SuperDisks to supercede Zips

Zips were great but 120MB SuperDisks are passing them by because they are compatible with floppies

Like them or not, you have to admit that Zip drives and Zip disks revolutionised the portable computer storage industry. That's why, a few years ago, I wondered whether other companies would try to make competing products. Luckily, the people at Imation never listened to me and never followed any such preconceived notions. And now, years later, I must agree that SuperDisks are a terrific idea.

That's especially true now that the computer industry has moved way past its old portable media standby, the floppy disk. Today, now that we use home networks, huge hard drives, CD-ROMs, DVD-ROMs (you get the idea), floppies are way too small (1.44MB) and way too slow to use as your only removable media.

That's where SuperDisk drives come in. The Imation (3M Innovations) people created a drive that not only reads and writes to old-fashioned floppies, but also to their 120MB SuperDisk diskettes. I think part of the thinking behind the number 120MB was that Zip disks, at that time, held 100MB. Obviously, one 120MB SuperDisk can hold the same information as 83 old style floppies, but the big advantage here is that reading to and writing from a SuperDisk diskette is much, much, much faster. SuperDisk drives came into their own when Apple released the first iMac. That wildly popular desktop machine came with a CD-ROM drive, a USB port and an Ethernet port but no floppy drive. Imation saw a good thing happening here. It could market a USB version of its SuperDisk drives and fill a huge gap. For a little more money, iMac buyers could get themselves not only a floppy drive, but also a fast 120MB floppy drive. All in one small enclosure. They were right. SuperDisk drives became so popular that Imation started making them to match iMac's "ice" colors.

Now that USB ports are becoming standard fare on all PCs and Macs, Imation has come up with a new portable product that can be hot-swapped back and forth with ease. Imation claims its new drive reads data up to 22 times faster than a floppy drive. They recommend its use with desktop and notebook PCs that lack an onboard floppy drive, especially the super-thin ones. The outboard floppy drive that came with your notebook may physically be smaller, but the SuperDisk drive does a lot more. The drive's enclosure is 5 by 7.5 by 1.4 inches. I'd guess its weight as somewhere around 1.5 to 2 pounds. The MSRP is £101 (although Imation warns that actual pricing may vary). The actual SuperDisk diskette really is the same size (or unbelievably close to being the same size except for a slight extra "bulge" in the middle) as an old-fashioned floppy. Each SuperDisk diskette comes in its own plastic "jewel" case and has a lifetime warranty (I always wonder whose lifetime they're talking about). The disks retail for £6-£8.40 apiece, depending on the quantity you buy. Maxell versions of the disk are a few pence cheaper in small quantities. Imation also sells special SuperDisks with secured encryption. That means the disks come with special software that allows you to drag and drop a file onto the disk and have it automatically encrypted with a Blowfish algorithm (64-bit keys for U.S. disks, 56-bit keys for international versions). Encryption disks work only on Windows 95/98/NT systems (Microsoft,is a partner in MSNBC) and a three-pack sells for £29.99. Interesting idea, but it sort of defeats the idea that this drive is hot-swappable between PCs and Macs.

Peformance is, in a word, great. After trying to decode the confusing "pictogram" instruction sheet, I did what comes naturally. I installed the software from the included CD-ROM, plugged in the drive and watched floppies fly.

Everything Imation claims seems to be true. I was able to read and write regular floppies and the SuperDisks with absolutely no problems. The SuperDisk drive was also able to read some of my favorite "ancient" floppies from Macs and PCs. One aside, I wish my Windows machines could read Macintosh-formatted disks in the same way that Macs can read PC disks. It's not a hardware fault. I know there's third-party software out there that allows PCs to do this, and other OSes do it directly out of the box. But I think that in this day and age all computers should be able to read disks from other operating systems as standard equipment.

Imation says, and I quote: "This generation of SuperDisk drives are capable of handling multimedia applications such as video and audio recording." While 120MB is skimpy for some video files I've dealt with, it is well-suited for audio uses. I can report the SuperDisk drive handled audio recordings with ease. And when it comes to storing MP3 files, getting nearly two hours of high-quality recordings on one erasable/reusable disk is just wonderful. Having the SuperDisk drive with me on vacation was also pretty cool. You can store a lot of digital photographs on a 120MB diskette. So, I heartily recommend Imation's new USB drive for PC and Macintosh. And who knows, with technological breakthroughs in the future, maybe soon we'll see SuperDisks capable of holding more than 120MB. Maybe 250MB (like the new Zips). One can only hope.