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[ The PC Guide | Systems and Components Reference Guide ]

Floppy Disk Drives

In the hard disk drive chapter, I refer to the hard disk as the "data center" of the PC, and in fact it is, but there was a time when the floppy disk actually held this honorific. In fact, the first PCs didn't have hard disks; all of their data storage was done on floppies. There was a time when floppy disk drives were high technology and cost serious money. I remember paying $700 for a floppy disk for my Apple II PC about 15 years ago... and being very excited about not having to use a cassette deck any more to load and save programs. Talk about high technology. :^)

The invention of hard disks relegated floppy disks to the secondary roles of data transfer and software installation. The invention of the CD-ROM and the Internet, combined with the increasingly large size of software files, is threatening even these secondary roles. The floppy disk still persists, basically unchanged for over a decade, in large part because of its universality; the 3.5 inch 1.44 MB floppy is present on virtually every PC made in the last 10 years, which makes it still a useful tool. The floppy disk's current role is in these area:

  • Data Transfer: The floppy disk is still the most universal means of transferring files from one PC to another. With the use of compression utilities, even moderate-sized files can be shoehorned onto a floppy disk, and anyone can send anyone a disk and feel quite confident that the PC at the other end will be able to read it. The PC 3.5" floppy is such a standard, in fact, that many Apple and even UNIX machines can read them, making these disks useful for cross-platform transfer.
  • Small File Storage and Backup: The floppy disk is still used for storing and backing up small amounts of data, probably more than you realize.
  • Software Installation and Driver Updates: Many new pieces of hardware still use floppies for distributing driver software and the like, and some software still uses floppies (although this is becoming less common as software grows massive and CD-ROM drives become more universal.)

While floppy drives still have a useful role in the modern PC, there is no denying their reduced importance. Very little attention is paid to floppy "performance" any more, and even choosing makes or models involves a small fraction of the amount of care and attention required for selecting other components. In essence, the floppy drive today is a commodity item! For this reason, I examine the floppy drive in this chapter but do not go into a great level of detail. In addition, since many aspects of floppy disk construction and logical operation are similar to those of hard disks, and since I did describe hard disks in a great level of detail, I make frequent references back to relevant sections in the chapter on hard disks.

Next: Floppy Disk Drive Construction and Operation

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