SmartDisk USB Floppy Drive

Color Kit Edition


Andy Foster

While many PC’s are now being sold without floppies, the floppy still remains one of the most convenient ways to move small amounts of data between machines. If you have an occasional need for a floppy drive and your machine doesn’t have room for one internally, then an external USB drive is a good choice.

My wife and I work on our Macs, her on her iMac and me on my iBook, that drive us to transfer to what we’re doing to Windows machines at work. Since neither workplace will allow us to hook our personal machines into their networks and the file sizes we needed to transfer were small (usually Word documents without a lot of figures), USB floppies seemed like a good way to go. Most USB floppies fall into the $29-$49 range, but Microcenter had SmartDisk USB Floppy Drives on sale for $24.99 each. Each USB floppy kit also came with a set of six colored plastic faceplates that let you match your drive with your décor or what you’re wearing that day. (Where I work matching up with the décor means matching up with battleship grey.)

The drive comes with the six matching faceplates, the drive, a “QuickStart”card that tells you that the enclosed CD contains drivers for Windows 98 (Windows Me, 2000, and XP and Mac OS 10.1 and above do not need any drivers), and the aforementioned CD.

The drive mechanism is surrounded by a heavy plastic case that gives the unit a fairly solid feel. A very solid rectangular eject key is located above the door and on the unit’s right side. The USB chord is located on the unit’s rear and from the USB connector to the case measures 30 inches long. The unit has no power adapter and pulls USB power from the device it’s connected to.

Since I’m running OS 10.2.8 (Jaguar), I simply plugged the floppy drive in and inserted a floppy. On my 800 Mhz G3 iBook, it took a consistent 59 seconds for the machine to recognize and mount a 1.44 MB Windows formatted (FAT) floppy. Copying a 23kb Word document (Word v.X) using “drag and drop” from the floppy to the the iBook’s desktop took a total of 10 seconds. (It took 7 seconds for a window of any kind to appear and 3 seconds for the actual copying.) Copying from the desktop to the disk took 17 seconds, the copy window not appearing until after 9 seconds. It then took 8 more seconds to copy the file. So, as you can see, access and copy times are fairly slow, something to be expected when working with a floppy drive. (Response times on my dual 1Ghz PowerMac running OS 10.2 seemed about the same.) However, response times under OS 9.2.2 seemed much faster; and the floppy did not require any drivers from the CD included with the machine, even though they appeared to be present. On either OS, ejecting the disk required using the manual eject button after dragging the disk to the Trash, i.e., ejecting it only removes the disk from OS X’s purview but does not physically eject the disk. While not holding strictly to the Mac paradigm, I considered this a minor inconvenience.

On my Windows machine, Windows XP (running with Service Pack 1) strangely refused to recognize the drive at first. I had seen nothing to indicate that Win XP had seen or installed it. However, when I checked Device Manager, I found it had installed the drive with a question mark (meaning it didn’t know where its drivers were). Since XP was not supposed to need drivers, I uninstalled the device and the commanded Device Manager to Scan for New Hardware. This time it found the device installed it correctly. The Windows 98 operating system immediately saw the drive and asked for drivers, found them on the CD after I directed it to search there, and installed them effortlessly. On both operating systems, floppy drive responsiveness was good. I could tell no practical difference between the USB and internal floppy drives.

The CD accompanying the drive contained an installation routine that appeared to install a floppy drive extension for Mac OS 9 or below, even though the paper Quick Start card (first thing I saw in the box) had misled me into thinking that the drive would not work on anything less than OS 10.1. Seeing the installation routine on the CD and the extension was what prompted me to boot into OS 9.2.2 and see what happened; and it worked perfectly without installing anything. Technical specifications on the box state that the drive will work with “iBook/iMac, G3/G4 CPU, 1999 version Powerbook G3 series or any USB enabled Windows PC”. In a folder called “USB Floppy Drive f” on the CD, I found a real Quick Start card (that told me how to change the colored faceplates) and a User’s Guide (both in .pdf format) that confirmed that the floppy will work with “Mac OS 8.5.1 through 9.X”.

Since I had never played with this kind of set-up before, I executed various tasks I thought someone swapping floppies between PC’s and Mac’s might. The first thing of note is that if you copy or save Mac made files onto the disk, when you insert it back into your Pc you’ll see the data files and the Mac file resource forks (files with dots in front of their names). You can leave them or delete them. Saving a Word document to the floppy using Word v.X created a “Temporary Items” folder but worked normally. I found that I could not use Disk Copy to reformat the floppy into HFS or HFS+ (and I admit I have not educated myself on Mac file systems all that much, yet) and that if I tried such a trick, failed, and then loaded the floppy into the PC (it saw it as unreadable), I could erase the disk and reformat it on the PC (Windows 2000). The disk format shows as FAT on the Windows machine and “MAC PC Dos Exchange (MS-DOS)” in OS X (Get Info). It’s really cool that the Mac can read PC formatted disks; to get the PC to see my Mac disk I’d have to load a “translater” like MacDrive. So, using PC formatted disks definitely gives you the best of both worlds.

All in all, I found the SmartDisk Floppy Drive a good value, especially at the $25 price I got it for. (I actually bought two.) If you like being able to add a little color to your life, then it’s even better. I’d rate it four out of five stars.