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When Old Technology Won’t Die

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The other day I tried to upgrade the graphics card in my PC from a Sapphire ATI Radeon 9800 Pro to an Asus Radeon 9800 XT. Admittedly not a major upgrade in terms of performance, but anything that makes it easier for me to pick off terrorists in Counter-Strike: Source, is worth doing in my view. Little did I know, that this supposedly simple upgrade would cause me so much woe.

I slotted the card in and booted the PC only to find that my monitor light briefly came on, and then turned off.

Hmmm. Not good.

After double checking that everything was plugged in correctly and that I’d done nothing silly, I came to the conclusion that the card wasn’t working down to some random incompatibly with my Gigabyte GA-K8NS Pro motherboard. However, I gained hope when the Gigabyte web site revealed that there had been several updates to the motherboard’s BIOS. While there was no mention of any fixes regarding Radeon 9800 XT compatibility I thought I might as well give it a go.

This is where my problems began. Inevitably, the BIOS update utility was a DOS based application, meaning that I needed to boot from a floppy to do use it. However, my PC has been blissfully floppy free since I built it, and I’ve had no use for one since. After all, like everybody else these days I use a USB memory key, and jolly good it is too. I then remembered that like most modern motherboards, the BIOS had an option that would enable me to boot from a USB memory key. Cool, I thought, sounds simple enough. Oh, how wrong I was.

Now I’ll willingly state that I had a spare PC with a floppy disk drive in it right next to me. But to have to take it out of that machine and put it in mine would have been a major hassle, and as I thought to myself, it’s 2005 for goodness sake, why should I need to? I have the option to boot from a USB key and I’m going to use it!

The first step then was to work out how to make my memory key bootable. Now, creating a MS-DOS start-up disk for a floppy is easy – you right-click, select ‘Format’ from the context menu and then check the box next to ‘Create a MS-DOS start-up disk’. Pretty easy really. But do this with USB key and the option is frustratingly greyed out.

Why is this? Motherboard vendors have cottoned on to idea of booting from a USB key but it seems that Microsoft hasn’t. Any modern PC will use SATA based hard drives. But try installing Windows on one without a floppy disk drive? If your motherboard uses a third-party SATA disk controller or you want to install the driver for RAID, you are, to put in the vernacular - stuffed.

When you think about it, it’s ridiculous. We are forced to rely on an extremely old piece of technology, in order to use the very newest. And when I say old, by computing standards, I mean extremely old. Googling will quickly tell you that the floppy disk drive (FDD) was invented at IBM in 1967. This was an eight-inch disk, evolving into the 5.25in disk that first appeared in IBM Personal Computer in 1981, before the standard 3.5in disk was introduced in the mid-1980s.

So the floppy in its current form has been around for twenty years! But rather than celebrate this blessed anniversary, I’d just like to see the back of the thing. Its capacity is laughable, its data transfer speed is painful, and the disks themselves are notoriously unreliable.

And haven’t we already been through this? The iMac was supposed to have spearheaded the move to kill off the thing in the late nineties, but as usual the PC community missed the point. Instead of copying the iMac’s no-floppy vision, it copied its translucent plastic, giving us years of tacky green PC peripherals.

Meanwhile, the floppy has clung, limpet-like, to the interior of our PCs, steadfastedly shrugging off all pretenders. Iomega tried and failed to supplant the floppy with the Zip disk, and Sony failed not just once but twice, firstly by completely failing to promote Minidisc Data and then again with its aborted 200MB HiFD drive. Make that three times, as it released a Minidisc update called Hi-MD last year, and I don’t know anyone who uses it. It’s a big shame that Sony didn’t make the most of Minidisc as I was a huge fan right from the very beginning, until my iPod rendered the format redundant for me.

And no, I haven’t forgotten about CD-RW. Sure it’s a success, but it didn’t result in the end of the floppy disk. And whatever happened to Mount Rainier, the technology that was supposed to enable CD-RW to be truly used like a floppy?

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