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How to access files on floppy disks and other obselete media

Update your old digital media including Zip, Jaz and tape backups

A lot of attention has been paid to the subject of digitising analogue media such as VHS tapes and photographic negatives as a way of preserving them for posterity.

However, digital media can also become obsolete, indeed obsolete digital media will probably be much harder to access in the future than analogue media. After all, if you have old photographic negatives dating back decades you can still get prints made from them, but a file on an old floppy disk would be much more of a problem.

Here, we'll look at how to transfer data from various types of digital media that are now - or close to becoming - obsolete.

Although we’re looking specifically at older media, it’s also important to recognise that data can also be lost from current media such as CD-RW disks simply because they degrade with time. Estimates of how long writable and rewritable optical disks last differ, but as little as five years has been suggested. The solution is to regularly make new copies of any data that you’ve archived to optical disks.

Before going to the expense of transferring data from old media to new there’s one important thing to consider, namely whether you’ll be able to make use of that data once it’s transferred. If the files are purely text data or images there should be no problems. If they’re in the proprietary format of an obsolete word processor or programs intended to run under DOS or an old version of Windows you might have problems.

As the most widely used and the most recent, the obsolete digital medium that most people will want to transfer to up-to-date media is floppy disks. Most recently these were of the 3.5in variety but prior to that were 5.25in and even 8in floppy disks. There were also several less standardised floppy disk variants such as the 3in that was used most notably in some Amstrad computers.

Old floppy disks

Although PCs haven’t had built-in floppy disk drives for many years, external USB drives for 3.5in disks are widely available. Since you can pick these up for about £8 this is surely the best way of retrieving data from 3.5in floppies. You’re not going to find external USB drives for the older types of floppy disk and while you might just be able to find a second-hand internal drive most modern motherboards don’t have an appropriate interface. For older floppies, therefore, you’re going to have to use a company providing data transfer services – see later.

USB floppy disk drive

At the time when the amount of storage provided by floppy disks was becoming inadequate yet before writable optical disks really took off, several proprietary external storage products had a short period of popularity.

The Zip disk from Iomega was a “super-floppy” providing a capacity of 100-750MB and the Jaz disk, also from Iomega, provided up to 2GB using hard disk technology. Tape cartridges (read and written to using a so-called tape streamer) were also popular for backup

Tape backup

You might be able to pick up second-hand Zip and Jaz drives and tape streamers but because each was provided in versions with several interfaces, some of which aren’t compatible with today’s PCs, using a professional service for salvaging your data would be preferable. Prices for floppies and Zip drives start at about £5 per disk although you’ll pay considerable more for Jaz disks and tapes.

Although the various media discussed above accounts for most types of removable storage that were used during the PC era, it is just possible that you have inherited digital data from much longer ago.

Stacks of punched cards and punched paper tapes come to mind and even these can still be read. You’re not going to by buying equipment to do the job yourself as the hardware is literally antique and sought after by collectors so, again, you’ll be looking to a company to provide the service.

Punched card

Since this is much more specialised expect to pay a lot more –http://punchcardreader.com charges 6.5 cents (US) per card even though they only store 80 characters. However, don’t forget that punch cards also show the data in printing along the top so for just a few cards you could transcribe them manually or, perhaps, experiment with scanning them and using optical character recognition software. Punched paper tapes can also be transcribed manually, so long as you understand binary arithmetic.

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