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August 13, 2013 • Editorials, Gear Bits

The Iomega Zip Drive: A Retro Tech Look-Back

Iomega Zip 250 USB Drive

Iomega Zip 250 USB Drive

How much storage is enough? More! More than whatever number you were thinking – which is an order of magnitude more than what was possible a few years ago. I take a look back at the Iomega Zip Drive, the popular cheap and reliable storage device that bridged the time between floppy disks and USB flash storage.

The Iomega Zip Drive was originally introduced in 1994, started shipping in 1995, and died out about a decade ago — though I can’t find an exact termination date. I remember the release well, and I was right on board when it arrived. I wish I could find the original print ads showing a massive stack of floppies next to a single zip drive! I had been using the Iomega Bernoulli Box 44MB drive for a while, and it was a fantastic way to store all of my stuff. It was faster and more reliable than a floppy disk and held 40x the content of a floppy.

The Bernoulli drive used a ‘floating disk’ technology that spun the disks at a high rate and had the platters levitate and come in proximity to the fixed heads which read the data. This technique meant that in the event of a power failure the disks pulled away from the head, and there wouldn’t be a crash. In the late 1980s the combination of expensive hard disks and frequency of crashes made this technology extremely desirable.

The Zip drive used technology that combined elements of both hard drives and Bernoulli drives, but viewed from the current perspective has more in common with how hard drive technology has developed through the years. By using this hybrid technique, they were able to gain capacity and speed, and maintain reliability and lower price. It was a sweet spot of technology that lasted for about a half-decade before becoming quaint.

The original Zip 100 drive came in either parallel port (PC) or SCSI (Mac & Amiga) formats. Parallel ports were what PC printers used for communication, and were faster than basic serial ports but still very finicky about connections. SCSI was a tremendously fast parallel interface that allowed for daisy-chaining (connecting multiple devices) but was tremendously picky about ‘hot swapping’ (removing powered devices) and proper termination of the SCSI chain.

The Zip 250 pictured and in the video arrived in 1998, and aside from the higher capacity, it also signaled the move to USB – which is ironic because in 1998 SCSI was several times faster for data transfer than USB 1.1. There were SCSI, Parallel and USB versions of the Zip 250, but the one I bought was fully USB. The other cool thing – USB power. The Zip drive operated on low power, so it would use the power from the USB channel, and efficiently only spin up when needed.

The days of the Zip disk were numbered by the adoption of the USB 2.0 standard and the rapid drip in price of flash storage. Soon we had small ‘thumb drives’ with similar storage capacity, faster access, lower power drain, and no need for a separate drive. But for those of us who had them, the Zip remained useful until it was cheap enough to dump all of the contents of all of our disks onto a single small USB flash drive.

Here is my hands-on look at the Zip drive:

8 Responses to " The Iomega Zip Drive: A Retro Tech Look-Back "

  1. Joescar says:

    Ha i remember these. My first encounter was in 11th grade. It was a requirement to have both a disk and a drive for my Multimedia Communications class. I also remember being introduced to “another website called Google”.

  2. Phunked says:

    The Zip Drive had one of the most fascinating mechanical faults ever. The Click of Death. Basically, something inside the drive would fail, and this failure would damage the disk that you inserted, rendering it useless. So, when you cannot read the disk, you slip it into another Zip Drive, and that failed disk actually damages the next Zip Drive! It was like a virus, but completely mechanical in nature.The name comes from the sound the damaged drive would make trying to read a disk. Just clicking over and over again. I can still hear it…

    • Thanks for that Phil – I know that there was a lawsuit that went class-action (though that was during class-action mania), and that was the first I heard of it. I had a few different 100MB drives, internal and external – and also a few 250s. And I never had a single problem with any of them – not that I am dismissing the issue, which was demonstrated to be real. Just sharing my own perspective.
      Now the Jaz drive … that is a totally different story … 🙂

  3. loopyduck says:

    Somewhere in my dad’s den is a Zip 750…

  4. heatwave316 says:

    I think i still have mine around somewhere. It was great in grad school. 🙂

  5. Jeff Goodstein says:

    I purchased the original Zip 100 PP version as soon as it came out from Newegg (the brick and mortar store!). Being able to install Win 95 without shuffling in and out 13 disks was a blessing. stuffing all my dos games and files on a few Zip disks was great too! no more trading games on Colorado tapes anymore with my buddies.
    Good times.
    PS-I think the anniversary of windows 95 is coming up.

  6. gorkon says:

    I remember Zip Disks fondly. I too never experienced the click of death. It’s a darn shame that Iomega isn’t the Iomega of old….

  7. gorkon says:

    And then I found this page with Lenovo, Iomega and EMC all on the same product…that’s odd. 🙂

    http://go.iomega.com/en-us/products/network-storage-desktop/?partner=4760

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