One of the best candidates to replace floppy disks. IBM make microdrives in sizes up to 1GB. They are compatable with CompactFlash memory cards, and have faster access rates. The drives are competitively priced, (around $500 for 1GB) and very robust.

I don't work for the Big Blue, but I think a lot of people who rave about the virtues of the Sony Memory Stick need a bit of guidance.

I continue to be surprised how rare these drives are - it reflects poorly on IBMs marketing department. IOMega (Makers of zip disks and jazz disks) signed an agreement to market the IBM drives in 2001, but they still seem to be extremely rare. Microdrives are also being used to build a wearable computer into space suits.

Given the popularity of compact flash, and the availability of USB/compact flash adaptors, you can use a microdrive on almost any device. Its size and capacity make it excellent for the portable devices that are currently all the rage. I have little doubt we'll be seeing more of these babies

Check out storage.ibm.com or google for more info.

Also a form of CompactFlash device (originally built by IBM but now made by Toshiba and a few others as well) that amazingly fits an actual hard drive (complete with spinning cylinders, moving heads, and the electronic guts to handle CompactFlash interfacing) onto a standard CompactFlash Type 2 module that most CF Type 2-compatible devices can handle.

Originally the capacity was roughly 320MB, but new models are available with 1GB and 2GB capacities. 5GB capacity units are rumoured to be in existence in the lab and due for production soon.

These use more power than an equivalently-sized CompactFlash flash memory module (probably on the order of 25-50% more power consumption than a memory module), but the space these offer can be enormous -- imagine a digital camera that can take over 5,000 pictures before it runs out of "memory". That's what my Canon PowerShot S3 thinks it can get out of the 1GB microdrive card I've put in it. I've never even come close to filling it, even with 2,600 pictures on the card.

Setting the scene

One of the biggest drawbacks of many of the 8-bit computers on the 1980s was long-term storage. Audio tapes were the norm, and for good reason; they were cheap, easy to use and the computer-illiterate (or often computer-fearing) public of the time were comfortable with something they could already use. There were, however, big disadvantages of using audio tapes; they were often unreliable (although the Spectrum's format seemed better than other in this department) and they were enraginginly s-l-o-w. The linear nature of the format was also irritating. If you had more than one file on a tape, you had to keep painstaking records of where each file was using the tape-counter (which changed unpredictably between different players) or spend long periods of time fast-forwarding and rewinding in the hope you'll find the right one. Some users (including me) evolved the uncanny skill of being able to tell where tapes had often been stopped between files by looking at the tiny differences in shade in the reel of tape inside the cassette.

The stage was set for the introduction of the floppy disk to the home computer user. In those days, of course, floppy disks were actually floppy - they were big 5 1/4 inch things encased in card, not plastic - and the drives were huge. They certainly didn't seem to fit the Sinclair way of doing things and so, as was his way, Uncle Clive went in his own direction. He introduced the ZX Microdrive.

The microdrive is a permanent storage solution for the ZX Spectrum which are somewhere between a tape and a disk. It uses hard-shelled cartridges instead of floppy disks which contain a loop of magnetic tape. A motor in the drive unit feeds the tape (in one direction only) past a read/write head at 30 inches a second (16 times as fast as a cassette recorder). The cartridges hold, usually, 80-100K but I've seen them go a bit over.

What's it like?

Firstly, they are small; much smaller than the other storage devices of the day and those to come. At 90x85x40mm, a microdrive will sit in the palm of your hand. The cartridges are tiny, and are the best sized media I've ever used. They're as small as you can get without being annoyingly small, and they're protected in a nice plastic case. The drives and cartridges are black (like all Sinclair hardware), and the drives have the Spectrum colourful flash across the corner.

How does one use such a cool little black box?

Well first off you need a ZX Spectrum. Then, you need an Interface One plugged into it. Then you plug your first microdrive into the side of the Interface One using the lead provided. Got more than one? The double-ended plugs provided let you daisy chain microdrives together -- you can have up to eight on a single spectrum. There's also a plastic plate you can use to screw chained drives together and so make it all a bit more stable.

So, how did it do?

Not well. They were released late; coming out about eighteen months after they were first announced. They were also quite expensive; you had to buy an Interface One for £30 (for which you did also get an RS232 port and Sinclair network ports), and the drive for £50. And they were still slower and smaller (storage-wise) than other media. By then, third-party companies had already launched their own solutions and the Spectrum was doomed to not have a standard storage medium (other than tape) until the Spectrum +3.

Later, microdrives were fitted to the QL. They were slightly faster and could fit a bit more on each cartridge, but by then the microdrive's image was already far behind that of its competitors and their inclusion on Sir Clive's all-new machine probably hurt its image rather than improved theirs.


Personal note: I couldn't afford one of these myself when I was speccy-obsessed youngster, but came across one later as an adult and couldn't resist. It has to be said, they are rather cool pieces of kit and fit much better into Sinclair BASIC than other solutions I've seen. Don't believe what people say about their reliability, either. The one I got had a box of carts that hadn't been used for ten years and still worked fine - I'd like to see you do that with a HD floppy. If, like me, you're still of a bit speccy fan in the 21st Century I really suggest getting hold of one (or eight) if you can.

In 1999, after the Speccy Microdrives were a decade obsolete, IBM released their own Microdrives. Instead of tape drives, the IBM Microdrives were then-revolutionary 1" diameter hard drives crammed into a CompactFlash form factor. At a time when a large, expensive flash memory card might hold 128 megabytes, the initial Microdrives could hold 340 megabytes and had much faster read/write times, as well as a surprisingly good cost given the amount of storage. Now, Microdrives come in 1, 2, and 4 gigabyte capacities, at a somewhat-better price-per-megabyte cost than traditional flash memory CompactFlash cards.

This didn't come without tradeoffs, To start, Microdrives aren't quite as durable as flash memory, so they couldn't withstand really nasty shocks or temperature changes. (In practice, they are plenty durable, but keep in mind that working CF and SD cards have been recovered from collapsed buildings and tornado strikes.) Microdrives are CompactFlash Type II devices, so they're slightly larger than most CF cards, so some devices can't use them. Likewise, Microdrives take a bit more power than the CF standard allows, so they can be unreliable or just plain nonfunctional in some devices.

Microdrives were never particularly popular, as their low cost-per-megabyte could only do so much to reduce the initial sticker shock. (Even now 1 gigabyte Microdrives cost upwards of $100.) Nevertheless, they found a niche. Professional and prosumer photographers favored them for their ridiculously huge storage capacity, allowing them to take as many print-quality, high-resolution photographs as they'd like. PDA aficionados favored them because...well, PDAs don't come with hard drives, and Microdrives allowed for what felt like unlimited storage space for PDA users used to 64 megabytes of storage, tops.

"Microdrive" is a trademarked term, but occasionally you'll hear the word "microdrive" used to refer to the 1" hard drives used in both Microdrives and a number of small electronic devices, most notably the iPod Mini. Occasionally devices like these simply have Microdrives (with the CF interface and everything) inside the casing, which lead to photographers and PDA fans buying these devices and ripping them open for the Microdrives inside. (The Creative Labs Nomad MuVo2 and its 4 gigabyte Microdrive was the most infamous example of this; online retailers couldn't keep them in stock for people buying them to rip apart.)

Microdrives are practically obsolete, now, as flash memory costs have come down. Microdrives are now only marginally cheaper than CompactFlash cards of the same size. Moreover, Hitachi (who bought out IBM's disk drive business in December 2002, including the Microdrive brand) hasn't come out with 8 gigabyte Microdrives to go along with the 8 gigabyte CompactFlash cards SanDisk has rolled out.

Sources: The wikipedia article on Microdrives, Hitachi.com, SlickDeals.net

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