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Back to the Floppy

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A few months ago, reading the news about Linux dropping support for floppy disks set off a whole bunch of memories and emotions around this long obsolete and “dead” data storage format. I hadn’t thought about or used floppy disks for around 20 odd years now, at some point I must have copied my last disk but I honestly can’t remember what it was or when. The floppy disk was one of those rare things that became part of your everyday life like your keys or school pencil-case. It was something from childhood and my early career that was everywhere: Scattered through your school bags, coat pockets and occasionally – if you were feeling organised – a disk box. And now, apart from a “save icon” meme, it’s gone.

For various reasons (mostly because I’ve just become a Dad!) I’ve been on quite the reminiscence trip recently and I decided to get reacquainted with this old and quirky relic of my past. Here’s the first of my disk boxes now, filling up quite nicely with little 3.5” slices of nostalgia after a few day’s worth of converting my ADF collection back into their original physical form:

I’ll cover the technical details of the “How” as per my usual Amiga blog posts but I want to talk a little more about the “Why” aspect. Be warned, I’m going to ramble on slightly more than usual as I go on a meandering stroll down Nostalgia Avenue.

An Icon

I won’t deny the convenience of tools like WHDLoad but having nearly every single Amiga game and demo available at the click of a mouse has resulted in “the paralysis of choice”. I liken it to having a Spotify subscription: I have access to pretty much the entire recorded output of every band, ever – but there’s just so much choice I usually end up sticking to one or two playlists or putting it on random shuffle, invariably getting bored halfway through a song and endlessly skipping tracks until something catches my attention.

There really is something about the act of having a sort through the disk collection and picking something out akin to the ritual of pulling a vinyl record from it’s sleeve and placing it on the turntable. And the noises! That “schonk.. chonk…” as the disks slid in, followed by the “chnk…chnk…chnk…ddddddrrrrr..chnk…chnk” noises… So satisfying!

All these years on and it seems stranger still that this literal icon of obsolete technology once seemed like the future to me. Coming from a cassette tape-loading Sinclair ZX Spectrum, when I was younger the floppy disk was symbolic of the then next-gen systems like the Amiga. I started collecting and trading games and demo disks with school friends in anticipation before I even got my first A600. After all, the floppy disk was literally the first thing you saw when you switched on your Amiga, displayed right there on the boot screen:

Then from Kickstart 2.0 onwards we got the funky animated version:

Demo groups parodied it and riffed on it:

Whilst thankfully a damn sight faster than loading from cassette tape, most games would have a screen like this somewhere to remind you that they were actually doing something and not just aimlessly clicking away for several seconds:

And of course, without the floppy, we would never have been “treated” to the cultural milestone that is MC Double-Def D.P. performing “Don’t Copy That Floppy”. This is possibly the most awkward 90s thing I have ever seen – and that’s coming from someone who once wore a shell-suit, Global Hypercolor t-shirt and Hi-Tec basketball boots at the same time (yeah, it was a different era…):

If you’ve never seen it before, I challenge you to try and make it the whole way through. It’s just… it’s amazing.

There were other rituals associated with the floppy too; when I recently purchased my first new packs of disks in well over two decades, I realised how much I had missed the ceremony of labelling them! Here’s my fresh supply, halfway through being stickered up:

I remember there was something just so satisfying about lining up the labels just right and of course, deciding when a particular disk was important enough to warrant the permanent pen instead of having a tentative pencil scribble on the label. Or even, for those select few disks you made for your closest friends, you’d decorate the label with some home-made artwork in the same painstaking way usually reserved for your most important mix-tape covers.

Even those favourite disks occasionally had to be recycled; We usually ended up running out of blank disks at some point and then a friend would come over with something so cool you just had to copy it and then…. Well, time to pick a sacrificial victim and write over it. I’m sure we all had disks that ended up looking like this:

Which led to a fascinating geological-type effect, where the strata of previous games and demos were left exposed but scribbled out from your history of interests. You could see what provenance that disk had, remember gaming sessions of old and look back in time like some sort of 16-bit archaeologist sifting through ruins. Magazine coverdisks usually suffered this fate with me. As a subscriber to various Amiga magazines I was guaranteed a monthly supply of new disks which I could re-label and put back into use by the old “hack” of taping over the write-protect hole.

A Community

One of the interesting side-effects of floppy disks being an actual, physical medium is that you needed some way of obtaining and exchanging them. This in turn I think really helped the early computing scene become so much more personal than the modern era where everything is a quick download away.

Aside from the tradition of visiting your friends house and having a good old rifle through their disk-box to find things of interest, there wasn’t an easy way to get hold of new software like there is now. Back in the day, no-one was “online” and very few of my friends had modems. Those that did usually also had PCs which couldn’t read or write Amiga floppies. We therefore usually couldn’t simply download the software we wanted, which led to the proliferation of PD Libraries which advertised their wares in most magazines of the day. A typical example is this full-page advert from “17-bit Software” (which was interestingly enough the roots of the legendary Team 17 games publisher which brought us the likes of Alien Breed and Project-X)

Flicking through the back-pages of Amiga Format and CU Amiga was a regular past-time for me; I’d carefully read all the adverts, circling the titles that sounded the most interesting and then go and pester my Mum to phone them up and pay using her card over the phone. I’d then wait in excitement over the next few days for the postman to deliver the disks – it was always a good day when just before school, one of these bad boys would land on the doormat:

Later on, when I eventually got involved in The Scene, floppies brought us together in a way I think is now sadly long-gone. Because we traded disks with each other – and groups typically had members whose sole “job” in the group was as a “trader” or “swapper” – we also wrote to each other. As a particularly awkward teenager (with a bunch of the usual teen issues and a healthy side-order of angst), some of the closest friendships I formed during those years were with the other members of my group. Alongside the floppy disks we’d write long, rambling letters to each other full of everything and nothing. We’d fill our envelopes to each other with “Jiffy Junk” – little trinkets we’d collect and swap: Kinder surprise toys, trading cards and the occasional mix-tape. As the splash screen from an old disk magazine said:

Even though I think I only ever met one of the guys from my group in person, I still think about them often to this day and wonder what they’re all doing now.

As the Amiga scene gradually died and the BBS (and later, the Internet and FTP sites) became the primary means of obtaining software I think a lot of those friendships were broken. Even though The Scene is still a very close-knit community, I’d be interested to know whether those same bonds exist today when most communication is probably electronic in nature.

Back to the floppy

So, now down to business (skip to the “But seriously, why?” section below for more of my musings if you want to gloss over the technical details). My A1200 had been fitted with a HXC Floppy emulator: a nifty little gadget that loads ADF files from a SD card and plugs into the floppy socket on the motherboard. I’d installed this years ago for the sake of convenience and is what I had been using for a “floppy drive”. This had to be disconnected and I also had to make a cardboard insulating cover to shield the Indivision AGA DVI card which sits right underneath where the new drive was going to sit.

I purchased a refurbished floppy from amigastore.eu which I then installed :

Fortunately it sat secure enough with all the other cables around it, but it should have had a little bracket holding it in. It’s working fine now though without it and as it was a very tight fit with all my other expansions, I don’t much fancy opening it all back up any time soon! After a little fiddling with power supplies and working which way round the ribbon cables were supposed to go, it started up and proceeded to chunter away with that regular “click” of the Amiga waiting to detect a disk being inserted. Hurrah!

Now, to feed it.

There’s two types of floppy in circulation you can use with your Amiga. The first type is the native Double Density (DD) type which on the PC could support 720Kb of data and on the Amiga 880Kb. Although later Amiga models did sometimes come with a High-Density drive, this DD type was by far the most common type of disk in circulation at the time. They’ll work without issue in any Amiga drive but they are also the hardest to come by these days; the only reliable source for new DD disks I have found so far is from sellers on eBay. There are also plenty of “bucket of random magazine coverdisks and pirated games” auctions as well if you want to get really cheap.

The second type is the far-more common High Density (HD) type that most PCs used with a capacity of 1.44Mb. Again though, as they are no longer being produced they are now relatively expensive. You can still buy these brand new though, on sites like Amazon but there is a draw-back. They use a completely different magnetic medium than the DD type with different characteristics and as such they may or may not work reliably.

I tried 3 different batches bought from Amazon with mixed results. I bought a pack each of rainbow-coloured and plain black disks manufactured by Verbatim, Plain black disks from Sony, and a box of mixed-colour disks from 3M. In order to get these working I discovered the most reliable method was to use XCopy to format them several times in my external Cumana CAX354 drive.

I bought this drive from eBay as I wanted to recreate my then-pimpin’ dual drive setup I had on my first A1200. I think the write mechanism in this drive is somehow “stronger” than in my internal drive as I had a lot less issues once I used this to do the initial formatting. Here it is crunching through a X-Copy (Yeah!) format and verify:

"Xcopy on the Amiga 1200"

Once I’d formatted and verified the disks each time, they usually worked OK but on average there seems to be 1 or 2 “bad” disks in each batch that either refuse to be formatted or eventually start throwing CRC errors.

Software

I also needed some extra software tools to convert things back and forth. As my A1200 is connected to the Internet I went over to Aminet. There are many similar tools there but one I kept seeing recommended was TrackSaver GUI which could write all my ADF files back to a real floppy. It has a very simple GUI which takes care of reading and writing floppy images:

As well as ADF files it can also handle DiskMasher DMS archives which were commonly used on the Amiga back in the 90s. I remember this output was a common sight on magazine coverdisks and BBS downloads:

TURBO GENERIC, indeed. One last thing to consider would be a virus-scanner of some type. The Amiga bootsector virus was quite the thing back in the day, and it still persists on some ADF sources or old floppy images. It’s rare but it’d be a real shame to screw up a system by doing the digital equivalent of re-introducing smallpox. Again, Aminet has plenty to choose from.

But seriously, Why ?

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about what it is exactly about the Amiga that captures me in a way that no other computer ever did. Part of it is I think because the Amiga was the last system that was simple enough that one person could reasonably hold the entire machine in their head.

It was complex, true, but with enough studying and time you could know pretty much everything about every single bit of the Amiga’s memory space, workbench, the custom chips and so on. That’s what makes it so special and endearing.

That simply doesn’t exist on other platforms. I mean modern systems are amazing – and I’ve worked on some serious big-iron hardware in my time – but you could spend an entire lifetime now simply becoming an expert in one tiny piece of the whole system. Modern computers just don’t have the accessibility that the Amiga had, and it straddled the divide perfectly between being simple enough to know it and love it, yet powerful enough to do things you’d never dreamed possible.

But I would also suggest that an even more important aspect is the community that grew up around it – which was made possible in a big way by the humble floppy disk. It enabled a whole generation of bedroom coders to reach out to the world, sending their software around the globe and making real connections. Like the bootleg tape scene of the 80s we traded disks, wrote letters, made friends and connected in a way that now, like the floppy itself, seems antiquated. But it was a lot of fun while it lasted!

XCopy for life, yo.

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