A beige computer with a CRT monitor. A black LCD sits atop a stack of 3 devices next to it and a set of power control switches (the orange light up kind). There appear to be 8 floppy drives available.

Flux Is Your Friend For Archiving Old Floppy Disks

Nothing screams retrocomputing quite like floppy drives. If you want to preserve some of your favorite computing memories like that paper you wrote about the joys of the Information Superhighway, [Shelby] from Tech Tangents has a detailed dive into how to preserve the bits off those old floppies.

Back in the day, the best way to get data off an old drive was to fire up an old computer. Now, with new devices specifically designed for harvesting data off of old floppies like the KryoFlux and the Greaseweazle, you can get the full flux map of the disk. With this, you can build binary image files and actually pull files and duplicate disks from vintage systems.

Some systems, like PCs, Macs, and Commodores are well-understood and are simple to preserve, while others take quite a bit of work to figure out. [Shelby] walks us through some of the more common disk formats as well as some real oddballs like Microsoft Adventure which features inconsistent formatting as a form of early DRM (boo).

Want to do your own preservation? We’ve covered a couple different methods in the past.

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[CuriousMarc] Repairs A Floppy

[CuriousMarc] has a pile of 8-inch drives, all marked bad. You can’t just pop over to the computer store and buy a new one these days, so it was off to the repair bench. Although the target drive would do a quick seek,  once it was in use, it just kind of shut down. So [Marc] started sending low-level commands to the device to see if he could isolate the fault. You can watch the whole adventure in the video below.

Using a breakout board, he was able to monitor and exercise all the pins going into the floppy. A quick study of the schematics, and connection to the scope were all [Marc] needed to build some theories of what was happening.

One of the theories was that the head amplifier was disabled, but it turned out to be fine. After several other dead ends, he finally found a broken spring and came up with a creative repair for it. But there was still no clear reason why the drive wouldn’t work. By process of elimination, he started to suspect an array of diodes used for switching, but again, it was another dead end.

Luckily, he had one working drive, so he could compare things between them. He found a strange voltage difference. Turns out the old advice of checking power first might have paid off here. One of the voltage regulator ICs was dead. In all fairness, there are two 12V power supplies and he had checked one of them but had missed the second supply.  This supply is only used for head bias which switches the diodes he had suspected earlier. There had also been a loose pin that might have been a contributor.

With a new power supply IC, the drive worked but needed an alignment. You may never need to repair an 8-inch floppy drive, but the logic in chasing down a problem like this will serve you well on any diagnostic task.

If you think the big drives won’t work with a modern PC, they will. On the other hand, if you need to read some badly enough, you could just use an oscilloscope.

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Hackaday Links: March 19, 2023

We get results! Well, sort of. You may recall that in this space last week we discussed Ford’s plans to exclude AM reception on the infotainment systems of certain of their cars starting in 2024. We decried the decision, not for the loss of the sweet, sweet content that AM stations tend to carry — although we always enjoyed “Traffic on the 8s” back in our dismal days of daily commuting — but rather as a safety concern, because AM radio can reach almost the entire US population with emergency information using just 75 stations. To our way of thinking, this makes AM radio critical infrastructure, and eliminating it from motor vehicles is likely to have unintended consequences. Now it seems like there’s some agreement with that position, as former administrators of FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Administration; and no, not FEDRA) have gotten together to warn about the dangers of deleting AM from cars. Manufacturers seem to be leaning into the excuse that EVs emit a lot of radio frequency interference, rendering static-sensitive AM receivers less useful than other, more profitable less susceptible modes, like digital satellite radio. That seems like a red herring to us, but then again, the most advanced infotainment option in any car we’ve ever owned is a CD player, so it’s hard for us to judge.

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Floppy-8 Is A Tiny PC In A Floppy Drive

At first sight, Floppy-8 is simply a LattePanda based PC built into the shell of a external vintage floppy drive. Indeed, it’s a very nicely executed LattePanda PC in a floppy, and we’re impressed by it. What turns it from a nifty case mod into something a bit special though, is the way creator [Abraham Haskins] has used floppy-like cartridges in the original floppy slot, as a means of loading software.

The cartridges started out as PCBs in the shape of a floppy with an SD socket on their bottom, and progressed to USB drives on 3D printed cartridges and finally and simplest of all, the same 3D printed cartridges with micro SD cards embedded in their leading edges. All this was necessary to get them thin enough to fit into the existing disk slot — if dimensions weren’t a concern, you could enclose various USB devices into printed cartridges. A script on the computer looks for new card insertion, and runs the appropriate autostart.sh script on the SD card if it finds one. If you don’t need the “disks” to fit into an existing slot, you could print them larger and embed

Beyond the cartridges, the PC itself is assembled on a 3D printed frame inside the case. It’s controlled via Bluetooth, with a pair of knock-off NES controllers for games and an Amazon Fire remote for media. We particularly like the idea of weighting the controllers with ball bearings to give them a little heft.

The LattePanda gives the Raspberry Pi a run for its money in these applications. We particularly liked this portable Macintosh.

Floppy Disk Sales Are Higher-Density Than You Might Think

Floppies may be big in Japan, but nostalgic and/or needful Stateside floppy enthusiasts needn’t fret — just use AOL keyword point that browser toward floppydisk.com. There, you can buy new floppies of all sizes, both new and old, recycle your disks, or send them in to get all that precious vintage stuff transferred off of them.

That delightfully Web 1.0 site is owned by Tom Persky, who fancies himself the ‘last man standing in the floppy disk business’. Who are we to argue? By the way, Tom has owned that address since approximately 1990 — evidently that’s when a cyber-squatter offered up the domain for $1,000, and although Tom scoffed at paying so much as $1 for any URL, his wife got the checkbook out, and he has had her to thank for it ever since.

My business, which used to be 90% CD and DVD duplication, is now 90% selling blank floppy disks. It’s shocking to me. — Tom Persky

In the course of writing a book all about yours-truly’s favorite less-than-rigid medium, authors Niek Hilkmann and Thomas Walskaar sat down to talk with Tom about what it’s like to basically sell buggy whips in the age of the electric car.

Tom also owns diskduper.com, which is where he got his start with floppies — by duplicating them. In the 80s and 90s, being in this business was a bit like cranking out legal tender in the basement. As time wore on and more companies stopped selling floppies or simply went under, the focus of Tom’s company shifted away from duplication and toward sales. Whereas the business was once 90% duplication and 10% floppy sales, in 2022, those percentages have flopped places, if you will.

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Magnetic Maniac Manages Mangled Memory

Ahh, floppy disks. Few things carry nostalgia quite like a floppy — either 3 1⁄2 or 5 1⁄4, depending on which generation of hacker you happen to be. (And yes, we hear you grey-beards, 8-inch floppies were definitely a thing.) The real goodies aren’t the floppies themselves, but what they carried, like Wolfenstein 3d, Commander Keen, DOS, or any number of other classics from the past. Unfortunately a bunch of floppy disks these aren’t carrying anything anymore, as bit rot eventually catches up with them. Even worse, on some trashed floppies, a format operation fails, too. Surely, these floppies are destined for the trash, right?
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Up Close And Personal With An 8x Floppy Controller

In need of a floppy controller for a 286 he was working on, [Gadget Reboot] took to GitHub to see what was available in the open hardware space. There he found an ISA board capable of controlling up to eight drives from [Sergey Kiselev] called the Monster Floppy Disk Controller (FDC) — arguably overkill for the task, but too impressive to pass up. Luckily for us, he decided to document the build process in a video that covers everything from ordering the boards to configuring the BIOS.

Testing with four drives.

The video starts with a high-level overview of the schematic, which as you might have guessed, essentially puts two identical floppy controllers on the same board. You can tell this design was put together during the current chip shortage, as [Sergey] was careful to include some wiggle room if certain parts became unavailable and had to be swapped out for the alternatives listed in the BOM. It’s a decision that already paid off for [Gadget Reboot], as in some cases he had to go with the second-choice ICs.

[Gadget Reboot] was in for something of a surprise when he submitted the board for fabrication, as selecting the option for gold contacts on the edge connector made the production cost jump from $5 to nearly $300. He details how he was able to bring that cost back down a bit, but it still ended up being more than 10 times as expensive as the base price.

The second half of the video is dedicated to configuring the Monster FDC, which will certainly be a helpful resource for anyone looking to put this board to work in their own system. [Gadget Reboot] demonstrates using the board with “only” four floppy drives, and everything looks to work quite well.

Of course if your needs aren’t quite so grandiose, we’ve seen some more expedient floppy controllers which might be closer to what you’re looking for.

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