Do you remember the days when flash media used to cost an arm and a leg? I do. My first flash card was an 8Mb CompactFlash card bundled with a camera, my second was 64Mb CompactFlash card for $90. (The real oldies will now throw their food at me and go “What about SmartMedia? or the Sony Mavica cameras that recorded directly to floppy?) They didn’t come in very big capacities, and strangely enough, they did wear out. In fact, the said card actually caused data corruption after a while, possibly due to the lack of proper Wear-Levelling algorithms.
Those who needed big storage went for the good old tried-and-tested hard disks.
But what if you needed big storage on-the-go?
The solution to that would be good old Microdrives. They were CompactFlash Type II cards which were thicker than your ordinary cards, but actually contained a miniature hard disk inside. Most popularly from IBM and Hitachi, they started off at 170Mb and 320Mb which competed quite well with the flash media of the time. Seagate and Sony got in on the whole business as well, and pro-photographers had a lot of reason to use these, as did some media players such as the Creative Jukeboxes and iPod Minis. Some guys tried to make a cheaper off-brand microdrive as well, although these were plagued with compatibility and reliability issues.
The problem with Microdrives was fragility, inherited from the mechanical subsystems involved, as well as price. Making tiny drives, especially with little competition and complicated interfaces wasn’t easy. They also had higher power consumption due to needing to spin a platter.
In comes Cornice, a company since defunct, with their award-winning Storage Element. Microdrives with capacities from 1-2Gb (with plans to ramp up to higher capacities). Back then, it wasn’t clear which way we would go for mass portable storage – these guys bet the house on small hard drives and ultimately lost. There was a mobile phone with a 1.5Gb hard disk, which, today, sounds utterly absurdly stupid.
The key to their product was simplicity. They had a special new interface, which was simpler and consumed less power. The drives themselves were supposedly minimalist with only a single platter. And they kept it all safe by incorporating ramp-load and unload technology, with a g-shock sensor to park the heads on a drop. Those guys seemed to have a winning formula, but ultimately went blazing (after being sued by both Seagate and Western Digital, sheesh!).
The first I came in contact with these unique drives was in my Leadtek MyDigiBank external hard disk. It had a 5.5Mb maximum transfer rate, and had a very unusual curve as logical block 0 wasn’t at the outer rim of the hard drive, so instead it started somewhere in the middle, decreased as it got to the centre of the platter, and then shoot up as the drive seeked back to the outer track for the second “half” of the drive. Unfortunately, mine got killed by a drop to the floor from desk height, while powered off, so it was definitely fragile. I bought mine at a MSY fire-sale for $55, the going rate for a 1Gb flash card was about $75, so I thought it was good value. It was bus powered, with a cute swivel plug. Anyway, I decided to take it apart just to show how “simple” and “tiny” these things are. Enjoy.
Yes, I totally destroyed the case to get into it. Notice how it had a ribbon interface rather than anything more CF-like.
A nice PCB spans the back, not very big really, with at most, a few surface mount ICs from what I can tell. My thumb looks like a giant!
Here’s the drive with the lid off. Notice the one lone head sitting on the ramp, parked safely off the disk. There appears to be one TI chip, likely to be the head preamp. Apologies for my thumb.
This gives you a good sense of its size relative to a palm.
And the drive from the other side, a speck of dust on the platter. It’s interesting to think that this company appeared so promising, but was very quickly snuffed out. I always wonder just how practical these miniaturized hard disks are, given that we now have flash memory microSD cards up to 64Gb, these drives would have to do heaps more in terms of areal density to compete. Maybe it’s a better thing that these microdrive contraptions (especially this one with its proprietary interface) died off, so we wouldn’t have to suffer poor battery life, slow random and sequential access speeds and poor reliability. It’s still a marvel for size however … this was 2003-2004, almost 10 years ago.
[Aside: To all readers, thank you for reading my blog. Please feel free to leave me a comment. I enjoy being able to show random things about tech on this blog, and it is my pleasure to write these posts which show things which some people may have never been able to see. As a result of running it on my Raspberry Pi, and the desire to keep it simple, I just wanted to say that none of the visits are being logged and no statistics are derived or kept. Instead, the only things I have are comments – so if you’re so inclined, I would be grateful for your comments. As another aside, I have also added new header images on random. All the photos you see in the blog thus far are all my own (and as such, are probably not as good as I would like, but I can’t spend all day perfecting my photos!) I hope to bring you more strange, wacky and forgotten technology as time permits.]