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Is the Floppy Drive Dead?
There was a long, drawn-out battle to replace the venerable old PC floppy drive with a new, higher-capacity removable media. I'm happy to announce that the winner is: everybody except the floppy!
In fact, there is no single replacement for the floppy, but several. For some people, recordable optical discs (various flavors of CD and DVD) serve the purposes that floppies used to fulfill. Other people use various USB devices, such as tiny flash memory "drives", or various sizes of USB hard drives. FireWire drives also play a role for some.
In a way, the real battle to replace the floppy drive was one by the USB interface. It's hard to buy a computer these days that does not have a a USB interface on it, so no matter what USB device you decided to copy your data onto, the odds are good that you'll be able to read it on some other computer later.
The USB 2.0 interface is not only ubiquitous, it's fast. In fact, I'm writing this article on a USB disk connected to my laptop -- it feels faster to me than the hard disk inside the laptop!
Toss That Floppy Drive?
With all the floppy alternatives, do computers even need to have a floppy drive any more? That's an important question to computer makers, since they operate on razor-thin margins, and would not turn their nose up at the minor savings that not including a floppy drive represents.
In fact, when my wife was putting together her latest computer, it did not come with a floppy drive. That's when we ran into one of the more frustrating times when you need a floppy drive.
Some newer computer motherboards are offering a particular kind of disk interface called "SATA RAID". Turns out that when you're installing Windows XP on such a system, you have to load some special drivers for that interface. No problem -- except it turns out that Windows insists on those drivers appearing on the floppy drive! Now, if we had had a USB floppy drive laying around, we probably could have used that. Instead, we had to open up the box, temporarily (this was a tiny box with no room to permanently install another drive) hang a floppy drive off the system, install Windows XP, and then remove the floppy so we could button the box back up.
So there's at least one irritating case where you might need a floppy drive, or at least a USB-based floppy drive that you can plug in when you need it. Are there other reasons not to write off floppies just yet? There might be a couple.
If you've got some old data backed up on floppies, then you obviously need a floppy drive if you ever hope to read them again. And of course, every once in a while someone will still hand you a floppy that has a file on it. For example, my brother uses an older camera that stores its images on floppies. They can hold around a dozen pictures, with a resolution that is more than adequate for displaying on websites.
The floppy is also a little nicer form factor for some kinds of backup. For example, my yearly tax return data fits easily on one floppy, and it seems less bulky to me to slip a floppy into the file folder containing my tax information, compared to a recordable CD in its jewel case.
So, while I think it's a little premature to declare the floppy completely dead, I do think you can safely order your next computer without a floppy drive. Just make sure you own or can borrow a USB floppy drive that you can plug into your new computer to read a floppy disk if you ever need to.
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