Tech Flashback: iomega ZIP 100 and the Superdisk LS-120

So, the habit of a good blogger is to post – and post “often” – so this will be my mainstay. I will be posting random posts of “tech flashbacks” into the past, featuring computing hardware and other technology which might have been forgotten (or simply not experienced). Personally, I find old technology irresistible – often it is built based on simple principles which are not as black-box as modern technologies, but is also elegantly complicated to achieve their status.

Today’s flashback is the iomega ZIP disk – specifically the ZIP 100. Part of the solution to data transfer and storage hassles in the early 90’s, it belonged to a class of peripherals known as “superfloppies” – which included things like the Bernoulli Box (various capacities), Floptical (21Mb, backwards compatible to 3.5″) system, the ZIP (100Mb, then later 250Mb and finally 750Mb) and its main competitor, the Superdisk (aka LS-120, first 120Mb, then later LS-240 which was 240Mb, all backwards compatible to 3.5″ with LS-240 formatting regular floppies up to 32Mb).

Aside from these superfloppies or floptical (because they used floppy disks and optical tracking – LS stood for Laser Servo) devices, there were also “hard carts” which had hard disk platters encased in a cartridge like the iomega Jaz, the Castlewood Orb, and the Syquest.

Portable storage technology has several issues – notably reliability, connectivity and “portability”. Dust and head alignment issues often caused readback errors, if not that, the quality of the media could also be a problem. In fact, while testing the newest ZIP drive I own, a disk written merely a few years earlier failed to read back correctly:

Even worse, there were definitely reliability issues with ZIP disks. In order to overcome media quality problems, disks come with 4 extra spare tracks for reallocations. However, while ZIP had a fairly okay reputation for reliability, this was severely marred by the Click of Death problem with damaged disks, drives and heads causing damage to media which can damage other drives and spread. Jaz cartridges had problems with bearing wear vibrations and head crashes.

An interesting fact was that all ZIP disks had a Z track which contained information about defects and possibly servo information as well. One cannot simply degauss these disks to erase them, because once the Z track is corrupted or wiped, the disk is useless.

Many of these storage solutions only achieved limited popularity, and didn’t universally usurp the floppy disk, meaning people had to lug around their drives. Many of them featured parallel port, SCSI, IDE or USB connections, and required external power, thus could barely be called portable. Compatibility could be an issue, and drivers were almost certainly required.

Nowadays, given the technology is considered obsolete and the drives were limited in popularity, recovering the data from these disks could prove challenging depending on the drives you own. Many of the drivers for external models are no longer downloadable, are not supported by modern OSes, and generally make it a sad story.

So lets take some time to admire a few ZIP drives and disks, with some commentary.

[The drive with a ZIP disk – showing the top-side. This was a very late model USB bus-powered drive with a translucent funky cover]

[Other ZIP disks were manufactured by other brands other than iomega (in cases), as well as drives (Panasonic IDE model).]

[The bottom side of a ZIP disk – note the retroreflector in the corner that is used to signal the disk capacity to the drive. Also note how there is no slot on the cover that’s visible from this angle – that’s because the cutout is at the top, and the head slides into the cartridge from the side.]

[Read performance, probably somewhat limited by USB1.1, however, it isn’t really any quicker even on the IDE interface drive due to limited density and rotation rate.]

Lets also open up a ZIP disk just for show – the disks are held together by screws which can be removed.

And to round it off, an LS-120 drive, and the box it came in (thanks to Tarik). Just take a look at those claims on the box – it sounds utterly ridiculous now. Unfortunately, despite having the hardware, I don’t have access to the drivers, so I have no chance to get it working. And even then, I haven’t a single LS-120 disk.

So there we go – superfloppies. I didn’t have the chance to own or use any hard-cart systems because I had already moved onto CD-R/CD-RW – and I wasn’t rich enough to invest into MO (Magno-Optical – initially 230Mb or thereabouts, expanding to about 650Mb) cartridges. I didn’t even have the chance to own any tape drives – QIC was quite popular for small-business backups at the time …

All of these just look shameful when paired next to a modern 32Gb flash drive, in storage, physical size and weight, power consumption, noise, fragility, and transfer rate. In short, everything.

More Tech Flashback in the near future …

About lui_gough

I'm a bit of a nut for electronics, computing, photography, radio, satellite and other technical hobbies. Click for more about me!
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