Tuesday, April 6, 2010

It's All About The Ferric Oxide

Magnetism. It's what really powers the computer. Not all those microscopic transistors and circuits in a CPU. It's magnetism. Information is locked in a magnetic matrix in solid state circuitry; that's where you get your ROM, your BIOS, what makes the computer run. Information can be changed, replaced, modified, deleted, all due to magnetism. Newer devices, such as compact flash and the various forms of memory stick, all store data that way. They owe this legacy to floppy disks, the original removable storage media.

There is no point going into the history of the floppy disk here; Wikipedia has an especially good entry on the subject. No, instead, I would like to address a real problem that exists for us lovers of old computers.

Floppy disks are dying.

Not just dying in the sense that they are no longer being manufactured (in fact, you can still get them). No, the problem lies in the fact that older disks are losing their data.

Recently, in an attempt to get my IBM ThinkPad 500 sublaptop up and running, I burnt through some fifteen disks, five of which were unusable straight out of the box. This is not good; these disks had never seen the light of day, and now on a molecular level were severely compromised. That is a 33% failure rate, which back in the 1990's would have facilitated a trip to the office supply store with a major chip on my shoulder. These disks came from a thrift store, no such trip could be made.

Normally, on older systems, I like to preserve the operating system as much as possible. In the case of my ThinkPad 500, though, having it usable trumps nostalgia; it is the smallest laptop I own, fairly lightweight and IBM tough (though, to be honest, I suspect that it is a contracted item, designed by IBM but manufactured by another company). For in the field work (and here I am thinking some astronomy work) it would be pretty handy. Even one of my favorite old digital cameras, my Sony Mavica FD-83, uses floppy disks, and I am rather fond of the pictures it takes.

The problem exists in moving the data from this machine to others or to the Cloud. With the increasing failure rate of the floppy disks, another method must be found to move information. The ThinkPad 500 can support PCMCIA Compact Flash adapters and even CD-ROM, but the age of the drivers necessary means that they are becoming increasingly harder to find. There are many sites out there that have taken up "driver squatting", finding old, hard to find drivers and hoarding them, allowing access only if you become a member, which sometimes involves a fee (many, if not most of these drivers were formerly free).These were originally free; I will not pay someone for the privilege of downloading them.

Beyond the issue of whether the drivers are free or not lies the simple issue of what media to use. In the case of my ThinkPad, we really have three options; floppies, an external CD-ROM or using the PCMCIA slot for the various older media it will support such as Compact Flash. The media itself, though, has issues. Moving past the aging floppy disks, CD-ROM is really carving your information in digital stone, for once it has been written to a disk that's it. I have never had much luck with CD-RW; call me a doubter based upon experience. So, once data is added to a CD-ROM, it can only be copied, but never modified on the disk itself.

Compact Flash was fairly popular and in fact should have been more so. But they have found a limited audience, namely with camera enthusiasts. Also, not every operating system supports them.

A modern solution could be USB thumb drives. I've been using them for a while for moving data from system to system, regardless of OS, and always with a fair degree of success. For older systems, though, that is not an option. The oldest computer I have ever owned that would support USB was a Toshiba Satellite laptop running at 133 MHz. There may have been older systems, though I have yet to find anything less than a Pentium class chip (or, for that matter, a PowerPC 603e) that has been capable of dealing with USB. This really poses a problem for another recently acquired machine, a lovely IBM ThinkPad 760XD. It is on the lower cusp of being able to handle a USB PC Card, at 166 MHz, but I have yet to find one.

Which brings us back to how do I move data from that lovely old laptop to my other systems or the Cloud. When I bought it, the floppy drive was missing. It has a CD-ROM only. But it also has two lovely PC Card slots. I would like to replace the OS (Windows 98SE) with a more modern OS, a Linux (probably a Ubuntu derivative with a lightweight desktop). It cannot boot from the CD-ROM, and in order to install any of the modern OS's, it is a necessity. I can boot from a PCMCIA card, or even a network, however.

That ThinkPad gets saved.

My other ThinkPad, the 500, becomes a question mark. What do I do once my floppy disk collection has been burnt through, when I keep encountering problem after problem, once the read/write heads on the floppy drive can neither read nor write. How about my oldest computer, my Apple IIc? I have an Apple UniDisk 3.5” drive, so it has bought some time. The 5 1/4” disks, however, are beginning to fail in number.

One thing that is ironic is the fact that my 800 Kb 3.5” floppies for my Macintoshes seem to be faring fairly well. This actually has to do with the size of the ferric oxide particles themselves on this media. On the 800 Kb (as well as the associated 400 Kb for the Apple II and older Mac and 720 Kb for DOS) the particles are twice the size, and seem to have improved staying power. The 1.44 Mb disks, however, seem to be weaker, and to further complicate matters, cannot be really formatted to work in the older floppy drives. They might work for a while as 720/800 Kb, but they eventually lose their integrity and fail. And when they do fail, it is frequently thoroughly, making them unable to be formatted as either lower or higher density disks.

So, what to do?

As it stands, I have to make do with the situation. My ThinkPad 500 (part of my ongoing experiments with smaller, older laptops) is more than likely going to be reformatted back to a DOS machine with some sort of graphical shell (probably Desqview/X), its PCMCIA slot being prepped to handle CF cards for the inevitable failure of my last disk. My ThinkPad 760XD will, hopefully, become a full-fledged lightweight Ubuntu machine with a USB 1.1 card installed, so it too can share with others. My older Macs have SCSI, and I have have a couple of external hard drives that still have plenty of life. Incredibly, there are other options for them, such as SCSI to IDE to CF; they will be running as long as those options exist.

As for the still older Apple IIc, only time will tell. Perhaps I will stumble upon a place where 800 Kb disks can be purchased and perhaps buy the machine another few years. Eventually, however, the floppy drive itself will die, taking with it the Apple's only way to communicate. There are plenty of projects out there to improve the odds for these eldest of computers.

For now, those damaged floppy disks will live on... as coasters and other objet d'art.

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