laptop to stream images from my security cameras 24 hours a day with very few reboots. The record on my C400 is 435 days running, it was stopped by a power outage since the battery is kaput.

The two items in the picture is what is mainly required, but you might need some sticky putty to fix it in place:

1 x  Compact Flash to IDE adapter -  (I used this one)
1 x  Compact Flash card - size varies on OS requirement but you can use a 512 MB size or smaller to install a Lightweight Linux Distribution
1 x  package of Instant Tac  -  (Got mine from our local dollar store)

Step 1: The Mating

It took a few weeks for them to arrive but once I got them I started the conversion right away.

I inserted the 8GB CF into the adapter and it is now ready to insert into the laptop.

The Dell I have has an adapter for their proprietary quick insertion connector, without this, the hard drive will not connect to the laptop.

Step 2: What the ...??? Problem!!

The CF adapter would not fit on the Dell hard drive connector... I took a closer look and it turns out that the CF adapter has all 44 pins while the Dell adapter has one in the middle that is blocked to make sure that the hard drive gets inserted the correct way.

You can see this in the picture, the CF adapter that is in my hand has all the 44 pins while the Dell hard drive adapter inside the pliers has one hole in the middle blocked off.

This means I have to take a pin out of the CF adapter, good thing I only paid $1.57 for it...

Step 3: The Planning

To make sure I would pull out the correct pin I compared the old hard drive with the CF adapter by putting them on top of each other and looking for the Pin #1 reference on both (this is usually marked on the PCB side).

You can see the missing pin on the old hard drive in this picture.

Step 4: The Fix

Here is the CF adapter with the pin removed.

Step 5: Ready for Linux Install

I forgot to mention that I have converted the Dell C400 to a picture frame, pretty rough looking but it's in my computer room and it looks appropriate hanging in there.

The CF fits nicely where the hard drive used to sit, just ready to go.

Since the C400 cannot boot from USB, I pre-installed Slax Linux on the CF from my desktop to save me the trouble of burning a CD.

Step 6: It's Alive!!!

It worked like a charm! The two images show it booting up after hanging it back up on the wall and showing the stream from my front entrance camera.

It now has been running since February this year (2013) without missing a beat, although It rebooted twice as we had severe thunderstorms, but it survived the power spikes.

Step 7: Conclusion

So... was it worth the troubles? Absolutely!  Since I already had 4 CF cards which I no longer used, I only spent less than $5  for the CF adapters and Instant Tac.

Best of all is that I still have my dinosaur Pentium 3 converted laptop that is still being useful.

Step 8: WAIT! Didn't You Buy TWO Adapters??

Oh yeah, here are the pictures for the D600 conversion, no real need to give more details other than I used the Instant Tac to secure the CF adapter to the hard drive caddy and to make sure it is positioned properly before inserting back into the laptop..

FYI, I did have to remove the extra pin for this conversion as well, so I wonder if spending a couple of extra dollars could have saved me this step, but it wasn't a big deal.

Initially I cloned the Slax Linux install from the C400, but once I made sure it worked properly I installed Lubuntu from a USB key. The new CF conversion shows as a regular hard drive so you can install any OS the laptop can handle as long as you have a CF with big enough room. With 8GB I can even store some favorite music on it.

BTW, as you can see from the last picture in this set you will notice that the D600 sits on top of a mini stereo system, this way I can also use the laptop to stream my music through it.

UPDATE - June 2014: The C400 is still running Slax, however the D600 is now running CrunchBang (32-bit Waldorf for Older PCs (non PAE))



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    15 Discussions


    5 years ago on Introduction

    Thanks for the info, finding laptop IDE drives is becoming impossible new, this should be perfect :)


    20 hours ago

    I have tried this on my Acer laptop using the same adapter, but with no success. I know it's a long time ago, but do you remember if the small red LED on the adapter lights when the CF is in use? This should indicate whether 5V is supplied to the card.


    1 year ago

    Which one is better? SD card or Compact Flash? I mean what is going to be a quick and stable solution.


    Reply 2 years ago

    Just like the new laptops, they came in different configuration...


    3 years ago

    For the Dell D600, did you have to do anything special to make the CF bootable?

    I'm having trouble. I used XXClone to clone my D600 c drive to the 64GB CF.

    It tries to boot/load winxp (WinXP splash screen comes up), but then the dell resets and tries again, and again and ....its in a reset, boot reset loop

    1 reply

    Reply 2 years ago

    I install the OS through an external card reader and install it as if it is a bootable USB drive, I do it through Windows and UNetbootin (


    Reply 4 years ago on Introduction

    It does look like one, however it is the top of a solar light sticking out of the snow.


    5 years ago on Step 5

    You could have cloned from your old hard drive if you have a IDE to USB adapter and a card reader (or 2 IDE to USB adapter if you don't have a card reader, which is unlikely to happen)


    5 years ago on Step 3

    Wonder if you could have just drilled that hole out...
    Cutting it off was probably just as good.

    1 reply

    Reply 5 years ago on Step 3

    I did think about that option too, just as easy to do, but I figured that I would rather have the adapter unchanged just in case I will come across some hard drives again, wouldn't want to insert them the wrong way...