Checking Out And Reviving A Batch Of Used Floppy Disks

With the last manufacturer of 3.5″ floppy disks (FDs) having shut down in 2010, those who are still using this type of storage medium for production and/or retrocomputing purposes have to increasingly rely on a dwindling stack of new old stock, or the used market. With the purported unreliability of this type of magnetic media in mind, what are the chances of a box of used FDs — whether DD or HD format — still working in 2023? That’s the question which [VWestLife] set out to answer in a recent video when he bought a stash of these real-life save icons in 720 kB format from eBay.

To his delight, he found that he could read most of the disks without issues, revealing contents that had been on there since the 1990s. All but four also could be formatted without issues, the problematic disks reported bad sectors, which was a bit of a bummer. As a practical demonstration of how fun magnetic media is, he then proceeded to try and fix these four disks with a bulk eraser tool. This is a rather brute-force tool that uses a rapidly fluctuating electromagnetic field to scramble the bits on magnetic media.

As the cause of reported bad sectors and other issues can be due to sector alignment issues from years of constant writing by different drives, this may sometimes fix a disk. In this case one of the bad disks was fixed, while a second still showed bad sectors while the remaining two refused to format at all. Assuming one can get a box of old FDs for cheap and has a few hours to kill, it’s not a bad way to refill that stack of empty FDs.

Of course if you can’t fix that old floppy, you can always make an IR filter out of it.

Thanks to [Stephen Walters] for the tip.

29 thoughts on “Checking Out And Reviving A Batch Of Used Floppy Disks

  1. This isn’t how floppy disks work!? If you reformat the disk with a misaligned drive it will by definition be aligned to the drive that just formatted it!

    Bad sectors are usually a bit of dust/hair. You can fix most by opening the window and rotate the disk to find it and blow it away.

      1. Is there any documentation/book about calibrating and/or general servicing of floppy disk drives? I never saw one but only post on decades old mailing lists or dead forums (fora, I know) so it’s seems like it’s black magic.

          1. Thanks. I wonder whether it would be possible for somehone with the 21st machines we have now (ultra precise CNC, chemistry…) to make such a calibration disc, DIY way.

      2. A neat trick is having one floppy drive misaligned to where it writes tracks between where they’re supposed to be. Then a disk can be formatted with two different systems, for example a Win98SE boot floppy and the QNX OS Demo. Put the disk into any PC and it boots the 98 startup, but in the special one it boots QNX.

        What would be the really slick trick is having a hidden button that changes the rotation of the head stepper motor to switch between normal and in between tracks.

        NEC made a 1.44M floppy with a linear actuator to move the head. Very quiet, just an almost inaudible beep as it stepped across a disk. Might be possible to hack it to position the heads to any position. I had one of those drives years ago, wished I’d kept it.

  2. Hmmm. I think I have a bunch of 5-14s around here somewhere. I wonder if I can sell those. Have to find something that can run an old drive (if I still have one). What about zip drives?

    1. I got around 200 of the 100mb disks and about 20 of the 250mb disks. I haven’t gone through them all but most that I tested seemed to work fine. It appears a few of the older 100mb disks that went bad may have been damaged by the click of death before I acquired them.

      Ps don’t ask why I have so many disks

      1. You can hold a Zip disk’s shutter open with a piece of tape then look into it while rotating the disk with a fingertip. Just enough pressure to turn it, too much binds the hub against the top of the case.

        I found several with a little torn bit on the edge. Those are the clicking disks that can destroy other Zip drives. I had to replace a bunch of Zip drives in the 90’s because of damaged disks ripping the heads loose.

        “The disk wouldn’t read. It was making this clicking sound so I tried it in my other computer and now that drive won’t read any disks.” Oh, goody. I get to sell two new Zip drives. :P

        I showed a lot of customers how to examine their Zip disks and drives for damage. I kept a damaged drive handy as an example of what to look for. “See those two white things? Those are the heads. Now in this drive they’re torn loose and crooked. If you see that, do not put another disk in it. Examine the edges of all your zip disks and throw away any that are torn like the one I showed you. DO NOT put a damaged Zip disk into any drive.”

        Having dealt with so many Zip drives I noticed differences between the IDE and ATAPI versions. IDE has a black eject button with activity light beside it, and the emergency eject is a metal rod that can be pulled from the front. The ATAPI version has a clear eject button the activity LED shines through and to do an emergency eject requires opening the computer to shove an unbent paperclip into a tiny hole on the back.

        I had one of the earliest internal SCSI Zip 100 drives. It took a 5.25″ half height bay because while the drive mechanism was normal 3.5″ size the circuit board was wider. The eject button was a super long, clear, plastic rod that pushed a button at the rear of the circuit board. Like the external SCSI versions it only supported ID 5 and 6.

  3. The only safe way to erase floppies, HDDs, SSD and other memory devices is to hit them with a 7 lbs hammer until no data can be read. Otherwise, determined attacker (say government or special forces operators) can read your files using various recovery techniques.

    1. I would think the 7lb hammer xould leave quite a lot of magnetic stuff that could in principle be read on the remaining pieces. Especially on a floppy which will bend but not shatter (unless you dip it in liquid nitrogen first?). Less so on a glass platter hard drive which you can smash literally to a powder. But if you stop short of a powder, wouldn’t there be magnetic data remaining that could be read with specialized equipment?

    2. “Otherwise, determined attacker (say government or special forces operators) can read your files using various recovery techniques.”

      None of my AOL disks will be safe again.

    3. A more thorough destruction of data would be to heat them. Plastic disks will melt easily in bonfire (don’t inhale smoke though). SSD and HD would need a lot of heat to melt, look for local foundry and chuck them in the vat of molten metal.

      There’s also DIY thermite solution but it’s risky and should be done outside away from anything that can burn. Thermite is easy to make with iron powder (such as from auto shop that resurfaces brake discs and drums) and aluminum powder. Once ignited, it’s almost impossible to put it out and, with enough thermite, will melt SSD and most hard drives.

      1. “SSD and HD would need a lot of heat to melt, look for local foundry and chuck them in the vat of molten metal.”

        They might be a little upset with one contaminating the batch.

      2. Just put it in a blender and grind!
        Easier than risking thermite or harassing a foundry.

        If an attacker restores a completely pulverized semiconductor device with virtually impossible effort, it means you’ve done too much wrong.

    4. Or just write random noise over them a few times. Several years ago someone challenged data recovery companies to recover data on a drive that was fuzzed twice and they wouldn’t even try. Twice is probably enough, but do it 20 times if you’re extra paranoid.

  4. So much wrong with this video.

    – I have 1,000s of old Amiga disks (mostly collected from eBay as job lots), and some of those are HDs formatted as DD (well, the Amiga version of DD), and they are just as (un)reliable as the DD ones. It’s true that later HD drives used weaker magnetic fields, but that doesn’t mean the disks themselves were worse. In fact, it’s more to do with HD floppies being so commonplace, that by the end of the floppy era, the main sellers were selling poor-quality disks to keep the costs low.

    – He says he can’t find DDs on eBay – that’s just wrong – search for Amiga/Atari ‘blank’ floppies, and you’ll find thousands; they work on PCs too (after a reformat).

    – I just don’t get the use of the de-magnetiser. PC floppys are ‘soft sectored’, so a format will fix any previous format that was done on a misaligned drive. ‘Bad Sectors’ due to misalignment do not necessarily mean the disk is ‘bad’.

    I’ve been working through my hoards of Amiga floppies trying to preserve obscure shareware/PD software (I just reformat the game copies, and disks with well-known software on them)… so I know a bit about this stuff.

  5. I recently–in a fit of midlife crisis–started rebuilding my childhood Super Nintendo collection which was lost to various profound misfortunes, and one of the items which that endeavor required was a Super Wild Card game copier. Sure, I could replace the 3.5″ floppy drive with a floppy emulator, but I won’t for many of the same reasons I don’t just get a modern flash cartridge instead of an archaic ‘magicom’-style device; I prefer the ritual of using actual floppies. (Don’t @ me about piracy, I use it strictly for backing up and transferring save data, and playing romhacks/translations/homebrew.)

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