Advantages and disadvantages of floppy disks

You may think of floppy disks as an obsolete technology. But they were very important in the 1980s and 1990s, and they aren’t completely gone today. Here are the advantages and disadvantages of floppy disks, and why they just won’t quite go away.

Advantages of floppy disks

Advantages and disadvantages of floppy disks
Left to right: 8-inch, 5.25-inch, and 3.5-inch floppies. Although they’re considered archaic now, there always were, and still are, certain advantages and disadvantages to floppy disks.

The advantages of floppy disks are pretty obvious when you consider the technologies they displaced: punch cards and tape. Both were much slower than floppy disks. And punch cards had a tremendous disadvantage. You had to keep them in order. If you mixed them up, you literally scrambled your data.

At least you couldn’t scramble tape, but tape lacks random access. It’s linear, so you have to read the whole tape from start to finish. Floppy disks provide random access, so you can read any part of the disk in any order you need to.

Floppy disks are removable, rewritable, and portable.

Disks exploded in popularity in the 1980s as drive cost came down, starting with the $300 Commodore 1541. Magnetic tape survived, but primarily as a backup medium. In the United States at least, floppies became the preferred method for storage after about 1983. They caught on for software distribution because disks were much cheaper than cartridges.

Longevity

For almost 20 years, you could count on every computer having a floppy drive. Around 2000 or 2001, digital cameras that recorded on floppy disks were extremely popular for exactly this reason. Their convenience made up for their relatively small storage capacity. Floppies were on their way out at this point, but this was their last hurrah, because at the time, you could more easily count on a computer being able to read a floppy disk than being able to communicate with the camera over a USB cable.

Finally, until their quality control went to pot, disks are surprisingly reliable. I have floppies from the early 1980s that still work perfectly.

Advantages of floppy disks today

Every few years, a story breaks about the government using floppy disks somewhere. And of course everyone comes out of the woodwork, talking about how horrible this is. But there are some advantages to this, in highly sensitive classified environments.

First, the supply chain for floppy disks isn’t easy to sabotage. The military bought its supply of disks from trustworthy sources years ago and is still using them. The drives may be old and rickety but they aren’t hard to service. Especially the 8-inch drives that were the source of the big stink.

There literally is no domestic supply chain for most other forms of data storage these days. Especially removable storage. Sourcing components to use flash memory for storing sensitive information while guaranteeing its integrity is difficult. I have a solid-state floppy replacement, but it’s made in China. It’s fine for my retro computing adventures, but computers that control nukes live on a higher standard. People who complain about $435 hammers won’t be happy about what it costs to make something equivalent to my Gotek floppy emulator to government standards. Because chances are that equivalent to the one you and I can buy for $25 probably will cost more than $435.

It’s much more economical to swallow our pride and keep using the disks. Because the people who complain about disks are the same people who will complain when they find out what other storage media costs. There’s no satisfying certain people.

Disadvantages of floppy disks

Gotek floppy emulator for retro PCs
I can just drop a $25 Gotek floppy emulator into my IBM PS/1. That’s fine for playing Civilization, but devices intended for, say, flight paths of nuclear missiles need to be held to a higher standard than something for my old video games.

Of course, technology marches on. And floppy disks always did have certain disadvantages, even when they were new. The media isn’t super durable, and if you bend it, you can render it unreadable. It’s also susceptible to magnetic interference. Wipe a magnet across it and you can erase it.

And while floppies were fast and had high storage capacity by 1980s standards, they didn’t keep up with other forms of media. CDs largely displaced floppies once rewriteable CDs became commonplace, because they offered better speed and much higher storage capacity. And by the 21st century, flash memory overtook both, in both ways. Additionally, both of them were more durable, and much more impervious to magnets. Even when they break, sometimes you can recover a flash drive. I once recovered data from a broken flash drive with a clothes pin.

Quality control and cost effectiveness

And there’s no question quality control on floppies took a nosedive in the 1990s and just kept getting worse until the end. One of my disks from 1984 is more likely to work than one of mine from 1999, in spite of being 15 years older. It may be older, but it was much higher quality.

Finally, floppies lost their cost effectiveness as software grew. Not to mention installing Windows and Office from 40 floppies (each) was ridiculous.

There were both advantages and disadvantages to floppy disks. For general purpose use, there are usually better options today. But for certain specialized uses, there are times when floppies still make sense, even if it’s not obvious at first why. That’s why floppy disks haven’t completely gone away.

Fixing floppy disks

If you flop a floppy and leave a crease in it, there’s a reasonably good chance you won’t be able to read it anymore. But frequently the damage is confined to the jacket, not the magnetic media itself. Usually you can slice open the jacket, carefully slice open the jacket of a new, undamaged disk, and transplant the flexible magnetic disc into the new, undamaged jacket. Then seal the opening you cut with a piece of tape to hold the jacket closed.

I’ve even heard of people recovering data off old, dirty, and even moldy disks by slicing open the jacket, washing the magnetic disc with dish detergent, letting it dry, and then transferring the now-clean disc into a donor jacket in good condition. Not every data archivist agrees this is a good idea. But if the disk is completely trashed, you don’t have a lot to lose, either.

One thought on “Advantages and disadvantages of floppy disks

  • November 2, 2019 at 9:21 am
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    My favorite all-time floppy disk story – back in the early 90s I was managing a Software Etc. store. A mother and son came in with a then-new 3 1/2″ floppy for their Mac – son’s homework he said he’d completed had been taken by mother to work,. and she had attempted to print the work, but the disk wouldn’t read. Could I recover it? As it was one of those things we’d do on occasion to try to sell the recovery software, I said sure. I started trying a few tricks with the tool of the time (I think it was an Apple variant pre-Norton), and then I listened to the two argue behind me. Son asked “What did you do, mom, the homework was all on there. It’s my only disk, I didn’t make a copy.” Then mom said “I put it on the fridge so I would remember to bring it to work.” D’oh! Magnets! So I had to write a note telling the teacher that the homework was unrecoverable…

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