From Floppies to Solid State: The Evolution of PC Storage Media
Remember Jaz and Zip discs? Since the debut of the IBM PC, there have been many ways to store your data, and if you’re geeks like us, you care about this sort of thing.
Since the dawn of computing, we’ve struggled with how to store all this digital stuff. International Business Machines helped launch the PC revolution in the 1980s, but computers were dealing with storage issues long before that. In fact, that same company had the first hard disk drive running back in 1956 —a 2,000-pound unit that cost $35,000 per year to operate.
It also held only 5 megabytes (MB). But just look at how streamlined that thing is.
Other ways to store data existed in those early days, from punch cards to giant, reel-to-reel magnetic tape machines. Thankfully, by the time PCs first made it to our offices and living rooms, storage devices were substantially smaller, if not yet as small as what we carry in our pockets today.
Let’s look back at what it took to store data on a PC from the early days through today. It should give you a whole new appreciation for the size, speed, and capacity of today’s latest storage methods.
1. 5.25-Inch Floppy Disk
IBM created the floppy drive as a means of read-only magnetic storage in 1972. Floppy disks originally came in a size of 203.2mm, which is close enough to 8 inches for that to be the moniker used. The round disk inside was in a permanent flexible (floppy) jacket to keep fingers off.
The 8-inch size didn’t stick around for very long. Steve Wozniak designed the first external Apple II disk drive in 1978; it used a 5.25-inch floppy disk. Soon, Commodore, Tandy, and Atari adopted the same format.
The original IBM PC 5150 that debuted in August 1981 offered the option of one or two internal 5.25-inch floppy drives. Each floppy diskette could hold 160 kilobytes on one side, or 320KB if you could use both (not all disks were double-sided). The drives required a controller card on the motherboard and were connected with ribbon cables. Back then, having two floppy drives made a huge difference because one of them could hold the operating system while the other drive loaded a program, such as Lotus 1–2–3. You wouldn’t have to swap disks.
Hard drives soon became the permanent, long-term data storage standard, and next-generation floppy disks would soon take over for portability, both of which we’ll get to below. The 5.25-inch floppy was fully ejected by 1994.
2. Cassette Tape
Magnetic tape isn’t that far different from a floppy disk, although it’s a lot slower when accessing stored data. In the 1980s, computer software was often sold on cassette tape, just like music albums. Cassette recorders were available for home computers such as the Apple II and Commodore 64.
The original IBM PC also had a port for one. A 90-minute cassette could hold about a megabyte of data. But few developers sold PC software on tape because the computer almost always came with at least one floppy drive. IBM soon dropped the 5-pin DIN cassette port on its later systems, but it continued to sell the original 5150 right up through 1987 without a floppy drive if a customer preferred tape.
Why include a port for tape at all? Some people wanted to run a version of BASIC called Cassette BASIC that only worked off of tape, and DOS had no cassette tape support (DOS stood for Disk Operating System, after all). And because tape was the cheapest storage available.
Third parties made proprietary tape-based drives for backup, such as Iomega and its Ditto drive of the 1990s. Iomega gave it up and sold off the tape drive biz before the end of the decade.
Unlike the floppy drive, however, tape has never gone away. You can still buy uber-expensive cartridge drives using the Linear Tape-Open (LTO) spec for massive backup use—usually they’re found in enterprises, backing up servers full of important data.
3. 3.5-Inch Floppy Disk
The 3.5-inch floppy disk is the universal iconic symbol for saving your work for a reason. The smaller disk wasn’t as floppy as 8-inch and 5.25-inch diskettes because the 3.5-inch version came inside a hard plastic shell. It did, however, become the top-selling removable storage medium by 1988. This despite a limited capacity: first 720KB, then in a high-density 1.44MB version. IBM made a 2.88MB double-sided extended-density diskette for the IBM PS/2, but that standard went nowhere.
3.5-inch floppies were a mainstay of PC software well into the 90s; five billion 3.5-inch floppie were in use by 1996.
But the small diskettes couldn’t keep up with the demands of bloated software. At one point, for example, Microsoft shipped a version of Windows 98 that required sequentially inserting 21 different floppy disks to install it on a hard drive. Microsoft Office required almost twice that many. You could build up your arm muscles by replacing disks while installing software to a hard drive. Sony, one of the biggest manufacturers, stopped making 3.5-inch floppies in 2011.
4. Hard Disk Drive
Hard disk drives (HDDs) were nothing new in 1982, but a hard drive didn’t make it into the first IBM PC. Instead, the world (and PC Magazine) awaited the second-generation eXTension (XT) model. The PC XT included a standard 10MB HDD, which we called “certainly significant” in our Feb-Apr 1983 issue. The drive required a new power supply and a BIOS update, all of which contributed to the XT’s much higher price of $4,995 (that’s $14,380 with 2022 inflation).
The IBM PC’s first HDD was the Seagate Technology Model ST-412. The interface between it and the motherboard became the de facto disk drive standard for several years.
Entire books have been written about HDDs (though one book entitled Hard Drive was about the hard-driving influence of Microsoft). The impact of spacious, local, rewritable storage on a platter changed everything. Hard drives continued to dominate system storage decades later due to their overall reliability and ever-increasing speed and capacity.
Today, you can find 20-terabyte (TB) internal hard drives on the market, such as the Seagate Exos X20 for $389. That company alone has shipped a full 3 zettabytes of hard drive storage capacity as of 2021—the equivalent of 150,000,000 hard drives with 20TB each.
5. Zip Disk
The Zip Drive and its high-capacity floppy disks never really replaced the standard floppy, but of the many “superfloppy” products that tried, only Iomega’s came close. The company had limited success with its Bernoulli Box removable floppies in the 1980s. But the 1994 debut of the very affordable Zip Drive put Bernoulli on a whole other level.
Zip disks were the first to hold 100MB of data each; subsequent releases went to 250MB and even 750MB in 2002. Bernoulli also survived the famous Click of Death lawsuit in 1998. By 2003, Iomega had shipped some 50 million Zip Drives.
But timing is everything. Zip Drives were caught between the era of the floppy and the onslaught of writable CDs that could seek data much faster, plus local networks that made file transfers much easier. EMC bought Iomega, and soon partnered with Lenovo before killing off the Zip drive line.
6. Jaz Disk
Following the debut of the popular Zip disk, Iomega tried to build on that success in 1995 with the Jaz . The thicker Jaz format boosted capacity to 1GB per disk, and then to 2GB by 1998—perfect for creatives who needed copious amounts of storage.
Iomega marketed the Jaz mainly as a $500 external drive, although an internal version was available, which the Zip also had as an option. The Jaz drive connected via a SCSI interface, which was big on the Macintosh, though some later models connected to parallel ports. A SCSI adapter worked with USB and even FireWire.
The Jaz had some of the same issues as the Zip, however, including the Click of Death problem and overheating. Like the Zip, the Jaz also pushed up against the coming of the CD and CD-R, and couldn’t compete on price.
7. USB Flash Drive
2000 saw the first ever Universal Serial Bus (USB)-based flash-memory drive, the ThumbDrive from Trek Technology. A holy matrimony between the easy-to-use and now mainstream USB port and (finally inexpensive) non-volatile NAND flash memory, the ThumbDrive was among the first chips that didn’t require power to retain data. IBM’s first flash drive that same year, the DiskOnKey, held 8MB for $50.
Soon, the floodgates opened. Tons of companies made small, fast, somewhat-high-capacity solid-state drives as big as your thumb. Many sued each other. It took years for Trek to win the US copyright to the name “Thumbdrive” in 2010, by which time the term was genericized—but that win is also why PCMag and others now call them “flash drives” instead.
That initial 1.0 USB specification gave way to the 30x faster speeds of 2.0, which only helped flash memory drives. By 2004 the first 1GB flash drive shipped.
Today, USB flash drives typically use USB 3.0 with a read speed of 120 MB per second. In our Best USB Flash Drives for 2022, we tested devices with the old-school USB-A connector ( Samsung Bar Plus 128GB USB 3.1 Flash Drive for $21) and even some that use the faster USB-C ( SanDisk Ultra Dual Drive 128GB USB Type-C Flash Drive for $18). We’ve seen them in all shapes (including as part of a Swiss army knife), some with incredibly high capacity, some with security locks integrated, and other crazy things. For all-around ease of use coupled with secure, mobile storage, USB flash drives remain hard to beat.
8. Memory Card
It’s not unfair to think of memory cards as USB flash drives without the USB. The cards can be much, much smaller. While they work as media storage for PCs, they’re more likely to be found in even smaller devices, requiring you to have an adapter for your PC to read them.
The first “cards” were the large PCMCIA devices that came in sized like a credit card, albeit substantially thicker. This gave way in the mid-1990s to Compact Flash, a format that you can still find in devices today, then to Toshiba’s SmartMedia Card (SMC), a NAND-based flash memory that held as much as 128MB on a card only 0.76mm thick.
Memory cards have had many subsequent names and sizes and shapes in the last two decades: Multimedia Cards (MMC), Secure Digital (SD), SmartMedia, Memory Stick, XD-Card, and Universal Flash Storage (UFS), among others. Eventually, the most popular, SD, got smaller via miniSD and microSD; they remain the most prevalent today.
Originally, memory cards were meant to replace floppy disks or even the high-capacity ones like the Zip. But the tiny size made them ideal to become the digital replacement for film in cameras. The memory card propelled the age of digital photography. Today, support for memory cards in Android-based smartphones ebbs and flows (usually, it ebbs). Some memory cards are even specific to various brands and generations of game consoles.
The read-only memory that changed the world. The fully-optical-and-digital compact disc full of data held up to 650MB on 1.2 mm of polycarbonate plastic with a reflective aluminum surface. They could be read only by a laser. CD-ROM became the standard for software and video game distribution in the late 1980s and persisted through the 90s. (Music CDs are similar, but they use a different format, although computer CD drives could eventually read those, too.)
The CD-ROM’s only downside is that it is read-only memory (it’s right there in the name). Users couldn’t write data to it. This did however make them ideal to software and game distributors who liked that it was easy to copy-protect.
The faster the drive could spin the CD-ROM, the faster the data could be accessed. The base standard of 1x was about 150Kb per second, but eventually, drives were hitting 52x or even 72x, but with some physical world caveats.
10. CD-R and CD-RW
The compact disc-recordable (CD-R) was originally called the CD-Write-Once and uses some of the same technology as the earlier magneto-optical drive-the ability to write your data to a disc one time only for backup or distribution. You could write to CD-Rs in the audio format (“Red Book”) holding up to 80 minutes of music or data format (“Yellow Book”) with 700MB of info, and they’d work in regular CD players or CD-ROM drives most of the time. The CD-R format was part of the “ Orange Book“ standard, and writing to CD-Rs became known as “burning” a CD.
You can still easily buy CD-R media online. Verbatim sells a 100 disc pack for $19.22 on Amazon.
Another Orange Book-based product introduced in 1997, the CD-RW became the first truly mainstream optical media option that let you write to the disc, erase it, and write to it again. You couldn’t do it forever, maybe 1,000 times, but that’s still a lot. They’re almost the same as CD-Rs but with different reflective layers to facilitate erasure and rewriting.
The biggest drawback of CD-RWs is that not all older CD and CD-R drives will read them. They also don’t necessarily last as long as the original CD-ROMs. A spindle of 50 CD-RW discs from Verbatim currently sells for $31. Plus, they’re printable—you can run them through select printers to label them.
11. DVD and DVD±RW
The Digital Video Disc, or Digital Versatile Disc depending on who you ask, also came in the late 1990s and became the primo way to distribute high-end video of films quickly. It was better than LaserDisc because it was much smaller, it included sharper digital video, and it also didn’t need to be flipped halfway through a movie. The DVD was enough to replace VHS and also get Netflix off the ground in 1998 as a mail-order movie rental biz. Remember those red envelopes?
There are types of rewriteable DVD: the standard “dash” format (DVD-R/RW) from 1997 and the plus (DVD+R/RW) from 2002. Different industry consortiums back each standard. With an R, you can write once; with RWs you can rewrite, just like with the CD version. The big upside of a DVD-R for computer storage, of course, is it holds a lot more than a CD-R. A regular DVD-R on a single side using a single layer can store 4.7GB of data. A 30-pack of Verbatim-brand DVD+RW discs goes now for $23.25.
12. Sony Blu-ray
You probably know Blu-ray as the format for buying high-definition movies (with lots of extras) on a disc. It’s the format that won the war against Toshiba’s HD-DVD in the aughts, finally giving Sony some justice over what happened with Betamax. It wasn’t originally created for the purpose, but Blu-ray became king of the movie-watching hill…at least until streaming went, uh, mainstream. (But some of us still prefer physical media.)
Recordable (BD-R) or Recordable Erasable (BD-RE) Blu-ray discs have been available since at least 2005, assuming you have the right kind of drive that can handle 45Mbps write speed. The standard disk capacity is 25GB or 50GB depending on whether it’s single- or dual-layer.
13. Solid-State Drive (SSD)
The first SSD appeared in 1991, but it took a few decades for the tech to go mainstream. It’s essentially like flash drive memory, on a grander scale of capacity, and using semiconductor cells for non-volatile storage. SSDs work in a PC like HDDs, but without any of the moving parts that spell eventual doom. And SSDs are a lot faster, making them perfect for booting up an operating system.
SSDs often accompany HDDs in lower-cost PCs, and increasingly the SSD is the only drive on board. Plus, there are many external SSD options. SSDs also make great upgrades for PCs that need a new drive, even laptops, thanks to the small “gumstick” M.2 format. You can read more about them in SSD vs. HDD: What’s the Difference, and our sister site ExtremeTech has a deep dive on how SSDs work.
Want to see some stranger storage? Check out 10 Bizarre PC Storage Formats that Didn’t Quite Cut It.
Originally published at https://www.pcmag.com.