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Two new reasons to kiss your floppy drive goodbye

The next generation of floppies -- Sony's fast 200MB HiFD and Caleb's $79 UHD144 -- could give the Zip a run for its money.

October 13, 1998
Web posted at: 12:00 PM EDT

by Dean Andrews

(IDG) -- Want to replace that creaky 1.44MB floppy drive with something that offers better performance and more capacity? You're about to get some attractive new options.

At the moment, you can buy Iomega's fast and ubiquitous 100MB Zip drive (downside: can't read old 1.44MB floppies), or you can go with a floppy-reading 120MB SuperDisk from Imation or Hi-Val (downside: moves like a slug). For their part, removable-cartridge devices like Syquest's 1.5GB SyJet can't fully replace a floppy drive because they're not bootable: To recover from a system crash, you still need your floppy drive.

But in the next few months, two new floppy replacement products will appear -- first as upgrade kits and (maybe) later as options on new PCs. Sony's $200 HiFD drive will deliver the highest capacity (200MB) and, according to our tests, the best performance in its class, while Caleb Technology's $79 144MB UHD144 will be the cheapest option. Both new products are expected to spur innovation -- indeed, a faster SuperDisk should be available from Imation by the year's end--and they may also lower prices of competing products.

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Like the SuperDisk, HiFD and UHD144 combine floppy and high-capacity removable storage into one unit, which saves a drive bay and reduces the number of peripherals that notebook users have to haul around. Owners of older PCs can use floppy-replacement upgrade kits to add removable storage to systems that may have few available drive bays. But because each of the drive types discussed here -- Zip, SuperDisk, HiFD, and UHD144 -- uses a different proprietary format, compatibility can be a problem. (For example, a coworker who has a Sony HiFD won't be able to read the 80MB presentation you've stored on your Zip disk.) As a result, PC makers may be reluctant to offer machines equipped with hardware that relies on one of the two new storage formats. Since the Zip and the SuperDisk already have footholds in the removable-storage market, such reluctance could seriously impede adoption of the new arrivals. If the HiFD and the UHD144 don't catch on quickly, early buyers could be stuck with an orphan product.

Swift or cheap?

We compared internal versions of three floppy-replacement drives -- preproduction HiFD and UHD144 units and a shipping model of Hi-Val's SuperDisk -- as well as a shipping model of the Zip removable drive, to see how well they perform common tasks such as extracting compressed files and copying data to and from a hard drive.

Overall, the HiFD simply blew away the Hi-Val SuperDisk and the UHD144, and it was an impressive 60 percent faster than the second-place Zip. For instance, the HiFD completed our text-searching test in less than 4 minutes, while the Zip took about 8* minutes and the SuperDisk and UHD144 each limped to the finish in about 23 minutes.

Similarly, the HiFD copied files to our test system's hard drive in just over a minute, while the others ran two to five times slower. When you retrieve archived files, you'll obviously spend less time waiting if you're using the HiFD.

Why the speed differences? As with hard disk drives, the performance of removable-storage drives is affected by disk rotational speed. The HiFD spins at 3600 rpm, significantly faster than the other drives. The Zip rotates at 2941 rpm, the UHD144 at 1000, and the SuperDisk at 720.

One caveat: Both the HiFD and UHD144 were preproduction units. A Caleb spokesperson says that the performance of the shipping UHD144 drive will outrun the preproduction unit we tested. Still, it'll have to improve dramatically to catch up with the top drives.

Speed isn't everything, of course. In terms of price per megabyte, the Zip, HiFD, and SuperDisk upgrade kits (each including the drive and one disk) cost about $1 per megabyte, while Caleb's UHD144 costs just 55 cents per megabyte. On top of that, Zip and SuperDisk disks cost roughly $10 each, while the UHD144 sells for about $5 a disk. (Sony hadn't finalized its media prices at press time.)

Other factors

Beyond price and performance, issues of availability and product planning affect buyers. At press time Sony had not finalized its product offerings. The vendor expects to market the HiFD in internal (IDE) and slower external (parallel port) upgrade kit forms by November, and it intends to price each at less than $200. By year's end, you can expect to see a cable for connecting the external drive to a PC Card adapter--a particularly handy innovation for notebook users. Down the road, Sony will consider other interface options like USB and FireWire; and it plans to double HiFD's capacity to 400MB in the drive's next generation, perhaps in the year 2000.

In December, Caleb's UHD144 will debut as a $79 internal (IDE) upgrade kit and a sub-$100 external unit that will attach to either a parallel port or a PC Card slot. USB and SCSI versions of the UHD144 should debut in 1999. Caleb also plans to improve performance and increase capacity to over 500MB -- and it has a slim-line internal notebook model in the works, as well.

Meanwhile, some existing products are due for upgrades. Imation claims that by the end of the year, it will offer a SuperDisk that delivers twice the performance of the company's current offering. The 2X SuperDisk will be released for desktops first, followed shortly thereafter by notebook versions. The SuperDisk is the only hybrid drive available as an internal drive for notebooks.

Digital Darwinism

Can four mutually incompatible drive formats survive? Probably not. Your safest course is to buy the same drive that your coworkers or customers use. For desktop users, that's likely to be a Zip drive; among notebook users, SuperDisk has caught on, with major vendors offering SuperDisk-equipped portables. If you buy one of these notebooks, consider getting an upgrade kit or an external unit for your desktop.

But if you need higher performance or larger capacity, HiFD will be worth a look. And if price is your key concern, the UHD144 should get your attention. External versions of both new products will be available, so you could attach an appropriate drive to your parallel port to read incompatible files. Still, swapping an assortment of external drives is hardly ideal. As in any struggle over formats, a little planning can help you avoid getting caught in the crossfire.

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