What are Floppy Disks?

R. Kayne
R. Kayne
Eventually, floppy disks became smaller, were able to hold more data, and were no longer as floppy.
Eventually, floppy disks became smaller, were able to hold more data, and were no longer as floppy.

Floppy disks are small, removable, media storage devices. They record data onto a thin, circular magnetic film encased in a flat, square plastic jacket. This type of media is somewhat antiquated, having been replaced by flash memory and re-writable CD storage devices.

The original floppy disks were 8-inch (20.32 cm) floppies used in 1971-1975, but the first that were widely used commercially were 5.25-inch (13.335-cm) disks. They were quite flexible and required a floppy drive of the same size. The disks could store up to 360 kilobytes (KB) of data, or about one third of a single megabyte. Later, high-density floppies held 1.2 megabytes (MB) of data. These were widely used until about 1987.

Floppy disks are small, removable, and practically obsolete media storage devices that were originally 8 inches, then later came in 5.25 inches.
Floppy disks are small, removable, and practically obsolete media storage devices that were originally 8 inches, then later came in 5.25 inches.

As the technology of floppy disks improved, the next generation was smaller and eventually held more data. The newer 3.5-inch (8.89-cm) disks also had hard shell cases for protection, making them less floppy, although the term floppy disk was still used for many years, however. Some only used one side of the internal magnetic film for recording data, giving them a capacity of 744 KB. High-density 3.5-inch floppies doubled the capacity to 1.44 MB. In fact, there were several configurations, including single or double sided (SS or DS), and single or double density (SD or DD).

Floppy disks have been replaced by more highspeed storage devices like flash drives.
Floppy disks have been replaced by more highspeed storage devices like flash drives.

An easy way to spot the lower capacity diskette was to look at the top corners of the case or jacket. If the diskette had only one hole on the right, it was a single-sided diskette. The hole on the top right of the disk included a small plastic tab, which allowed the user to write-protect the disk.

Since double-density floppy disks were cheaper than their higher-capacity high-density cousins, some people in the know would purchase the cheaper disks, then drill a hole in top left corner to convert the disk to a double-sided high-density disk. All disks contained a polyester film called BoPET — better known as Mylar® — coated on both sides with the necessary magnetic material. Punching a second hole in the case allowed the floppy drive to spin the film in the opposite direction, thereby utilizing both sides.

Floppy disks were read using a floppy disk drive.
Floppy disks were read using a floppy disk drive.

Various technologies have been used since 1991 in the attempt to extend the life of floppies by increasing their capacity to 2.88 MB (extended density or ED), and even 120 MB and 240 MB (LS-120 and LS-240 respectively). None of these technologies caught on, however. The former proved to be too small an increase of capacity for ubiquitous adoption, and the latter an unreliable form of storage.

Today, other storage devices that are more convenient and robust, such as compact disks and flash memory, have largely replaced floppy disks. A CD can hold upwards up 600 MB, and even the smallest capacity memory stick holds several hundred times the amount of a single floppy. Some memory sticks now compete with smaller hard drives for disk capacity, making them ideal for transferring files, programs, or even entire volumes.

A real sign that floppy disks are all but obsolete is that most laptops no longer come with a floppy drive, and many desktop systems do not include this drive unless requested. Nevertheless, some people continue to use diskettes for backing up and transferring small files.

How To Decrypt a Floppy Disk

Being an antiquated technology, floppy disks could not take advantage of data recovery services to retrieve deleted files because such services did not yet exist. Thankfully, data recovery services have become ubiquitous, and such services often extend to data on floppy disks. Floppy disks haven’t completely disappeared and are still used to manage small files, so many data recovery services cover floppies.

You may not need to hire a professional service to recover lost data from a disk if the disk itself is not physically damaged and can still be read by a floppy disk drive. Many software programs are easy to use that can accomplish the same task without the need for a professional. You can utilize these programs if, for example, your data was rewritten, reformatted, or corrupted.

The most common way to know that you’ve lost data is to be notified when you try to use the disk that it has not been formatted. This essentially means that the data on the disk can no longer be accessed. To make the process easier, do not format the disk; formatting will erase all data contained within and it will be more difficult to retrieve.

When Did Floppy Disks Become Obsolete?

Floppy disks have very limited storage capacity that is insufficient for most types of media and have been phased out primarily by USB flash drives, which are smaller and can hold massively more data. Today, you will rarely see computers with floppy disk drives, and most have at least one USB port. Whereas most floppy disks hold a maximum of 1.2 megabytes of data, today’s USB drives can hold up to 2 terabytes. To put that in perspective, one terabyte is 1,000 gigabytes, and one gigabyte is 1,000 megabytes. That means that one 2-terabyte USB drive can hold as much as 1,456,354 of the highest-capacity floppy disks.

While you won’t find a USB drive that can hold two terabytes of data cheaply, even the least expensive flash drives hold vastly more amounts of data than a floppy disk. In addition, because modern computers seldom have floppy disk drives built-in, you will likely have a much easier time moving data between devices with a USB flash drive than with a floppy disk.

How Does a Floppy Disk Work?

A floppy disk contains a magnetic disk within its plastic shell. Older and larger floppy disks that are either 8-inch or 5.25-inch varieties use a soft plastic shell protected by a sleeve to protect the magnetic disk that can be read by a floppy disk drive. These original versions are flexible and bend easily. This is why they’re called “floppy” disks. The newer 3.5-inch variant, in contrast, uses a hard plastic shell for better durability and is rigid. Despite that a 3.5-inch floppy disk is not, in fact, floppy, it is still called a floppy disk.

Floppy disks can be either single-sided or double-sided, meaning data can be read and written on one or both sides of the platter. The disk merely needs to be turned over and re-inserted into the drive to use both sides.

Floppy disks can come in double-density and high-density varieties, which increases how much data can be stored on them. Double-density 5.25-inch floppies can hold up to 360 kilobytes of data and double-density 3.5-inch disks can hold 720 kilobytes of data. A high-density 3.5-inch floppy can hold 1.2 megabytes of data. Virtually all floppy disks that you can buy today are 3.5-inch, double-sided, and high-density for maximum storage capacity.

How Does a Floppy Disk Drive Work?

Floppy disks require a floppy disk drive to manipulate the data within. To read a floppy disk, it must be the correct size and designed for the right type of floppy disk. For example, a floppy disk drive that is sized for 3.5-inch floppy disks can only manipulate that type of disk, and a drive that reads 8-inch disks can only read 8-inch disks.

A floppy disk drive uses a spindle motor that can rotate the platter housed inside the shell. It’s somewhat similar to a record player in that a head is reading something resembling a groove in the platter. A read/write head within the drive uses a digitally-shaped analog signal called a flux that can either “play” or “record” information onto the floppy disk. It does this by reading changes in the magnetic flux of the disk. This read/write head is connected to a separate motor called a stepper that can move the head into 40-80 positions. Depending on the motor, it can rotate the platter at 300 RPM for double-density drives or 360 RPM for high-density drives.

Discussion Comments

anon985698

Thank God for wisegeek.com! I wanted to know more about floppy disks since I have only been on this planet for 15 years, and I saw diskettes for only the first 6-7 years in my life, and my sister wasn't helping either.

anon118927

My current Asus x38 chipset motherboard has a floppy drive connector on it so it is up to the user whether they install a floppy drive or not. My only use for a floppy drive is to boot up on it so as to run zero filling software to clear the hard drive. If I upgrade to an x58 chipset i7 motherboard it may well have no floppy drive connector, which is too bad. I will not shed tears over the demise of the old floppy.

anon84973

How much do they cost?

anon73996

@anon5650: they already have buddy.

anon72420

what is the most a floppy disk can hold? --deathvice

anon57931

Yap. Technology is advancing so fast. Soon we'll have HD DVD(25-50GB) and blue ray - BD(100GB). Floppies are fat and they could somehow make them store more data. Well too late. USB flash is way better.

anon41999

What on the floppy disk would cause an affect on the ability to store data?

anon19219

can a floppy disk accept audio data?

anon5650

When will floppy disk drives (High Density) become obsolete?

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    • Eventually, floppy disks became smaller, were able to hold more data, and were no longer as floppy.
      By: Konstantin Emelyanov
      Eventually, floppy disks became smaller, were able to hold more data, and were no longer as floppy.
    • Floppy disks are small, removable, and practically obsolete media storage devices that were originally 8 inches, then later came in 5.25 inches.
      By: fotomatrix
      Floppy disks are small, removable, and practically obsolete media storage devices that were originally 8 inches, then later came in 5.25 inches.
    • Floppy disks have been replaced by more highspeed storage devices like flash drives.
      By: FEG
      Floppy disks have been replaced by more highspeed storage devices like flash drives.
    • Floppy disks were read using a floppy disk drive.
      By: Pavel Kirichenko
      Floppy disks were read using a floppy disk drive.