Floppy drives, the good, the bad and the ugly
Updated: Sep 19, 2022
The year is 2022 and “yes!”, I am still using real floppy disks on my Commodore machines but sadly not as much as I used to. Now, don't get me wrong the floppy disk was a milestone in modern computing, enabling larger data capacities and more importantly fast access rates. However, in 2022, as much as I enjoy receiving the latest game release from Psytronik on an original disk, most of my practical everyday computing is much better served on a modern floppy disk emulator. I am, of course referring to an SD2IEC on my C64 and the Gotek floppy drive emulator on my trusty Amiga.
The SD2IEC is a relatively cheap device that, quite simply, enables D64 disk images to be saved and loaded from an SD card. The advantage of this, is that (unlike real floppy disks), errors are pretty much non existent. Using SD cards as well, means you can store and retrieve disk images from any modern PC, whether they are backups you've created or files downloaded from the Internet - and this makes sure your collection is secure. Of course, an added bonus to this (and something I take quite seriously) is that by holding these disk images digitally, we are preserving the legacy of the software – we are acting as digital archaeologists in a sense! Really, it's a win-win for everyone.
The Gotek disk drive emulator for the Amiga, does essentially the same thing as the SD2IEC but there are some differences, some obvious - some not so much. The Gotek drive is much closer to a real floppy drive except that it doesn't use real floppy disks. It is quite literally a floppy drive with a USB stick - with selectable disk images that are in digital ADF format (the file system of Amiga Dos). This means unlike the SD2IEC (which is only designed for the C64 by the way), the Gotek replaces the Amiga's physical disk drive with a unit that has a small screen and disk selector. The drive itself is in actual fact not an “Amiga” drive but a replacement for any 3.5 inch disk drive and is usually mounted in its place. What makes it an Amiga drive is a small configuration file on the USB stick which tells the Gotek to “act” as an Amiga's disk drive.
Now the advantages of this, should be obvious, as the Gotek on the Amiga has the same advantages as the SD2IEC on the C64 and I have mentioned these already. Namely, no more physical media required, easy to copy and move files across and even no noise – if you choose to configure it that way!
So, in conclusion. Does this mean there is no place for original floppy drives and disks?
Well, in my opinion “absolutely not”. First, there is still something special about the whirs and clicks that original disks make when loading. Second, if you want to keep your machine “original”, you'll most likely need to keep the original disk drive in its place. On the Amiga this will vary from person to person but it really depends on what kind of user you are. If you're a games player who insists on genuine hardware (like myself!) then you may be happy to replace your drive with a Gotek, as it will still offer the same experience albeit with a digital file on USB as opposed to a real floppy disk. If you're purer than that, you might think about keeping the original floppy disk in place but having a Gotek externally and thus having the best of both worlds. On the Amiga, this is simple enough as you can plug Goteks into the external floppy port.
On the C64, adding the SD2IEC doesn't require any physical modifications so your machine's purity is kept intact. In fact it takes seconds to just literally plug it in and use it and conversely can be put way after so even if you use an original disk drive, you'll lose nothing by having an SD2IEC as a secondary drive.
One thing to bear in mind (and this is especially related to the C64) is the disk drive itself. The 1541 (especially) is notorious for mechanical and electrical failure. The drives are almost forty years old now so I can't fault Commodore there, but it is a reality. Again, you might consider preserving your original drive for prosperity (and because they just look super cool!) but having an SD2IEC as your “daily driver”. This is my preferred choice as it gives me the best of both worlds. I have the original drives 'kept nice and safe' which I use on “special occasions” (or for making digital backups) and the modern solutions for everyday use and to keep my wife and the electricity bills happy... and in the end you just can't beat “modern” Retro computing for fusing the old and new together in perfect symmetry.