A fat, fast floppy leaps forward

Disks with 84 times the capacity of existing ones will soon allow you to carry large files anywhere, says Richard Barry
Although the specifications of computers are changing at a bemusing rate, the floppy disk drive has had to wait nearly 10 years for a rethink. After settling on the 3.5in disk, for years the standard capacity was 720 kilobytes (Kb). Six years ago, the 1.44 megabyte (Mb) version was introduced and quickly became the new de facto standard. Now, a partnership of US PC-maker Compaq with Japan's electronics conglomerate Matsushita and 3M, the US manufacturer, is ready to leap forward.

For about four years the companies have been working together on a new floppy technology. In May they announced that a disk capable of storing up to 120Mb of data will be available with Compaq's newest machines, to be introduced this autumn. The drives will be able to read current 720Kb and 1.44Mb floppies as well as the new 120Mb disks that will be made by 3M.

Dennis Farmer, vice-president of Compaq's Data Storage Markets division, says: "The disks will look and feel just like a regular floppy. They'll just hold a lot more information and they'll be much faster [to access data] than current floppies."

The key to the higher capacity is a combination of a denser recording medium - made by 3M - and compression software for storage developed and built in to the drive's electronics by Compaq and Matsushita.

Like a normal floppy, and unlike a CD-rom (which has a capacity of up to 720Mb), it will be possible to write to and read from the new disks. With 120Mb of data available in a portable format, the new disks could be employed in a number of industries where storage capacity is critical.

Graphics is an obvious target, where large files are commonplace. Tom Johnson is a freelance art editor who uses digital audio tape (DAT) and Syquest magneto-optical storage disks, which are erasable and have capacities of up to 1,000Mb. He says: "This new design will be much more accessible than the Syquest-type disks. It means you can carry large files around very easily."

Simple tasks such as backing up work files will be made easier. Unlike DAT, which reads through the tape sequentially, floppy disk drives uses a scanning technique called random access, which dramatically reduces the time it takes to locate a specific piece of data. The way we view photographs may also change. Currently, if you have your snaps developed by Kodak, you can have the images put on to one of its PhotoCD CD-roms. They can then be viewed on your PC, but not edited or copied. Compaq's system will allow you store, copy and edit the images.

Because so much more data can be held on a single floppy, companies will be looking at ways to fill the space. For games and applications manufacturers, this could mean more sound, more graphics and more productive programmes, with obvious benefits for the consumer.

This could be bad news for Sony, which has been trying to sell its own MD-Data technology to computer manufacturers since December. MD-Data is a spin-off from the MiniDisk audio format, using magneto-optical technology to make a rewritable disk. The MD-Data disks could store up to 140Mb but are smaller than conventional CD-roms and need special players.

Paul Campbell, a Sony spokesman, says: "We've had the technology for a while but haven't had any success selling the product to companies that make the computers." He confirms that if MD-Data is not adopted soon, it will be scrapped. "We can't push the system forever and we certainly can't force people to use it."