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A few thoughts about iOmega Zip disks/drives

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    A few thoughts about iOmega Zip disks/drives

    After some frustrating fiddling with a few Zip drives, just got me thinking about a few things.

    The original Iomega Zip 100 drive was a fairly popular storage device. It was basically a successor to Iomega's much larger Bernoulli drive, it competed against the SuperDisk LS-120, and it could store much more than a regular floppy drive.

    Much like a 3.5" floppy disk, they used a spinning magnetic disk enclosed in a plastic cartridge, with a small metal shutter that gave the drive access to to the disk surface. Hardly impervious to dust.

    These disks and drives were fragile when they were new. I remember back when these were new, accidentally dropping a drive just a few feet on to a concrete floor - it looked fine but would no longer read disks. The drive heads are tiny and very easily ripped to shreds by dust, dirt, or damaged disks. Early internal units have a nice big silver sticker covering various openings, presumably to keep dust out. Don't even TOUCH a zip drive while it is reading a disk.

    Disassembling a bad zip disk, I noticed that the adhesive that holds the magnetic "cookie" to the metal disk at the center seems to be degrading. Just like a 3.5" floppy disk, once that comes undone, it is game over.

    The eject buttons often seemed to break. Of course these used electrical eject mechanisms, so it might choose not to let you eject the disk, but you would never know and just press the button harder. The early drives were really fun, as eject mechanism was too aggressive and would spit the disk completely out of the drive and on to the desk or floor.

    Zip drives were criticized as slow or not "multimedia ready", but usually this was because people used the parallel port version a lot. USB 1.x was also rather slow. SCSI, however was blazing fast and efficient. IDE/ATAPI should have been fast, but I seem to recall those being a tad more sluggish than SCSI.

    The interfaces that I recall:

    SCSI Internal - can be used as a generic removable drive without any drivers, like Bernoulli, or hard drive if SCSI card bios supports it. Typically only SCSI drivers, so any OS that supports your SCSI card should be able to access the drive. Not sure about the other interfaces, but on SCSI you can use a cards low-level format option to wipe and re certify a disk. I don't know if it actually lays out any kind of low-level format or just wipes, but over the years I encountered multiple times where doing this would appear to fix some sector read errors.

    SCSI External - Probably used more on Macs.

    IDE Internal - No, not ATAPI, just IDE. This one was weird as the disk looked like an IDE hard disk drive. Without additional drivers, Windows would recognize it as a removable drive, and then fail to unmount the file system when ejected. From DOS, BIOS could access it without any drivers but it would have to be formatted with a partition table to use it without drivers. I'd guess an IDE to SATA adapter might let this work via SATA.

    IDE ATAPI Internal - Does not try to look like a hard drive. I've tried one of these via an IDE to SATA adapter before and it did not work. I've read that an IDE to USB adapter should work. These were rather popular and pre-installed in some systems. Some BIOSes even included an option to boot from these drives.

    USB - Should be recognized by any OS that supports USB and mass storage device. But the zip 100, I think only came with USB 1.1 speeds.

    Parallel External - These were really popular as they were easy to add to laptops, or attach to random computers. But they were slow. For "vintage" purposes, the DOS software requires at least an NEC v20/v30/80186. I thought I had read once that someone had modified the Iomega provided drivers to work with 8088/8086 but I don't know what happened to that. There is a third party DOS drive that works with 8088/8086.

    Personally, I think Iomega sort of shot themselves in the foot with the Zip 250. They had more capacity, and they could work with Zip 100 disks, but access to Zip 100 disks was much much slower.

    There was also a 750mb version, that I believe supported firewire interfaces. This was followed up with the "Jazz" drive that as I recall used a completely sealed disk/head cartridge.

    USB was the fancy new standard that was designed to accommodate all these different external (and sometimes even internal) removable media drive types.... until someone got the idea to put some flash ram right on a USB plug.

    Trying to keep drives alive and happy has been a challenge. Most of these drives degrade after a while with some kind of intermittent seeking problem. It might load and mount a disk, and even succeed at a linear test of the entire disk (like SCSI bios read verification, Linux DD, or Norton Disk test) but then random seeks send it in to the "click of death". The best I have found to combat this is just to use something like Norton Disk Test to exercise the drive for a long period of time. If it is misbehaving like this, do NOT try to write data to the disk - it may render the disk unusable and unformatable.

    I dare say most poorly stored zip disks, like you might find on eBeh, would be risky to use. Even floppy disks commonly have residue in them that can rip a disk apart and bork a drive's heads.

    And when a drive misbehaves it may damage a formerly good disk that is then hazardous to try in another drive.

    I've found that in a few cases, using a few drops of Isopropyl alcohol on the heads, and then letting the drive dry completely, can get a drive working again. In a few bad cases, an entire bath in Isopropyl alcohol. The only part of the drive that doesn't like that is the motor spindle bearings - the motor may get noisy. It looks like it should be possible to add oil/grease to the bearing but that does require disassembling the unit.

    Looking at a few units, it seems the head/motor assembly is interchangeable with other interface units. So a SCSI board can be fitted with an assembly from an IDE drive. I don't know how many variations there are, but there are some. If trying to do that, compare the front bezel style for a similar one.

    The head/motor assembly (I might be using the wrong term, it is sort of a "sled" that moves around in the drive as a disk is inserted and ejected). At the ones I looked at it is fairly easy to remove. Just push it back, and it pops out. Then undo some flat flex cables and the motor wire. The motor is easy to disassemble with just small Allen wrench and a small Phillips. The actual head is nightmare as there are a set of very strong permanent magnets holding the entire thing down. Fiddle with that and it will almost certainly damage the heads.

    It has been fun accessing Zip drives from all kinds of OSes. Such as OS/2 or BeOS because they had drivers for the SCSI card. Zip drives were very common for a while, so they can still be found easily on eBay. But even as a vintage endeavor, I don't see zip drives as lasting much longer.

    The Jaz was a removable hard drive platter design like the Syquest or Castlewood drives. The fully enclosed platter plus read/write head design was the Rev drive.

    The Zip 750 included a version that worked with USB 2. Of course, it wouldn't write to 100 MB disks.

    The Zip 250 was slower working with 100 MB disks but part of that to reduce the frequency of click of death.

    I think there were several USB versions of the 100 MB drive. The newer smaller drive worked with the standard USB drivers with Win 7 while the older blue box design one seems to require its specific drivers which don't work on Vista or later.


      I think the Syquest Sparq drive was intended as direct competition to the Jaz. Unfortunately, the Sparq only come in parallel printer interface. Zip drives were standard equipment on many Mac G3 systems. I've handled a lot of Zip 100 disks without problems. I guess I'm just lucky.
      Reach me: vcfblackhole _at_ protonmail dot com.


        There was a internal IDE version of the Sparq. Didn't matter, the Sparq was still a very unreliable drive.


          Dunno; never had the need to try. Still have a new on in its blister wrap.
          Reach me: vcfblackhole _at_ protonmail dot com.


            It's not quite accurate to say that the Zip was the successor to the Bernoulli Box. They have nothing in common except that Iomega developed both.

            The Bernoulli Box used a flexible media that got pulled close to the heads, but it never touched the heads. The secret there was a polished plate that it was land on and rub against. Disturbing the air flow would cause the media to safely flutter away from the polished plate instead of causing a head crash like on traditional hard drives. The media would still wear out, but the pressure was slight and distributed across the polished plate.

            The Zip drive was basically a super floppy drive in comparison - the heads sit there rubbing against the media.

            Unlike a floppy drive, Zip media is low level formatted at the factory. You can never do another low level format and put down new servo information. This means that if a Zip disk looses part of the servo information, that part of the disk is useless and can never be used again. Don't use a bulk eraser on a Zip disk. The SCSI variants don't have any super powers; the SCSI controller can send a format command, but it's never going to be able to rewrite servo information.


              I still hang onto my dual 90MB Bernoulli drive mostly because I think that the principle of operation is really interesting. Video here.
              Reach me: vcfblackhole _at_ protonmail dot com.


                First thing, as I don't know if I ever encountered a real Zip drive. Just what WAS the "click of death" with the Zip drive?

                And, I mean, i don't know, and I guess it depends on the capability of the parallel port but you can get 2MB/s out of a well performing parallel port. Legacy SCSI was 10MB/s. And, honestly, it's hard to imagine something like the Zip drive keeping up with either of these interfaces.

                That suggests that the Parallel zip drive was interlacing sectors whereas the SCSI one was not, which is kind of hard to believe.


                  There were two different clicks of death.

                  Normal click of death would be the failure of the drive. If the drive had issues reading a disk, it would retract the heads over a cleaning pad and repeat the process resulting in a clicking sound.

                  Contagious click of death sounds the same but the head would have been knocked out of alignment and would tear the disk material which in turn knocks the next drive out of alignment. Following the Iomega directions to test a drive with new disk and disk in different drive, one could quickly destroy all the drives in a location. The drives most susceptible to the issue were only produced for a short time but damaged disks could destroy any drive. It was recommended to open the shutter and rotate the disk to make sure the disk wasn't damaged.

                  The SCSI Zip 100 drive did about 3 MB per second compared to the parallel port's 1 MB per second. The Zip 250 drive writing to 100 MB disks was much slower at a mere 10 MB per minute.

                  The Zip drive managed to sell 40 million units, most after the click of death issue was resolved.


                    Steve Gibson has some tidbits on the Zip
                    Reach me: vcfblackhole _at_ protonmail dot com.


                      Coincidentally enough my wife was just now going through a box of old office supplies and asked me if I knew anything about four ZIP disks she found in it and if we still even own a ZIP drive. Shrink wrap is missing but otherwise they're unmarked and virginal-appearing, so we're not sure if they're actually blank or if she might have used them for a single backup before they ended up in the box. I told her that that I definitely didn't do anything with them because ZIP was a train I skipped boarding; I briefly rooted for the alternative LS-120 drive (ATA internal) in the late 1990's but even then I think I only ever had one box of disks for it; for the most part I just used it as a novel power-eject floppy drive. Ended up being a fairly early adopter of CD-RW instead.

                      My problem now is I have these four nice looking ZIP disks, but the only ZIP drive we do have resides within a B&W Power Macintosh G3 that's been sitting in the garage for about a decade. (And ended up in my hands well after ZIP was functionally obsolete.) So I'm kind of feeling like I have a Schrodinger's Cat sort of situation; the disks *may* be perfectly good, but I may ruin them by sticking them in the only drive I have, assuming the machine it's in even powers up. So I'm torn; should I try, since I've been meaning to see if that G3 should go to electronics recycling anyway, or should I just assume the worst and chuck them? Selling them on without seeing if they have data on them doesn't seem like a reasonable third option.

                      I second that the future prospects for these things as "Vintage" items looks pretty grim. They served their purpose back in the 1990's and early aughts, but they weren't built to last forever, from both a mechanical and a materials point of view.
                      My Retro-computing YouTube Channel (updates... eventually?): Paleozoic PCs Also: Blogspot


                        I was surprised when I had a chance to recover data off about a dozen Zip disks and all the data came through. That was a better result than with the much more expensive Syquest 270 that I recommended when both were new. The Zip drive was a masterpiece of cost reduced design.

                        The Zip drive does have the benefit of large production numbers of drives and disks. There were almost as many Zip drives as 5.25" drives so finding a lightly used Zip drive that would work for occasional data transfer shouldn't be too hard. The Zip drive might not be up to the challenge of being the primary storage mechanism for a decade but it could still have a role. I picked up a couple of drives at $5 each and disks at 25 cents each making the inevitable failure not much of a concern.


                          I prefer LS120 drives, but not for their increased capacity, but for the fact that they can read and write 3.5" DSDD/DSHD standard floppies. Very useful on old motherboards with no integrated FDC, but with IDE available. The Apple LS120 USB Superdrives are also useful as 3.5" external legacy floppy cases. Haven't found a use for the USB-to-IDE port replicator part, however. Certainly doesn't work with Caleb UHD drives.
                          Reach me: vcfblackhole _at_ protonmail dot com.


                            My zip disks from the 90's seem to still be reliable last time I used any of them. Simple, slow, but reliable is what I remember about them. It was easy to take work home and back with a couple disks (back when most office files were small). CDR pretty much killed removable media drives when they became cheap and were in turn killed by thumb drives and or internet access.

                            External zip 100 drives were SCSI or Parallel and internal ones were SCSI or IDE/PATA.

                            NEVER stick a 3.5" cleaning disk into a LS120 drive.
                            What I collect: 68K/Early PPC Mac, DOS/Win 3.1 era machines, Amiga/ST, C64/128
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                              I think the advice about not sticking a 3.5" cleaning disk into a drive applies to all the Floptical drives, not just the LS120. The LS-120 differed from the Sony, Cabot, and earlier Insite and Brier drives by having a planned cleaning disk though I don't know if the cleaning disk shipped.