mac.column.ted:The floppy disk is dead; Now what? [Plus: The iMac G5; Apple vs. Apple]

mac.column.ted:The floppy disk is dead; Now what? [Plus: The iMac G5; Apple vs. Apple]

by Ted Landau

A recent news article declared the floppy disk to be officially dead. Although you can still buy these disks, it is true that floppy drives have entirely vanished as built-in drives on today's computers. They were doomed by their slow speed, low capacity, and relatively poor longevity. Mac users, of course, can say "I told you so!" -- Apple gave up on the floppy drive when it first introduced the iMac back in 1998! [True, at almost the same time, Apple stumbled by initially backing DVD drives in preference to CD-RW drives; but that's a whole other story.] Other floppy-like alternatives, such as Iomega's Zip disks and Imation's SuperDisk, are also either dead or suffering a fatal illness.

So what has replaced the once ubiquitous floppy disk? As it turns out, the floppy disk has given way to not one successor, but an assortment of contenders to the throne.

CDs The primary contender, to no one's surprise, is the CD. The CD is the medium of choice for the distribution of retail software. If you buy it in a box, you get it on a CD (or, in rarer cases where a higher capacity is needed, a DVD). The moderately high capacity of CD-R discs, and excellent longevity, also make them ideal for personal use -- for simple backups of critical data and archival backups of data that do not substantially change over time. You can use a CD-R for a backup of your digital photo collection, a copy of your novel in progress, or copies of critical financial records. Because they are so cheap, CD-R discs are also good for whenever you want a physical medium for sending something to a friend or colleague. Did you make an iMovie of your vacation? Just put it on a CD and mail it out to whomever.

Still, CD-R discs are not the perfect replacement for floppies. The foremost problem is that you can only write once to a CD-R disc (ignoring the awkward procedure used for multisession CDs). So, if you are working on a novel, for example, and want to back up the latest revisions to your opus at the end of each day, you cannot add today's revision to the same disc that you used for yesterday's version. Instead, you need to use a new CD. True, you can use a CD-RW disc instead, as this allows erasing and rewriting. But it is hardly an ideal solution either. CD-RW discs are much slower than CD-Rs, are significantly more expensive, have more compatibility problems, and are more prone to data loss over time. But the real deal-breaker is this: Unlike a floppy disk, you cannot simply add, delete or replace individual files on the disc. Instead, you have to erase the entire disc and start over. For me, CD-RW discs are nearly useless.

Flash drives The other major contender is the flash (or keychain or whatever you want to call it) drive. These nifty devices connect to your Mac via a USB port. What's so cool about them? They are small (small enough to fit on your keychain; hence their name), require no external power, have no moving parts, are comparable to hard drives in speed, come in a variety of disk sizes (up to over 2GB), and are reasonably durable. And, unlike the limitations of the CD-R, you can add or delete individual files to them at will. Sounds perfect. And they almost are. Except for a few things. {MacFixIt_StoryBox}

The primary one is price. Prices for these drives vary all over the map, which is a problem in itself. MacMall, for example, listed a variety of 256MB flash drives for anywhere from $21 to $150!! Part of the problem in comparing flash drive prices is that these devices are not yet "commodities." That is (as covered in this arstechnica review from a few months ago), each drive has unique pros and cons in terms of speed and features (such as whether or not they include a write-protect switch). True, not all brands of CD-Rs are identical in quality, but for most users, if you stick with well-known brands, it no longer matters which brand you get. Price is the deciding factor. Still, even assuming the cheapest model ($21) was good enough for your needs, that means you would need three of these drives (at $63 total) to exceed the capacity of one CD-R disc (which can cost as little as 30 cents!). Getting a higher-capacity drive doesn't save you any money in this regard. Getting the cheapest 1GB flash drive, for example, costs more than four of the cheapest 256MB drives.

Unless money grows on trees in your backyard, you would not choose flash drives over CDs as way to send stuff to your friends. Nonetheless, these drives are sufficiently cheap to be an excellent choice for certain uses. As one example, if you want to copy files at the end of each day from your computer at work so you can load them on to your Mac at home, flash drives are ideal. Or any time you want to back up moderately-sized data that you expect to frequently modify, such as financial data, these drives get the job done. You can even use them as mini external hard drives, putting an iPhoto library on the drive, for example.

Another downside to flash drives is an aesthetic one. Unlike floppy disks or CDs, there is no standard size or shape to these drives. Each vendor's drive is unique in its appearance. CDs lend themselves to convenient storage in drawers, where you can easily flip through a row of discs, checking each one's label. Discs can also be stacked on a space-saving spindle -- even mixing different brands on the same spindle. Imagine trying to duplicate any of these benefits with a collection of flash drives from a half dozen different vendors. No way. Even labeling each drive is difficult to do. If flash drives really want to largely replace both floppies and CDs, they need to come down in price a lot -- maybe more than is possible to do, given the manufacturing costs! -- to less than $5.00 for a 256MB drive. All drive vendors should also agree to adopt a uniform shape for the external casings -- one that makes storing multiple drives more convenient.

The third choice There is one other common alternative to the floppy disk. If your main goal is simply to transfer a given file or folder from one computer to another, you can bypass small-scale physical media altogether. Instead, you can connect two computers directly over a network or the Internet. This is especially convenient if the two computers are on the same local network (just use the Network option in the Finder) or if you can setup a temporary wireless connection via AirPort or Bluetooth. Alternatively, you can send the files via email (assuming they are not too large to exceed the recipient's email storage limit) or post them to a Web site (such as by using your .Mac account). All of these options are typically cheaper (essentially they are free given you already have the network in place) and faster than using either CDs or flash drives.

But if you want a local copy of your data stored on a physical media, CD-Rs and flash drives are your current best choices. Neither choice is the perfect replacement for the now obsolete floppy disk. The perfect solution probably awaits the arrival of some future technology. But given the rapid pace of change in computer technology, the future could arrive as early as tomorrow.

Another word about the iMac G5

Since my initial comments (last month) on the new iMac G5, I've had a chance to visit my local Apple Store and get some up-close-and-personal time with the new machine. So I am now ready to cast my vote on the question of the design of the G5 vs. G4 iMacs. On the upside, I continue to marvel at the clean elegance of the iMac G5. From an engineering perspective, it's undeniably impressive how the entire computer is contained within the display case -- which provides the option to mount the iMac on a wall (as long as you can still run the needed cables to it). And with its G5 processor, its technical specs obviously outpace the older G4 machine. But from a design perspective, I still prefer the previous generation ("table lamp") model. I prefer the look and feel of its much thinner display. Plus, I don't much care for the added white space below the display of the G5's casing. I also prefer the greater maneuverability of the older model's display, especially in the up and down direction, as well as that all the cables more unobtrusively connect to the base of the G4 model rather than to the back of the display. And, although I haven't been able to test this out, I am guessing that the new iMac's built-in speakers don't sound as good as the larger external speakers of the iMac G4. So yes, I'll miss the old design (especially when I finally decide to part with the iMac G4 I now own). But I'll get over it. Either model still far surpasses the design options available for PCs.

Apple vs. Apple

One more topic for this month: What exactly is the deal with this dispute where the Beatles' record label, Apple Corp, repeatedly sues Apple computer over a name trademark? I know that the Apple record label is not exactly synonymous with the Beatles themselves, but don't these guys have enough money already? Is there any reason other than extortion that this suit keeps coming back from the dead? I mean, the Apple Corp label is so extinct that even the Beatles own CDs don't use it. Is there anyone in the world that would confuse the Beatles' Apple Corp with the Apple brand that makes the Macintosh? Does anyone seriously believe that Apple Computer makes even one cent in additional profit because of this possible confusion? Enough of this mess already.

At the very least, if a large settlement does turn out to be needed to make this finally go away, my hope is that Forbes #1-ranked CEO manages to tie it to a deal where the Beatles music gets added to the iTunes Music Store collection. That would be a coup worth paying big bucks for!

This is the latest in a series of monthly mac.column.ted articles by Ted Landau. To see a list of previous columns, click here. To send comments regarding this column directly to Ted, click here. To get Ted's latest book, Mac OS X Help Line, click here.

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