Last Updated on November 4, 2022 by Dave Farquhar
For a while in the 80s, floppy disks reliably doubled in capacity every 2-3 years. But floppy disks stopped increasing in capacity at 2.88 megabytes, and some people are surprised that 2.88 megabyte floppies even existed. What happened to 2.88 MB floppies? And why did the industry stop at such a relatively low capacity?
2.88 megabyte floppies never gained adoption outside of very high-end systems, partly due to their high cost. When more cost-effective options became available, 2.88 megabyte floppies and drives faded away.
A question of density
Floppy disks came in various densities. Single density floppies predated the double-density floppies we saw in XT-class PCs. Quad-density floppies were another obscure technology that the PC world skipped over, though Commodore used briefly.
High-density was a similar technology that IBM used in its PC/AT and the rest of the industry followed lead. A high-density 3.5-inch floppy had an unformatted capacity of 2 megabytes, or a formatted capacity of 1.44 megabytes if you used the standard PC format. This became the most common format for floppy disks, and if you use a floppy disk today, it’s more likely to be a high density 1.44 MB formatted disk than any other type.
Extended density disks and drives doubled that capacity to 4 megabytes unformatted, or 2.88 megabytes formatted. And that 2.88 megabyte extended density format didn’t prove as successful as the 1.44 megabyte format. Or, for that matter, the double density 720K format that preceded it. There were several reasons why.
Limited availability of 2.88 megabyte disks and drives
In 1990, IBM shipped its highest-end 486-based PS/2 models with 2.88 megabyte floppy drives. Sun and NeXT also shipped 2.88 megabyte floppies in their most expensive workstations. But these were the $10,000 systems of their day, the systems where no expense was spared. Mainstream systems didn’t come with them. And even if you wanted one, they weren’t easy to find. You could buy 720K and 1.44 megabyte floppy drives at any computer store, even consumer electronics stores. If you didn’t know what magazines to read, you didn’t even know 2.88 megabyte floppy drives existed.
And they were expensive. The drives were announced in 1988 at a promising price of $300, and the price never really came down from there. Looking through old magazines, I had a hard time finding one even for that price, even four years later. Some companies were asking $500 for the drives.
The disks themselves were also scarce and expensive. You could get 1.44 megabyte floppies anywhere, just like you can get USB flash drives almost anywhere today. If you wanted extended density disks, you probably had to order them, or go to an IBM dealer.
Other technologies looming on the horizon
Most articles from the 1990s that I could find that discussed 2.88 megabyte floppies talked about even higher-capacity technologies on the horizon, and I think that’s what doomed the 2.88 megabyte format. Essentially, the format Osborned itself.
Had the price premium been lower, people might have adopted the 2.88 megabyte format. But paying more than double to just get double capacity didn’t make a lot of sense. Especially with bigger capacities on the way.
In the meantime, 1.44 megabyte disks provided a cost-effective interim solution. Most people decided they were better off sticking with the 1.44 megabyte format, spending the price difference on a hard drive instead, and waiting to see what the future brought. And that interim period ended up being longer than anyone expected.
In 1990, a 20 megabyte floptical disk arrived. It looked like a floppy but used optical technology to place the magnetic heads more precisely. That allowed the drive to store 20 megabytes on a floppy disk. It was a big step up from 2.88 megabytes, and the price was competitive, at $500 for the drive and $22 for the disks. This iteration didn’t catch on either, but similar technology did.
The future finally arrived in 1994, with Iomega’s Zip drive. Zip drives cost $200 and stored 100 megabytes on floppy-like disks that cost $20. Unlike extended density disks, it provided a much lower cost per megabyte than 1.44 megabyte floppies, and far more convenience.
And if you wanted backward compatibility in a single drive, Imation’s LS-120 offered 120 megabytes of capacity in a drive that could also read 1.44 megabyte floppy disks. It was late to market, in 1997, and wasn’t a success compared to Zip drives, but it was a big step forward from the first 20 megabyte flopticals, let alone 2.88 megabytes.
How to tell 2.88 megabyte floppies from other floppies
You can tell an extended density floppy from the “ED” logo where you’d find the “HD” logo on the more common floppies, and the holes on the sides aren’t perfectly symmetrical. The hole to indicate the density is offset slightly. But at a glance, the disks do look similar, and if you put an extended density disk in a 1.44 mb drive, it won’t work properly. If you open a box of disks and find none of them work, check to make sure they aren’t extended density.
Can you format 2.0 MB floppies to 2.88 megabytes?
A common question is whether you can format a 2.0 megabyte disk to 2.88 megabytes. The answer is no. A high-density disk has an unformatted capacity of 2 megabytes. Overhead lowers that to 1.44 megabytes in standard DOS format. Some custom formats can push that to 1.8 megabytes or so, but there’s always overhead involved.
The unformatted capacity of a 2.88 megabyte disk is 4 megabytes. DOS only uses about 70% of the capacity of any given floppy disk format.
If you have a 2.88 megabyte drive and want to format full-capacity disks, you’ll have to locate some 4-megabyte, extended density disks.
Anymore, it’s probably easier and cheaper to use a Gotek floppy emulator and emulate 2.88 megabyte floppies with it instead.
David Farquhar is a computer security professional, entrepreneur, and author. He started his career as a part-time computer technician in 1994, worked his way up to system administrator by 1997, and has specialized in vulnerability management since 2013. He invests in real estate on the side and his hobbies include O gauge trains, baseball cards, and retro computers and video games. A University of Missouri graduate, he holds CISSP and Security+ certifications. He lives in St. Louis with his family.