Don't wait to try to retrieve the data and content from your magnetic media. Chances are, some of it may already be unrecoverable and highly degraded. Act now.
This weekend, I put out a 411 to my circle of Internet colleagues for anyone who still possessed original licensed copies of 1990-era Windows applications and Operating Systems -- the reasons for which will be apparent to you over the next few weeks. As it turned out, some friends of mine still had some of these dinosaurs lying around, collecting dust on their shelves and pushed into the recesses of their filing cabinets.
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One colleague of mine and fellow Linux freak/embedded systems developer Russ Nelson managed to dig up a near-pristine copy WordPerfect for Windows 6.0 -- still in it's box, with the original license key. It had been sitting in his desk for eons, all twelve 3.5" floppies in all. Russ is something of a pack rat, so he even had a number of older PC systems that were capable of reading the media -- he simply booted up with a trusty Linux boot CD, and did a "dd if=/dev/fd0 of=file.img" for each floppy disk, which dumped it to image files that I could download and use on a Virtual Machine.
We knew we were in trouble when we hit the Install 1 disk, which started to grind with a number of errors. Oh oh. We tried it on a second, a third, and then a fourth floppy-capable system, until we were able to get a successful dump. This process continued a number of times for four other floppies until we were able to dump all twelve images successfully. Total time investment? Over two hours.
Magnetic storage degradation isn't unique to floppy disks, either. With the HDTV transition, many people will have a renewed interest in being able to view their existing VHS libraries on the newer sets. While a number of low-cost solutions for viewing the material on the newer sets are available, there is still the issue of ongoing media degradation.
After about 15-20 years, VHS tapes will dramatically start to lose quality whether you watch them or not. So for those of you with wedding and home videos from the 1990's, if you haven't had them converted over to DVDs yet, you might want to think about doing so soon. If you had wedding videos done in the last 10 years and the videographer is still in business, you might even want to consider finding out if he still has the original Betacam masters and can convert it for you.
A number of companies will do a professional job on your VHS tapes with commercial equipment, particularly if you have certain videos that have special value to you, or need to have them digitally remastered. These companies will charge anywhere between $10 and $25 per tape if the source media is still relatively good. If you have a lot of videos, you might want to look into black box devices such as the ADS DVD Xpress DX2, which for about $80 will allow you to transfer directly from your VCR to your computer and burn DVDs.
Do you still have a lot of floppies and VHS tapes but need to transfer them over to newer storage and playback formats? Talk Back and let me know.