What is a Zip drive? It’s a relic of late 1990s computing, rendered obsolete by USB flash drives, and anyone who remembers them will say good riddance. Not that I have strong opinions about it. But even though I don’t remember Zip drives fondly, they served a real, legitimate purpose in the 1990s. Like them or not, we needed them.
I’m not alone in this. In 2006, PC World ranked the Zip drive as the 15th worst technology product of all time. The next year, it ranked it the 23rd best technology product of all time. How can it be so good and so bad at the same time? We needed it really badly, but it didn’t work well.
Why we needed Zip drives
High density 3.5″ floppy disks first appeared in 1987, storing 1.44 megabytes of data. That was pretty impressive at a time when a powerful computer had 1 megabyte of RAM. The problem was, by 1992, mainstream systems had 4 megabytes of RAM and power users had 8 or even 16. Hard drives were a luxury in 1987 but a necessity by 1992, and the typical size just about doubled every year in the early to mid 1990s.
Only being able to cart around 1.44 megs of data at a time was becoming a burden. Extended-density 2.88 meg disks existed, but never became mainstream, and 2.88 megs wasn’t much of a help. It meant we could carry around half as many disks, but it still took a stack of disks to cart around any meaningful amount of data.
Imagine if we’d gone from 2011 all the way to 2018 without USB flash drives increasing in capacity at all, and 32 gigs was all we had. That was fine for 2011, but we’d be cursing it today.
Data storage was a huge problem, and source of frustration, for computer users in 1994 when the Zip drive came out.
What is a Zip drive? It put Iomega on the map
Iomega was a maker of removable hard drives called Bernoulli drives. They were convenient because they were actual hard drives, with hard-drive like capacity and speed. When you ran out of space, you just bought a new cartridge. It was incredibly convenient, but expensive.
So Iomega tried its hand at creating a jumbo floppy to address the need.
Zip drives made Iomega a household name because the drive was relatively cheap, at $199, and the disks cost $20. The disks stored 100 megabytes, and while Zip drives weren’t as fast as hard drives, they were much faster than conventional floppies. Hence the name Zip. Some people assumed the Zip meant the drives compressed the data, but it had nothing to do with Zip compression. It was just a marketing name. The disks were slightly larger than 3.5-inch floppy drives to keep you from putting Zip disks in standard floppy drives.
The drives sold extremely well and Iomega had to license production to Epson and NEC to meet demand. They never reached the popularity or ubiquity of floppy drives, but if you were a serious computer user in the mid to late 1990s, you probably had one. People loved them. The computer store where I worked in 1994 couldn’t keep them in stock.
The 100-megabyte capacity quickly became outmoded, so Iomega followed up with 250 and 750 megabyte drives and cartridges. The older drives couldn’t use the newer cartridges, even at lower capacity. But the newer drives could read the older cartridges.
Iomega also released a Jaz drive, which was a 1 GB removable hard drive. It wasn’t compatible with the Zip drive but looked similar. Iomega later followed up with a 2 GB Jaz drive.
Zip drives came in external versions that could plug into a parallel port for PCs, an external SCSI port for Macs, and an internal IDE version. Iomega later released a Zip Plus drive that could autodetect whether you plugged it into a parallel or SCSI port, giving it some versatility. The SCSI versions of the Zip drive also worked with Unix and Amiga systems. The external versions came in a distinctive purple case that people either loved or hated. The internal drives tended to be the traditional beige color of 1990s PCs.
The Click of Death
Sometime around 1996 or 1997, Zip and Jaz drives started developing mysterious problems. The drive would start clicking, and then the disk would fail to read. Worse yet, if you took the disk out and put it in another Zip drive, that drive could develop the problem too. So you could lose your data, your $20 disk, and break your $199 drive.
The hard drive utility Spinrite seemed to fix Click Death, at least sometimes. Steve Gibson, the author of Spinrite, eventually released a free tool that would try to correct the problem for you.
This led to a class-action lawsuit, and a steep decline in sales. They sold nearly 10 million of the drives in 1999, but it fell to 2.2 million by 2003.
Syquest, another maker of removable hard drives, released its EZ-Drive a few months after the Zip drive. The EZ-Drive was a removable hard drive with a capacity of 135 megabytes. But the Zip drive ended up being more popular, and drove Syquest into bankruptcy. Syquest filed for bankruptcy in late 1998.
In 1997, Imation released its Super Floppy, a 120-megabyte floppy drive that was backward compatible with regular 3.5-inch floppies. The Super Floppy was highly anticipated, but the Zip drive was near the height of its popularity when the Super Floppy came out, so it didn’t catch on, at least in the United States.
Obsolescence and legacy
By 2003, the Zip drive had run its course. Writable CDs were less expensive by then and gave a higher capacity and universal compatibility since just about everyone had a CD-ROM drive. While writable CDs had reliability issues at times, at least their issues weren’t contagious. And by 2003, USB flash drives were coming into being. The initial capacities of USB flash drives weren’t great, but they were competitive with Zip drives and were much faster, smaller, more reliable, and convenient.
Iomega reused the Zip brand name on its line of writeable CD drives. But CD burners quickly became a commodity market, so it’s unclear whether the brand name helped or hurt them. Iomega’s CD drives were actually made by other companies, and they used top-tier suppliers, so the Zip CD was rather good.
Zip disks retain a niche following. They are useful for vintage computer enthusiasts since they work with a large number of legacy systems, and the 100-megabyte capacity is still large enough to be very useful on those older systems.
But if you walk up to a computing old timer and ask, “What is a Zip drive?” don’t be surprised if the reaction isn’t pleasant.