Say Goodbye to 3.5-inch Floppy Disks

By Lance Ulanoff  |  Posted 2003-02-27 Print this article Print

Dell's decision to phase out 3.5 inch floppy drives signals the beginning of the end for the venerable drive. How should you prepare?

Its happening: 3.5-inch floppy disk drives are disappearing. Theyre following a well-worn path to the final resting place of the 5.25-inch and the 8-inch drives. The demise of the now-ancient standard wont happen all at once, but with Dells recently announced phasing out of 3.5-inch floppy disk drives in the companys popular Dimension desktop line, others following suite—Gateway and eMachines, say—is only a matter of time. Soon, that pocket-size diskette and the drives that accepted it will be nothing but pleasant, portable memories.

The floppy disk has a long (in technology terms) history. It first appeared on the high-tech landscape in the late sixties in the form of a big, thin plastic disk housed in an eight-inch-square black jacket. An oblong hole in each side left the recording surface open to the drive and also, unfortunately, to clumsy fingers. Many client/terminal systems used these drives—the DEC text-management system I used at my first job, for example. At the end of each day, you had to perform a complicated series of maneuvers with the DEC system to back up your data. I hated handling the large disks, always worrying that Id accidentally bend one.

In 1981, the IBM PC debuted with the 5.25-inch floppy disk drive. The disks looked like exact albeit smaller replicas of 8-inch disks, and they were just as open to the elements. The 5.25-inch media were a little less clumsy than the 8-inch and less prone to damage, though. Desks around the world were littered with the little paper sleeves that the disks came in. In the mid-eighties, the 3.5-inch floppy disk that was no longer floppy arrived. The recording material now came in a hard plastic shell with a nifty spring-loaded metal cover that slid aside as you placed the disk into the drive. There was no more fear of damage—well, less fear—and the disks fit in a pocket, so they were incredibly portable. The advent of high-density technology allowed far more information to fit than on the older 5.25–inch media. As the new disks gained in popularity, 5.25-inch disks began collecting dust. For a time, PC manufacturers maintained the larger drive. There were even combo 3.5-/5.25-inch drives that fit in one drive bay. Still, the smell of death was on the larger format.

At home, my collection of the varied drive formats includes hundreds of 3.5-inch diskettes (as we took to calling the smaller disks) for both the Mac and the PC. The PC I bought last year has a drive that can read all types of PC disks. My 3.5-inch, low-density Mac disks are so old, though, that only drives in first-generation Macs can read them. I actually bought a Mac Plus for $1 at a garage sale so I could try reading these disks, but the system didnt come with a keyboard or mouse so Im still a step or two away from recovering that old data.

With the demise of the 3.5-inch drive, loss of access to archived data may be the most significant problem. We have plenty of other methods for easily sharing data among PCs. The USB mass storage device, typically the size of a large key fob, largely fulfills data-exchange needs for USB-equipped PCs. The smallest USB key has far greater capacity than a 1.44MB 3.5-inch disk, fits in a pocket, and works almost exactly like a disk drive. The only hitch is that a USB key cant boot a PC—yet. Dell plans to incorporate this capability into its Dimensions once a standard for doing so becomes available. USB storage aside, desktop users have the option of burning data to CDs and DVDs readable by other PCs. Beyond that, most corporate desktops and a growing number of home systems are networked—many wirelessly—so worries about getting data from one PC to another are rapidly diminishing.

Heres the thing—after 3.5-inch drives have disappeared, were still going to need to look at those long-neglected disks and save all that old data. If you think there will always be a 3.5-inch drive around somewhere, you may be right. But then again, how many 5.25-inch floppy drives have you seen lately?

Im sure Im not the only one with 50 or so 5.25-inch floppy disks in a couple of disk cases at home. Mine primarily contain data from my old Epson 8080 computer—a DOS-based system that never even got a whiff of Windows, CD-ROMs, or 3.5-inch floppy disks. I stupidly assumed I would just access my disks through this PC. Then what? I cant move the data off the system. Our columnist John C. Dvorak advised that I pull the 5.25-inch drive from the Epson and install it in another PC—perhaps my old 180-MHz Gateway system. Id then need to install a network card in the Gateway and move all the old files to a shared drive that I could access via my CD-R-equipped Sony VAIO PC. I have a similar story about my seven 1GB Iomega Jaz cartridges that contain tons of data from jobs going back nearly ten years. The drives didnt like the Windows NT and 2000 operating systems I used at work and nearly all of the cartridges ended up partially corrupted. I pulled most of the data and moved it to my home PC by hooking a Jaz drive to a SCSI PC Card in a notebook computer, then used LapLink to transfer the data to my VAIO.

Do you see what Im getting at? I couldnt depend on the Jaz drive to be around, and Ive also had to jump through hoops to recover my data from old 5.25-inch disks. I dont want to have to do that again. So starting this weekend, I will begin pulling all of the data from my 3.5-inch disks into folders on my VAIO and then burn this stuff to a few CD-Rs. I would suggest you start examining all your 3.5-inch floppies, too.

I am confident that CD-R drives will not be removed from PCs any time soon. I think. Okay, I hope. Umm, maybe I should just burn all my files to DVD-Rs.

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Lance Ulanoff is Editor in Chief and VP of Content for PC Magazine Network, and brings with him over 20 years journalism experience, the last 16 of which he has spent in the computer technology publishing industry.

He began his career as a weekly newspaper reporter before joining a national trade publication, traveling the country covering product distribution and data processing issues. In 1991 he joined PC Magazine where he spent five years writing and managing feature stories and reviews, covering a wide range of topics, including books and diverse technologies such as graphics hardware and software, office applications, operating systems and, tech news. He left as a senior associate editor in 1996 to enter the online arena as online editor at HomePC magazine, a popular consumer computing publication. While there, Ulanoff launched, and and wrote about Web sites and Web-site building.

In 1998 he joined Windows Magazine as the senior editor for online, spearheading the popular magazine's Web site, which drew some 6 million page views per month. He also wrote numerous product reviews and features covering all aspects of the computing world. During his tenure, won the Computer Press Association's prestigious runner-up prize for Best Overall Website.

In August 1999, Ulanoff briefly left publishing to join as producer for the Computing and Consumer Electronics channels and then was promoted to the site's senior director for content. He returned to PC Magazine in November 2000 and relaunched in July 2001. The new was named runner-up for Best Web Sites at the American Business Media's Annual Neal Awards in March 2002 and won a Best Web Site Award from the ASBPE in 2004. Under his direction, regularly generated more than 25 million page views a month and reached nearly 5 million monthly unique visitors in 2005.

For the last year and a half, Ulanoff has served as Editor, Reviews, PC Magazine. In that role he has overseen all product and review coverage for PC Magazine and, as well as managed PC Labs. He also writes a popular weekly technology column for and his column also appears in PC Magazine.

Recognized as an expert in the technology arena, Lance makes frequent appearances on local, national and international news programs including New York's Eyewitness News, NewsChannel 4, CNN, CNN HN, CNBC, MSNBC, Good Morning America Weekend Edition, and BBC, as well as being a regular guest on FoxNews' Studio B with Shepard Smith. He has also offered commentary on National Public Radio and been interviewed by radio stations around the country. Lance has been an invited guest speaker at numerous technology conferences including Digital Life, RoboBusiness, RoboNexus, Business Foresight and Digital Media Wire's Games and Mobile Forum.

Lance also serves as co-host of PC Magazine's weekly podcast, PCMag Radio.


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