Dirty Work

As I’m slowly archiving my giant pile of floppies, I naturally come across specimens that have one kind of problem or another. After going through hundreds of floppies, I can safely say that 3½″ floppies are much less prone to mechanical damage thanks to their hard shell. 5¼″ floppies, due to their flexible nature, are much more likely to get bent or dented when they’re improperly stored, and after decades they don’t unbend easily. The surface may also be slightly more prone to damage since it is exposed when the floppy is removed from its dust jacket.

Yet despite the protective shutter, some people managed to get even 3½″ floppies dirty, as seen in Exhibit A:

A speck of dirt on floppy surface

I don’t know what the dirt is; perhaps it used to be food, at any rate it appears to be something previously sticky that hardened with time. How much trouble can a speck of dirt like that cause?

Reading this floppy, there was a tell-tale sound of trouble, which in retrospect I should have recorded. Initially there could have been even more gunk on the diskette’s surface; the above photo was taken after attempting to read the floppy—whatever it was, it was stuck to the surface pretty well.

On the first pass, there were lots of read errors, on both sides of the floppy. However, there was always only one bad sector per track, which typically indicates very localized damage. Here’s what the results looked like in graphical form:

Many errors caused by dirt on floppy surface

There were 14 bad sectors on each side. Note that even though the bad areas do not line up visually in the above image, they are in fact physically on top of each other. And I’m not entirely sure why there was one good track in the middle of all the bad ones; perhaps there were initially two bits of dirt on the floppy.

After identifying what it was that caused the errors, I attacked the dirt with a cotton swab and isopropyl alcohol. I was able to get more or less all of it off, and it did make a really big difference.

The floppy drive sounded much quieter, because the dirt was no longer bumping against the head. And much better, the number of bad sectors went from 28 down to just one!

Here’s what the data on the cleaned disk looked like:

Much reduced errors after cleaning

That’s a pretty big improvement for a little bit of cleaning effort.

This entry was posted in Archiving, Floppies. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Dirty Work

  1. Rich Shealer says:

    I guess the errors are shown in red on a green background. Starring and zooming on the image I can see something at about 2:00 on side 0 and 5:00 on side 1. Then on the cleaned disk there is still something at 2:00 on side zero. It is not obvious to this color blind guy.

    I’m amazed at how well the diskettes have held up over the years. I miss the days of floppies, but of course like most nostalgia if you had to truly relive it you wouldn’t want to. Some day people will look back on today’s USB SSDs and wonder how we got along on such meager storage at unusable speeds.

  2. Michal Necasek says:

    Yes, red shows bad sectors. Basically from 14 bad sectors on each side it went down to 1 bad sector total after cleaning.

    I hated using floppies to transfer data. If it needed 10 floppies then the chance they’d all be readable without error was depressingly low. Ugh. USB flash sticks die but until they do they tend to work okay.

    Mass-duplicated floppies though have held up remarkably well and in my experience tend to be readable without error over 99% of the time, as long as they had not been mishandled. I mean if the floppies are unreadable because they got physically dented, that’s not really the floppy’s fault.

  3. Richard Wells says:

    I think you give rather short shrift to the wonderful joy that was the floppy disk once the issues of drives destroying disks were resolved. Compared to skipping cards or trying to guide a strip nearly the length of a football field (32K) or the general unreliability of cassettes, floppies offered amazing reliability and high speed at a very low cost. Even high end tape had its issues unless one kept up on the expensive service contract. I had my doubts about the wisdom of the 3.5″ high density disks with the diaphanous cookie and the loose fitting shell; the drive is still scraping a bent nail over a potato chip bag at 5 MPH.

    However, I don’t think any media would survive the abuse given that disk with no risk of partial data loss short of some of the rugged bubble memory storage systems.

  4. Michal Necasek says:

    There have always been rumors that the floppy media sold in the 1990s (what I’m familiar with) were much lower quality than the earlier disks. I don’t know if it’s true because I have no experience using floppies in the 1980s.

    What’s pretty obvious is that if you have 10 floppies, the probability of an error is 10 times higher than with one floppy. I am sure that colors my perception, because I used floppies in an era where even one 1.44M floppy just was not that big.

    Another issue is that as we all know, all floppy drives aren’t the same, so it’s possible that a disk will read/write just fine in one system, but not when it’s written on one machine and read on a different one.

    I have absolutely no doubt that given the choice, a floppy is far superior to punch cards, paper tape, or cassette. I have used 8-bit micros with cassette tape and although I don’t remember the tape being particularly unreliable, managing data on a tape is a nightmare.

  5. Richard Wells says:

    The standard defines a difference between double density and high density disks in the thickness of the coating. 3.5″ DD had a coating of 1.9 micrometers while HD only had a coating of .9 micrometers. A thicker coating typically survives wear longer.

    The issue with newer (say 2000 or later) budget floppies can be seen by squeezing the disk shell. The newer disk is more likely to have the seam between halves of the shell open up than a disk made in 1990. Increased infiltration of debris equals shorter life span. There were also a large number of translucent disks made during the peak of iMac mania that removed nearly all the lining. Looked great but failed fast. Admittedly, even the worse quality 3.5″ disks remained better than the bottom barrel 3″ disks.

    Cassette tape has similar problems as floppies did for data interchange. The two cassette decks needed matching azimuth and tape speed. Couple that with a dropout lasting a millisecond (perfectly acceptable for audio) would lead to a lost bit and the data transfer gets interesting. Even more fun, some CPU driven bit banging routines could only accept a few cycles variation in timing per second or the cumulative errors would lead to lost data with longer files. Tape validation software existed but who was going spend hours doing a test format before using a tape for storage. Improvements in cassette production and better storage routines did lead to a more reliable cassette experience but it took time.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.