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What Is a Floppy Disk? - Definition, Advantages & Disadvantages

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  • 0:00 What Is a Floppy Disk?
  • 1:00 Types of Floppy Disks
  • 2:15 Anatomy of a Floppy
  • 3:10 Decline of the Floppy
  • 4:15 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Paul Zandbergen

Paul has a PhD from the University of British Columbia and has taught Geographic Information Systems, statistics and computer programming for 15 years.

A floppy disk is a storage medium that consists of a thin and flexible magnetic disk inside a plastic carrier. Widely used since the 1970s until the early 2000s, they have gradually been replaced by other storage devices with greater capacity.

What Is a Floppy Disk?

A floppy disk is a magnetic storage medium for computer systems. The floppy disk is composed of a thin, flexible magnetic disk sealed in a square plastic carrier. In order to read and write data from a floppy disk, a computer system must have a floppy disk drive (FDD). A floppy disk is also referred to simply as a floppy. Since the early days of personal computing, floppy disks were widely used to distribute software, transfer files, and create back-up copies of data. When hard drives were still very expensive, floppy disks were also used to store the operating system of a computer.

A number of different types of floppy disks have been developed. The size of the floppy got smaller, and the storage capacity increased. However, in the 1990s, other media, including hard disk drives, ZIP drives, optical drives, and USB flash drives, started to replace floppy disks as the primary storage medium.

Types of Floppy Disks

The first floppy disks that came on the market were 8 inches (200 mm) in diameter. The disk was protected by a flexible plastic jacket. An 8-inch disk back in the late 1970s could store about 1 MB of data. This was quickly followed by a smaller version of the same design, the 5.25-inch (133 mm) floppy, which could store about the same amount of information using higher-density media and recording techniques.

In the early 1980s, the 3.5-inch (90 mm) floppy, or micro floppy, came on the market, and this type became the dominant storage medium for personal computers for many years. Each of these floppy disks required a different type of floppy disk drive. These were typically built into the computer case itself.

Floppy disks were quite vulnerable. The disk medium was very sensitive to dust, moisture, and heat. The flexible plastic carrier was also not very sturdy. The hard plastic case of the 3.5-inch floppy presented a substantial improvement in this respect. The most common format of this floppy became the double-sided, high-density 1.44 MB disk drive.

Anatomy of a Floppy

Now, let's look at the internal components of the floppy. The magnetic-coated plastic disk is the actual storage medium. Data is written in sectors, which makes it possible to properly read and write data. The magnetic-coated plastic disk is protected by a polyester sheet that reduces friction against the disk media as it rotates within the plastic housing.

When removed from the floppy disk drive, a metal shutter protects the surface. Inside the floppy disk drive, this shutter is moved to the side in order to read and write data on the magnetic disk. To rotate the disk, the hub of the floppy engages with the drive motor. A little hole in the plastic housing identifies the particular disk as a high-capacity one. A small write protection tab in the top left corner could be used to switch between read/write or read-only mode.

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