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[ The PC Guide | Systems and Components Reference Guide | Floppy Disk Drives | Floppy Disk Interfacing and Configuration ]

Floppy Disk Reliability

The reliability of floppy disk media is a bit of a sore spot for me. While the drives are generally quite reliable and will last for many years if given even a modicum of reasonable care, the media are in fact quite unreliable in my experience. Certainly the condition of the drive will contribute to this; an older drive that is dirty and misaligned will cause many more problems than a newer drive that is clean and aligned properly. Even so, failure of floppy disk media is more a matter of when than if. This is true of hard disks too but the time frame is much smaller here; usually I find that floppy disks that I use regularly will develop bad sectors (unreadable areas on the disk) within a few weeks, and often in less time than that.

There are several reasons why floppy disks are far less reliable, in general, than hard disks for example. One is quality in general--most floppy disk drives are crude affairs assembled in large quantity and sold very cheaply; it's hard to have very good quality in a drive that sells for $25. Floppy disk media is in many cases even worse; competition among manufacturers is frequently based on cost only, since the media is viewed as a commodity item and not something for which quality matters.

The nature of floppy disk technology contributes to low reliability as well. While hard disks have the complex task of dealing with a very fast spinning disk and read/write heads floating very near to them on a cushion of air, they do this in a tightly controlled environment. The head assembly is sealed, and the platters are fixed and rigid. Floppy disks use removable media that is not rigid, and both the heads and media are exposed to external contaminants that can damage the media and lead to data loss. Data stored on floppy disks is also subject to loss as a result of stray magnetic fields.

As far as I am concerned, floppy disks are reliable only for short-term storage and data transfers. I would not attempt long-term archiving on floppy disks, and I no longer view them as a viable backup source for critical data (they're too small anyway). When I am doing data transfers using floppies, I almost always make two copies of the file on two floppies in case one goes bad.

Warning: I've seen too many people that actually do original work on floppy disks, and then are surprised when one day, the file won't read from the disk. In my opinion anyone that uses floppy disks for primary storage is asking for trouble (and will usually get it.) It makes much more sense to use the hard disk and then copy to the floppy disk when you are finished. It's much faster as well--saving a large document from a typical application to a floppy disk takes much more time than saving it to the hard disk and then copying it to the floppy, because of the non-linear way that the application saves the data.

Finally, if I get a bad disk, I immediately toss it (I never arrange to have critical data on a floppy but if I did I would recover as much data as I could, and then toss it). It isn't worth trying to "save" a floppy disk that is showing errors, in my experience, because they will usually start showing more errors, and because they are so cheap anyway. Repeated problems with the same drive of course implicate the drive (or the media in general if you are always using the same brand).

Next: Other Devices Using the Floppy Interface

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