Gotek floppy emulator for retro PCs

Gotek floppy emulators are a useful piece of hardware, especially for retro PCs. The problem is they suffer from poor documentation. If you mess around with old PCs a lot, a Gotek is a must-have.

A Gotek floppy emulator is a drop-in replacement for 3.5-inch floppy drives that reads images off a USB flash drive. The Gotek can cycle through 1000 disk images on the USB drive by pressing buttons on its front panel. Goteks are really designed and marketed with vintage music equipment in mind, but they benefit old PCs too, for exactly the same reason.

Why the Gotek is necessary

Gotek floppy emulator for retro PCs
Here’s a Gotek floppy emulator installed in an IBM PS/1. The Gotek comes in black or light gray. Neither is an ideal match for 90s beige but they make the computer much more convenient to use.

Floppy disks and drives were incredibly unreliable even in the mid 1990s, let alone today. People tended to just buy the cheapest drive on the shelf, assuming they were all the same, and that created a race to the bottom. Quality took a back seat. And doing double duty as the primary intake for the PC’s cooling system didn’t help. They lived a harsh life, and were poorly equipped for it.

The disks were worse. You could save a lot of money by buying bulk no-name disks. Except those disks generally went bad after you rewrote them a couple of times, and they didn’t seem to last for very many reads either. I only made that mistake once. So I made a habit of only buying name-brand disks. But by the early 2000s, even name-brand disks were pretty much a single-use affair. You’d write your files to them once, read them once, and if the disk worked a second time, you counted yourself lucky. A box of disks cost less than a pack of baseball cards by then, and it showed. The baseball cards had much better quality control.

On the upside, I got to be fairly good at data recovery. Or maybe that wasn’t upside. You remember your psycho ex-girlfriend? That was how I met mine in the late 90s. Ah, memories.

Using a Gotek floppy emulator saves you all that hassle. You just copy floppy images to the USB drive and let solid-state electronics handle all the rest. No data loss. And you have to meet the psycho ex-girlfriend a different way.

It also means you don’t have to find a PC with a floppy interface and enough power to run a modern OS and keep it around for the sole purpose of downloading and writing disk images to real floppies. Just download them on any computer you like, then write the images to a USB stick and use it in the Gotek.

Setting up the Gotek floppy emulator

Your Gotek probably won’t come with much documentation. Swapping it in for the crusty old floppy drive is easy enough. But take heed. My drive had a rattle. I opened it up and found the mounting screws inside the drive, floating around loose. If yours rattles too, be sure to do the same. You don’t want to power it up with metallic bits inside.

Once you install the drive, it’s unclear what to do next. Insert your USB flash drive, press and hold the two buttons on the Gotek, and apply power. That formats the drive. I used an old 4 GB USB drive since that was the smallest drive I had laying around that I know works. 2 GB is less wasteful, but even 16GB drives cost less than $5 today so I’m not worried about it.

Next, you need to get some disk images onto it. Here’s a Github page with some Windows utilities for that. It works, even if it’s a little clunky.

What about disk images? I’m sure you can find those on your own. And if you’re wondering, 720K disk images do not work properly in the Gotek. The utilities I listed above copy them over happily but the disks don’t read correctly. If you want to load software off 720K disk images, you’ll need to copy the contents to a 1.44 megabyte disk image using a tool like Winimage. That’s a little unfortunate since so many early 90s DOS titles shipped on 720K disks, but at least a workaround is possible.

You can also use the Gotek like a real floppy drive, installing it alongside a real floppy, and use DOS utilities like xcopy and diskcopy to move data over to the disk images. Keep in mind many name-brand desktop PCs of the era only had one 3.5-inch floppy power connector, so you may need a Molex-to-3.5 converter to use both the Gotek and a real 3.5-inch floppy at the same time. You might consider getting two adapters if you intend to replace the hard drive with compact flash, as most compact flash adapters also use a 3.5-inch power connector.

There is replacement firmware available for the Gotek to make it more convenient, and make it work with other disk formats, custom disk formats, and non-PC platforms like an Amiga. Being able to just copy disk images straight over rather than using a pile of utilities would also be nice. I’ll give it a try at some point, but even with the stock firmware, the Gotek is useful. It’s clunky, but I find it better than dealing with aging disks and much better than psycho ex-girlfriends.

Using the Gotek to replace a floppy drive

Once you have some disk images on your USB stick, the Gotek makes a convenient floppy replacement. Just insert the USB stick, then use the buttons to select one of the 1,000 images on it. It’s best to insert the USB stick after the computer boots, unless you intend to boot from the Gotek. I’ve successfully used the Gotek to boot up and build up a 486 PC from disk images, starting with DOS 6.22.

The Gotek may be marginally faster than a real floppy since it has faster seek times, but the overall transfer rate is the same. It’s noticeably slower than an IDE hard drive, and much slower than the same USB stick direct-connected to a USB port on a modern PC. But it makes installing multi-disk software convenient. Just press the button to advance the number when the software prompts for the next disk, then let it go.

In some ways a vintage PC with a Gotek and compact flash in place of spinning drives feels, or at least sounds, less real. Sound is a powerful force in nostalgia. I didn’t think I’d miss the sounds, and maybe I don’t. I will say without that floppy seek and the clackety, clanging sounds of the hard drive, my rebuilt 486 doesn’t quite feel like a 486. But if you didn’t experience it firsthand, you may like a solid-state 486 better. And it does eliminate the most common points of failure.

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