Dell: Who needs a floppy disk?

The PC maker offers an alternative to floppy disks ("They will eventually go away," an exec says): a small, removable storage device called a USB Memory Key.

John G. Spooner
John G. Spooner Staff Writer, CNET News.com
John Spooner
covers the PC market, chips and automotive technology.
3 min read
Dell Computer is offering its own alternative to the floppy disk.

The company on Tuesday began offering the USB Memory Key, a small, removable storage device.

Dell will offer a 16MB version of the USB Memory Key in place of a floppy drive for customers who opt to pair it with one of two Inspiron notebook models.

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The device uses flash memory and works by plugging into a PC's USB (universal serial bus) port. When connected, the Dell-branded device appears on a computer's desktop as a removable hard drive, allowing people to drag and drop files for storage or to move them to another computer. When not in use, it fits easily into a shirt pocket.

Customers can order the USB Memory Key in place of a floppy drive on Dell Inspiron 4150 and 8200 models. However, it will work with any computer--including Dell's other notebooks--that has a USB port and Microsoft's Windows 98 or later operating system.

The 16MB USB Memory Key will sell for $20, the same price as a floppy drive from Dell. But the device offers several advantages. It's smaller and lighter than a floppy drive, yet it has the ability to store more data than 10 or more standard 3.5-inch floppy disks, Dell representatives said. A 64MB version of the USB Memory Key will cost $59. The new devices replace an 8MB key that Dell had been offering for $30 for about six months.

While Dell won't remove floppy drives on all of its notebooks, the launch of the new device represents another small step toward the eventual retirement of the floppy from all of its PCs. Dell made floppy drives optional on some business desktops about a year ago and made the switch on the Inspiron 4150 and 8200 models about four months ago. It's evaluating methods of eliminating the floppy on other new models as well. But for now it plans to stick by the drive for its Dimension consumer desktops, because consumers still expect to get a floppy with their new PCs, said John New, senior manager for Dimension product marketing.

PC makers have been talking about doing away with the floppy for years. Most manufacturers have taken at least some steps to do so. Hewlett-Packard offers DiskOnKey with some notebooks and eliminated the floppy altogether on some of its newest Presario 900 notebooks. HP includes a coupon with these machines that will allow customers to mail in for the floppy if they desire one, the company said.

But it will likely take several more years before the drive is eliminated completely. So far, about 85 percent of customers who buy Inspiron 4150 and 8200 models still opt to purchase floppy drives, Dell representatives said.

Dell believes that to convince consumers to move away from the floppy the industry will need a single storage device that offers similar features to a floppy, including the ability to boot the PC, greater capacity and greater usability. CD-rewritable drives and USB Keys are potential successors, but CD-RWs are still fairly clunky. USB Key devices cannot be used to boot a PC, New said.

"Our view is that floppy disks are less valued by customers (now), which means they will eventually go away," New said. "But we've got to have...better functionality first."

The new USB key is the latest in a string of products Dell has brought in-house. Dell also has plans for printers and PDAs (personal digital assistants), for example.