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A history of removable storage

From paper tape to USB sticks

Over the years, people have tried to transfer information from one computer to another in a dizzying number of ways. Here's a look at some of the best, along with others that time forgot.

The optical disc

The compact disc, which originated as a digital audio storage medium, emerged from a joint Sony/Philips project and first reached the market in 1982.

The format stores digital data in the form of pits moulded into the top of a plastic disc that has a reflective backing.

A laser reads the pits. Because CDs are digital, they are perfect for storing computer data, and it wasn't long before Sony/Philips adapted the format to create computer CD-ROMs, producing the first commercial CD-ROM drive in 1985.

The 5cm optical disc has undergone further development during the past 25 years, resulting in higher-capacity discs such as DVD, HD-DVD, and Blu-ray.

More significant was the introduction in 1988 of the CD-Recordable (CD-R), which let users write their own data to the disc.

In the late 1990s, as optical media got cheaper, this form of storage supplanted floppies in handling most day-to-day data transfers.

Photos: Benj Edwards/Sony

Magneto-optical storage

Like CDs, magneto-optical (MO) discs are designed to be read optically with a laser.

But unlike CDs, which users can't write to at all, and CD-Rs, which users can write to only once, most MO discs permit the user to write and erase data on a disc multiple times.

They accomplish this by means of a special magnetic process that works in conjunction with a laser to store data.

The first widely known magneto-optical drive shipped with the NeXT Computer (1988, lower right) and used 256MB rewritable media.

The best-known MO format is the Sony MiniDisc (top middle, 1992), an audio medium that also has a less popular computer-capable cousin known as MD-DATA (upper left).

Various MO drives and discs remain in production, but their relatively low capacity and relatively high cost make them niche products.

Photos: Sony/NeXT/Verbatim

NEXT PAGE: Iomega and the zip drive

  1. From paper tape to USB sticks
  2. Data on tape
  3. Tape cartridges
  4. The floppy diskette
  5. The ROM cartridge
  6. The optical disc
  7. Iomega and the zip drive
  8. A removable mess
  9. Removable storage for your rodent
  10. The hive mind

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