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Think Retro: Who else kinda misses their Zip disks?

Christopher Phin | Jan. 28, 2015
These days, of course, the idea that 100MB is "a lot of data" is pretty preposterous. Shoot H.264 video at 1080p and 60fps for four seconds, such as on an iPhone 6, and you've generated a hundred megs of data.

Don't let's be coy about this: buying a Zip drive — which usually came bundled with one disk — was not a cheap enterprise, and nor were the individual disks trivially expensive either. Yes, they were cheaper — and more convenient — than external hard disks, but they were significant investments nevertheless. Today, when the most popular USB flash drive on Amazon is a $15 SanDisk Cruzer that stores 320 times the original 100MB Zip disk, we have a pretty blasé attitude to storage, but in the '90s, you carefully counted the kilobytes when saving a JPEG out from Photoshop, because the literal cost of storage was so high.

Later, when I bought a G4 Cube, I also bought a USB version of the Zip drive. My previous Mac didn't have an Ethernet connection, and the Cube didn't have a port for LocalTalk, so for me at least this sneakernet was the easiest way to migrate data across — and since my old Power Mac only had a 1.2GB hard disk, it wasn't an onerous task.

Even once hard disks became so big in relation to the capacity of the original hundred-meg Zip disk, I still used them to store specific projects. There was and is something satisfying about compartmentalizing jobs, and there's something far more conceptually agreeable about taking a case down from a shelf, slotting a disk into a drive and so being prompted mentally to change gears into a particular work mode than there is about just double-clicking a folder on a multi-terabyte external RAID or NAS.

The original Zip disk was, of course, superseded by a 250MB model and then a 750MB variant, and God bless them, Iomega doggedly tried to reinvent the basic concept of the removable-disk — based storage system for years to come, introducing the Jaz drive (debuting at 1GB) and then the initially 35GB Rev drive, which eventually reached 120GB.

It was all for naught, though. Despite there being tremendous practical value to cheap-ish, removable storage — not least for backup, where a reliable, rotating offsite storage solution remains the gold standard — and despite nostalgic old buggers like me still finding the clunk-pause-whir-thut-thut-thut of a disk-based system inherently pleasing, both the nascent cloud and the move to USB-connected, flash-based storage meant the Zip disk's days were numbered.

Before the final year of my graphic design degree I asked for, and was given, an 8MB USB drive for Christmas, one of the original Disgo models. Where a Zip disk required a special drive, thick, unwieldy cables, drivers and a power supply, the Disgo just plugged straight into a USB port. I remember in an emergency during my degree show loading the Zip drive's drivers onto the Disgo so I could mount a Zip disk on an iMac in the exhibition space and transfer some files. 8MB was small even then, but by the same token even then it was clear that this fast, solid-state, driverless and bus-powered external disk was the future. (Now it too is destined for the past as we become more reliant on the cloud, but Think Retro might survive for long enough for USB flash drives themselves to become a topic!)


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