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
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.
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? Continue reading “Magnetic Maniac Manages Mangled Memory”→
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.
It wasn’t long after early humans started banging rocks together that somebody in the tribe thought they could improve on things a bit by doing it with a little rhythm. As such the first musician was born, and since it would be a couple million years before humanity figured out how to record sound, musical performances had to be experienced live throughout most of history. On the cosmic scale of things, Spotify only shows up about a zeptosecond before the big bash at midnight.
So its only fitting that [Linus Åkesson] has perfected the musical floppy drive to the point that it can now be played live. We understand the irony of this being demonstrated via the video below the break, but we think it still gets the point across — rather than having to get a whole array of carefully-scripted drives going to perform something that even comes close to a musical number, he’s able to produce tones by manipulating a single drive in real-time.
In his write-up, [Linus] not only goes over the general nuts and bolts of making music with floppy drives, but specifically explains how this Commodore 1541-II drive has been modified for its new life as a digital virtuoso. From his experiments to determine which drive moves corresponded to the most pleasing sounds, to the addition of a small microphone and a piezo sensor paired with an LMC662-based amplifier to provide a high-fidelity capture of the drive’s sounds and vibrations, there’s a lot of valuable info here for anyone else looking to make some sweet tunes with their old gear.
There are times when a technology goes almost overnight as if in a puff of smoke, and others when they fade away gradually over time to the point at which their passing is barely noticed. So it is with removable media, while we still have the occasional USB flash disk or SD card , they do not come anywhere near the floppies, Zip disks, and CD-ROMs of the past in their numbers or ubiquity. If the floppy disk is just a save icon to you there’s still the chance to experience their retro charm though, courtesy of [Franklinstein]. He’s made a 3.5″ floppy disk that eschews 720 k, 1.44 M, or even 2.88 Mb, and goes all the way with a claimed 512 Gb capacity. We’re sure we can’t remember these from back in the day!
Of course as we can see in the video below he’s achieved neither an astounding feat of data compression nor a bleeding-edge method of storing bits in individual iron oxide molecules. Instead the floppy hinges open, and there’s a holder for micro SD cards where the disk itself would be. It’s a bit of fun, and we have to agree with him that it makes a very handy holder for micro SDs that can carry that much data. This sets us wondering though, whether it would be possible to somehow multiplex 14 micro SDs to a microcontroller on a PCB that could fit in a floppy shell. Perhaps an ESP32 could be a slow file server through a web interface?
You might think the era of the 3.5 inch “floppy” disk is over, and of course, you’d be right. But when has that ever stopped hackers before? Just because these disks are no longer being manufactured doesn’t mean you can’t find them, or that the appropriate drives aren’t readily available. In fact, as [Ladyada] explained during this week’s Floppy Interfacing Hack Chat with Adafruit, the ongoing chip shortages mean its often easier and cheaper to track down old hardware like this than it is modern microcontrollers and other high-tech components.
What awaits the brave hacker that picks up a box of random floppies and a dusty old drive at the local thrift store? More than you might expect. As the Hack Chat goes on, it becomes increasingly obvious that these quaint pieces of antiquated technology can be rather difficult to work with. For one thing there are more formats out there than you’ve probably considered, and maddeningly, not all drives are able to read all types (even if they say they do). That means a disk which might seem like a dud on one drive could work perfectly fine in another, which is why the team at Adafruit recommend having a few on hand if you want to maximize your chances of success.
Now here comes the tricky part: unless you happen to have a 1990s vintage computer laying around, getting these drives hooked up is decidedly non-trivial. Which is why Adafruit have been researching how to interface the drives with modern microcontrollers. This includes the Adafruit_Floppy project, which aims to port the well known Greaseweazle and FluxEngine firmwares to affordable MCUs like the Raspberry Pi Pico. There’s also been promising developments with bringing native floppy support to CircuitPython, which would make reading these disks as easy as writing a few lines of code.
But wait, surely this is a solved problem? Why not just pick up a cheap USB floppy drive from the A to Z online retailer we all love to hate? Unfortunately, these gadgets are something of a mixed bag. [Ladyada] pulls one apart on camera to show that what you’re actually getting with one of these units is a new old stock laptop floppy drive hooked up to a dodgy purpose-built chip that connects to the original 26-pin flex cable and offers up a USB interface. That would be great, if it wasn’t for the fact that the chip is exceedingly selective about what kind of disks it will read. If you’re only worried about bog standard IBM-formatted disks they can work in a pinch, but like they say, you get what you pay for.
So is it all just academic? Is there really any reason to use a floppy disk in 2022? The fine folks at Adafruit would argue that the skills necessary to read usable data out of a stream of magnetic flux changes may very well come in handy in unexpected ways down the road. But even if not, there’s at least one good reason to cultivate the technology required to reliably read from these once ubiquitous storage devices: archiving the data stored on these disks before they invariably succumb to so-called “bit rot” and are potentially lost to history.
When a tiny fleck of plastic-covered silicon can provide enough capacity to store a fair percentage of humanity’s collected knowledge, it may seem like a waste of time to be fooling around with archaic storage technology like floppy disks. With several orders of magnitude less storage capacity than something like even the cheapest SD card or thumb drive, and access speeds that clock in somewhere between cold molasses and horse and buggy, floppy drives really don’t seem like they have any place on the modern hacker’s bench.
Or do they? Learning the ins and out of interfacing floppy drives with modern microcontrollers is at least an exercise in hardware hacking that can pay dividends in other projects. A floppy drive is, after all, a pretty complex little device, filled with electromechanical goodies that need to be controlled in a microcontroller environment. And teasing data from a stream of magnetic flux changes ends up needing some neat hacks that might just serve you well down the line.
So don’t dismiss the humble floppy drive as a source for hacking possibilities. The folks at Adafruit sure haven’t, as they’ve been working diligently to get native floppy disk support built right into CircuitPython. To walk us through how they got where they are now, Ladyada and PT will drop by the Hack Chat. Be sure to come with your burning questions on flux transitions, MFM decoding, interface timing issues, and other arcana of spinning rust drives.