ASCII by Jason Scott

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Review of the FC5025 5.25″ Floppy to USB Adapter —

If you used home computers at various times from the 1970s through to the 1990s, you have a problem. The problem may be irrelevant, or not a huge problem, but it’s a problem nonetheless.

The problem is that the vast majority of home computers used 5.25″ floppy disks, (also called 5 1/4″, but I’ll stick with 5.25″). Somewhat sturdy (although the disk was quite obviously exposed, a problem solved in later media) and most definitely easy to understand once you knew which way to shove them in, floppies became the dominant way to store and retrieve data for anyone who wasn’t some crazy-ass company looking to store a whole mess of stuff. A lot of businesses even depended on these floppies, storing stacks and stacks of them under all sorts of conditions until they were needed. They showed up in synthesizers, in some point-of-sale systems, and other situations… but for home computers, they were The Way It Was Done.

As I am a computer historian, here’s the required scan from over 20 years ago of 5.25 floppy disks in nice plastic cases and sleeves:

The 3.5″ floppy, which was smaller, sturdier, and easier to use, eventually overtook the 5.25″ floppy, and this was well and good – it was a superior product. But 5.25″ was the province of many thousands of schoolchildren, businesses, pirates, artists, and plain old users – the pioneers, in other words, of what became the home computer revolution.  And with the ascent of the 3.5″, the 5.25″ ended up relegated to boxes, plastic cases, and an awful lot of basements, garages and attics. Forgotten, in other words. And with them, a treasure trove of life going online for people, just people, for the first time.

This leads to the current day. 3.5″ floppy drives (which only “old people” call “floppy drives”) are still in use but declining rapidly, and with good reason – USB flash drives (also called key drives or thumb drives) are vastly superior and can hold, honestly, millions of times more data than even the densest floppy disks that ever existed. But 3.5″ holds on, at least long enough to have been turned into a USB version that will allow you to transfer your 3.5″ disks into your modern systems:

Sure, they can be a little costly (prices range from $50 to $200 and hint hint buy the $50 version) but most importantly, they’re very ubiquitous and you can use them to transfer your old data from the 3.5″ disks to thumb drives or hard drives or maybe even the cloud, where it will never be seen again. Quick tip: If you go through the trouble to save old stuff, then save it in a few places.

So lost in this transition are the old 5.25″ floppies, whether they be for Atari, Apple, TRS-80, Heathkit, MS-DOS, or any of a number of platforms. Compounding this is that in some cases, the computer systems and even the companies that made them are gone, and you’re probably left with this aforementioned pile of floppies, unsure what to do next. Since they’re quiet and don’t explode if you store them near gas, they have usually ended up just sitting, and sitting, and sitting.

Until recently.

A number of entities have begun making 5.25″ to USB bridging technology, and they’re trying to make up for lost time. One, which is in the planning stages, is the Kryoflux.  A project by the Software Preservation Society, it promises great things, and encourages people to take their designs and market/build upon them. It’s very exciting and I wish them well.

But what I’m looking for is something where I give someone money and something arrives in the mail and lets me transfer 5.25″ floppies through USB to my compatible computer. And for that specific set of needs, we have the FC5025 from Device Side Data. Prototypes of this technology have been shown since 2007, but as of this moment, you can purchase one from Device Side for $55.25 (ha ha) plus shipping. I did this on a Friday afternoon.

The package arrived Monday morning, a mere two days from ordering, over the weekend, shipped priority mail. That is fast service. I realize things can slow down in the future but kudos to Device Side for such an impressive turnaround.

What you get in the package is this, plus a Floppy cable I left out of the shot:

FC5025 Shots

Essentially, the FC5025 circuit board, a CD-ROM, a USB cable, a receipt, and a floppy cable. In case you didn’t get it, you do not get a 5.25 floppy drive, and you do not get a way to hook said drive up to any sort of power.

Here’s a closer look at the FC5025 that arrived:

FC5025 Shots

From the arrangement of screws and the form factor, along with stuff written on the Device Side data site, it is obvious the engineer wants you to connect this inside your machine, and put a 5.25″ drive into a drive bay, and then run the USB cable to an internal port. (He also sells a USB card with internal port, for example). Of course, I was impatient, and since my basement is a treasure trove of old crap, I ended up doing this configuration:

FC5025 ShotsFC5025 ShotsFC5025 Shots

So what we have there is a 5.25″ TEAC floppy drive, inside a USB case (allowing me to have power) and then a cable running out from the floppy directly into the FC5025, and then a USB cable from there into the back of the machine. The internal floppy solution is more elegant, but this was easier for me to immediately throw together. Total time so far – about 10 minutes, including finding a good 5.25″ floppy drive.

Plugging in the USB connection and turning on the drive, the system immediately saw the FC5025 and identified it as such. Of course, I couldn’t DO anything with it, but nothing exploded or smoked, and the drive was plugged in completely, which was a good sign. The FC5025 has, as far as I can find, absolutely no status lights or LEDs of any kind. It just sits there, being. Obviously, if you had this thing inside your machine you wouldn’t care, but it did make me worried until I could test things. Luckily, testing occurred 120 seconds after plugging it in.

The CD-ROM has a manual, the source code for various drivers, and installation media for a program to transfer disks. In other words, everything you need to get started. I installed the Windows program and started it with no problems. It looks like this (taken from the Device Side site, but it really did look this way):

I put in a random Apple II disk I’d taken up from the basement, put it in, and ran the program.

It failed. Read errors galore.

Then I took the disk out and noticed that the owner (not me) had creased it beyond repair. I put in a different one.

It worked great.

Absolutely worked great! 14 minutes after I’d walked into the house with the package, I was able to read Apple disks, via USB, through this machine.

The FC5025 claims it can currently read the following formats:

  • Apple DOS 3.2 (13-sector)
  • Apple DOS 3.3 (16-sector)
  • Apple ProDOS
  • Atari 810
  • Commodore 1541
  • MS-DOS
  • North Star MDS-A-D
  • TI-99/4A

That is an enormous amount of time saved – you can put in most anything most people would have saved on home computers (with some exceptions) and pull in the data. That is wonderful.

I found the software very easy to use. Tell it where you want disk images to go, and it will save sequential disk images into that directory. disk0001.dsk and then disk0002.dsk for Apple II disks, for example. These will work with emulators, programs that read disk images like Ciderpress, and so on. I was suddenly looking at 25 year old programs that ran GBBS on the Apple II, in no time at all.

I was alerted to the release of this hardware by Rob O’Hara, who would rightfully consider me amiss if I didn’t stress that this is a read-only technology – it is to be used to extract data from these disks, and not put data on them.  If you’re looking to write out new data so you can play found disk images on your original hardware, you’re going to have to look elsewhere (and there’s a bunch of ways to do this, involving software on the original hardware that you install, and so on). And yes, there’s other solutions, but this is the first involving USB where you can take a stack of disks, without any other part of the given hardware or environment, and get the data saved. That’s worth trumpeting about.

Pros

Does what it says – takes a variety of 5.25″ floppy disk formats and turns them into files on a Windows, Linux or OSX box via a USB connection. Software is intuitive and easy to use. Contains source code if you want to tidy things up or experiment. Ships fast. Easily mountable inside a machine, if preferred.

Cons

Can only read images, not write them. Arriving in 2010, it is nearly too late for a lot of magnetic media, but last-minute arrival of the cavalry is always exciting. Needs a 5.25″ drive, which not everyone can easily buy except through auction sites.

Summary

Device Side Data have filled, for a good price, a sorely needed gap for preserving hundreds of thousands of floppy disks languishing in storage, potentially allowing a lot of computer history to live again, or at least die another day. At roughly $60, it’s a well-built piece of hardware that is intuitive and flexible, allowing you to read many different formats of floppies, making you the preservation hero of your block or social group in no time. Buy.


Categorised as: computer history

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41 Comments

  1. kyoorius says:

    How long does it take to dump and decode a Apple 3.3 disk?

  2. Ryan Russell says:

    So… what kind of 5 1/4 drive? An IBM-compatible 360K or 1.2M?

  3. Jayson Smith says:

    One thing he missed/forgot is that some drives won’t read the back side of so-called flippies, which are 5.25 disks where the computer only stores data on one side at a time, so people flip them over to get twice the storage space on one disk. The reason is that some drives depend on the index hole to see if the disk is spinning, and when you flip the disk over, the index hole ends up on the wrong side of the disk, and the drive can’t see it. Personally, I have little use for this product, since I have a working Apple II setup, but anyone who doesn’t, and has floppies laying around, would almost certainly like this.

  4. Curt Vendel says:

    I am really looking forward to receiving mine. I have a large stack of prototype Atarisoft disks for various games Atari developed for numerous 3rd party platforms like Apple, TI, C64, VIC… So getting the data off of those disks and safely stored on my archival PC will be great.

    I am still recovering data from over 3,000 Atari 810 format diskettes, hundreds of ST diskettes and still quite a few 9 track TU78 mainframe backup tapes. Its weird how resilient the media has been long term.

    Curt

  5. Jason Scott says:

    I agree the issue of flippy drives is worth exploring, but that’s a “second level” issue – this thing can READ flippy drives, but you have to do the work of buying a 5.25″ drive anyway, so it was on your head to get one that worked, did what you want, etc.

    I’ll be interested in what the SPS does with their product, too. I’ll also be looking into trying to find New Old Stock TEAC drives.

  6. nimbus says:

    Great to see the 5.25 getting its due. Speaking of which, any probability of extracting the files from the 5.25″ I sent you back in 2008? Would love to see what’s on there.

  7. robohara says:

    Looks pretty bad ass to me. I think installing it into an external caddy is genius and, most likely, the only way to go. That gives you the portability to, say, show up at someone’s place with the device tucked under your arm, ready to archive disks and save the day like some sort of geeky data superhero. Data-man!

    I’m interested in the Kryo too, but I’ll wait until the flippy issues are sorted out. I’ve jumped on these types of bandwagons too early before only to end up disappointed when development doesn’t reach where I’d hoped.

  8. Joey says:

    There is such a special joy in getting data out of the floppy cage. I remember when, after two decades of copying my Atari disks every five years to prevent bitrot, I got ahold of a SIO2PC adapter and in no time was detokenizing my old BASIC code & checking it into a git repository.

    But curse you for reminding me that I have a box of PC floppies still to do something with. Hmm, I still have ISA buses that I can hook 5″ drives up to, but did I toss my last 5″ PC floppy drive?

  9. Swagstaff says:

    I feel a little silly leaving a “Woohoo!” comment, but “Woohoo!” I’m looking at my 25-year-old AT clone that I “only” needed to bridge to some other computer to archive all my floppies. I discovered last year that its floppy controller ist kaput. Saddenz! But now there’s hope. Praise jeezuz (and Rob O’Hara and Jason)!

  10. Eric N says:

    Your review mentioned the device drivers come with source code. Do you know if the hardware is flexible enough so that with the right software, quarter and half tracks of Apple disks could be read?

    A huge step forward in the Apple archiving world would be the ability to preserve the copy protection schemes used on the original disks. There is so much Apple history that revolves around their removal that it would be a shame to lose it all.

    • Jason Scott says:

      I don’t know of the flexibility of the FC5025 offhand (I’ll investigate) but I know the SPS project specifically wants to do this and have this ability.

  11. Technici says:

    There is a software product called Disk2FDI that I have used in the past to do the same thing. The difference is that Disk2FDI only runs under dos, so I think the USB interface of the FC5025 seems like an easier solution. Back when I was using Disk2FDI, I was able to read the back side of the Apple disks by making a modification to the disk drive, and it worked well. Instructions for two different methods of modifications can be found at these URL’s (I used the magnet modification):

    http://www.siliconsonic.de/t/flipside.html
    http://www.oldskool.org/disk2fdi/FLIPPY.htm

    I would guess that those modifications would work with the FC5025 to read the back side of disks.

  12. Drew Wallner says:

    This post simultaneously made me excited, for all the folks with 5.25″ media they want to resurrect, and sad, for all the TI-99/4A programming from my youth that was lost to audio cassettes rotted by improper storage.

  13. […] — to preserve it and, if necessary, migrate it to more reliable supports. (By the way, these two posts by Jason Scott are really serendipitous, and I have to thank him implicitly for the […]

  14. Stephen says:

    What you need to do is to keep using that case for the drive and permanently mount the FC5025 in place of the existing USB-IDE interface.

    There is something both right and wrong about an external USB 5.25″ floppy drive.

  15. Jeremiah Miller says:

    I’m considerably younger than most people who used 5.25″ disks, and by the time I bought my first computer (age 13) 3.5″ disks were the common media.

    Texas Tech University threw away a huge pile of old equipment in 2002, and I salvaged some of it from the scrapyard. For shits and giggles, I installed a 5.25″ drive in my PC at the time (a P3-450 Katmai). A good joke in my circle of geek friends.

    Until I covered a school board meeting last year, and heard the IT department bemoaning the loss of data on a pile of 5.25 IBM disks due to a lack of working drives. I pulled that old PC out of the closet and donated it to the school. It’s still sitting in a rack in the server room.

  16. Karl-Heinz Weiss says:

    Unfortunately this fine piece of hardware and software will not be sold to Germany as it does not bear a CE mark, although there is great doubt about it being an electrical apparatus…

  17. The Philosopher says:

    Hokku/haiku:

    Forgotten garage-
    A dusty box of floppies
    eminent bitrot.

    Dokugin (renga):

    A dusty old box
    of fast aging floppy disks
    tucked just out of sight.
    Data lost to the ages.
    Alas, eminent bitrot.

    USB device
    for reading the bytes of the
    archival wonders.
    At last, data may be saved!
    Possible preservation.

  18. Dennis Ruth says:

    I’ve gotten my FC5025 and followed Jason’s example. Works like a charm on a stack of old IBM formatted 5.25 disks. Only problem I’ve encountered is if I do a disk copy (instead of individual files) the resultant icon shows up as a Zip file. Zip reports an internal error and won’t open it. I’m looking for an emulator for the MS-DOS and for Commodore (that’s the next stack to be tackled). Any advice would be welcome.

  19. Barry Watzman says:

    There is a big (BIG) difference between reading images and reading files, and it’s not clear from this review what the software that comes with this product can do in terms of the latter. Further, my own interest in such a device would require being able to read CP/M diskettes of various formats, so the “file extractor” would need to be configurable [HIGHLY configurable]. And, finally, yes, I would want to be able to write.

    Going further than that, however, I want to be able to deal with EIGHT-INCH drives as well as 5.25″ drives. Fundamentally, it would seem that the hardware to do all of this is really not much different; I see it more as a software issue than as a hardware issue. But no one is there yet with the hardware OR the software. But at least it’s a step in the right direction.

  20. […] a uIED/SD that gives a Commodore 64 access to modern SD cards for storage. And, of course, I have Jason Scott’s review of the more general-use FC5025 5.25″ Floppy to USB Adapter to blame in getting me started on this current […]

  21. Lee Probst says:

    Is anyone willing to copy a few 5.25″ disks onto either 3.5″ floppies or even onto a CD? For how much? I haven’t enough 5.25 disks or time to make it worthwhile for me to go your route.

    –Lee

  22. Matt says:

    Get a PCI card called “Catweasel mk4 Plus” made by a German Company called “Individual Computers” (see Wikipedia). It can then directly connect to and control old 3.5″ and 5.25″ floppy drives. The Catweasel firmware can be updated to read any type of 5.25″ disk (i.e. Apple, Amiga, Commodore 64, DOS, etc) in Windows or Linux. Using free software/drivers you’ll be able to make a disk image of the 5.25″ floppies and then discard the old disks. The Catweasel card does not fit into a PCIe slot so you may also need a “StarTech PEX1PCI1″ or “PCIe2PCI” Adapter Card if you have a newer motherboard. This is a very GEEKY product, so you better be an advanced computer user to get the drivers working. Others report that they are only able to read disks and not write to them. Otherwise, go and buy an old computer with a 5.25″ disk drive controller.

  23. Beverly Howard says:

    Has anyone looked inside a 3.5 usb enclosure to see if the basic drive connection from the usb interface to the drive itself is a floppy cable?

    If so, it would seem that it should be possible to connect that circuitry to a 5.25 drive since all the msdos floppy drives used the same pins… you might have to dig up an edge connector to dip pin connector which were used on some early 3.5 mounts.

    Beverly Howard

  24. Eddie Wright says:

    Just had a wry smile at “audio cassettes rotted by improper storage”. Anyone else have shoeboxes full of self-programmed programmes all stored on cassettes long past their ‘should have thrown away years ago’ bast by date?

  25. I know exactly what you mean about Wikipedia being a knowledge black hole detector. I’m was a very early Wikipedian, and I spent a significant amount of time in 2001-2002 documenting previous online encyclopedia projects on Wikipedia. Many of my articles have been deleted in recent years, primarily because significant pre-web efforts such as Project Galactic Guide were never written up in the mainstream press. If this is how Wikipedia as a whole treats subjects in its own historical context, imagine how good it is at the history of computer-related communities that have no link to it at all. I’ve been meaning to start an archive for this particular topic; maybe I should get started.

    thank

  26. ADStryker says:

    Hah! Jeremiah Miller — I attended Texas Tech University.

    Anyway, to the point. Based on Jason’s article here, I bought a Device Side FC5025 and the external enclosure to mount the drive in (that enclosure is pretty large, btw, but it has to be to house those huge 5-1/4″ drives). I had an old Epson SD-600 diskette drive that I used for this purpose.

    WinImage (http://download.cnet.com/WinImage/3000-2242_4-10454156.html) seems like it might be a good app to mount a floppy diskette image, but for the initial tests I used a freeware app called Virtual Floppy (http://vfd.sourceforge.net/).

    So far I’ve tried reading three 19-year old 1.2Mb diskettes. Two read fine, with no errors reported. I haven’t tested every file I copied, but the text files I looked at seemed fine. One diskette had a lot of errors, starting with sector 0. The FC5025 Windows app made an image of the bad diskette, although it took a long time (close to an hour), but so far I haven’t been able to “mount” it.

    Question: does anyone know of an app that is capable of mounting the image from a “bad” diskette, so that some attempt can be made to recover the remaining data?

    —————————————————————-

    Dennis Ruth wrote: “Only problem I’ve encountered is … the resultant icon shows up as a Zip file.”

    I’m using the FC5025 Windows app and when I “Capture Disk Image File” it is a *.IMG format that is “mountable” with Virtual Floppy.

    —————————————————————-

    Barry Watzman wrote: “There is a big (BIG) difference between reading images and reading files, and it’s not clear from this review what the software that comes with this product can do in terms of the latter.”

    The software will (a) make disk images, and (b) copy individual files. I’d like to be able to copy multiple files and directories, and I’d expect that one could modify the source to do so. However, it is easy enough to make a disk image, mount it, and use Windows Explorer to copy multiple files and directories.

  27. ADStryker says:

    FYI … I downloaded the freeware hex editor HxD (http://download.cnet.com/HxD-Hex-Editor/3000-2352_4-10891068.html) thinking I could use it to look at the diskette image files. Lo-and-behold HxD actually has an “Extra” that allows it to explicitly “open disk image.”

    Both of the error-free disk images started off with

    EB 3C 90 4D 53 44 4F 53 35 2E 30 00 02 01 01 00 ë<.MSDOS5.0…..

    for the first 16 bytes of sector 0. The "bad" disk images had zeros everywhere, except for 80-90 bytes of pseudo-random stuff in the last 128 bytes of each sector, all the way through the image (all 2400 sectors).

    HxD also has an option to "Open disk", but the FC5025 evidently doesn't look like a "disk" to HxD (probably because it's hanging off a USB port).

    Still … I'm not complaining. I can now read "good" diskettes that I haven't been able to read in over 15 years (I never should have given away that old '486 Gateway …).

  28. ADStryker says:

    LOL! All right, riddle me this … suppose you read a pair of 5-1/4 inch diskettes just fine, but the next several are “bad.” Suppose you open the “bad” disk image files with a hex editor and you find nothing that looks like a proper DOS directory structure, just zeros with some trash in the last *quarter* of each sector. Then you notice that the two “good” diskettes are “high density” and the “bad” diskettes are “double density.” What do you conclude?



    That’s right! Change the FC5025 “Disk Type” from “MS-DOS 1200k” to “MS-DOS 360k” and those “bad” disks turn to GOLD!

    Later! One of those “bad” 360k diskettes is PC LIFE disk magazine Volume 1 Number 2, and it has an Isaac Asimov interview on it. I have to go find a DOS emulator …

    • LWidman says:

      ADStryker, many thanks! Your tip is what did the trick. The FC5025 here has now read 8 of 8 IBM disks (2 DD, 6 HD) correctly with each of two drives, one a TEAC 55GFR-142U and the other a Fujitsu Limited M2553K03B (both with their original jumper settings). It was also important to put the label toward the top of the drive (opposite the spinning wheel on the bottom) as noted above. Both of these tips would be good for the vendor of the FC5025 to put in the manual in a Troubleshooting section. I’ll see if I can send the suggestion to him. BTW, the OS is Ubuntu 11.04, for which the vendor provides both a GUI and command-line utilities that can be run in batch mode (which should be just as good as dd for processing a lot of disks).

  29. ADStryker says:

    So far I’ve used FC5025 to read ten 5-1/4 inch diskettes. Two were high-density (MS-DOS 1200k) and eight were double-density (MS-DOS 360k). The oldest was about 24 years old, dating from February 1987. The only legitimate read error occurred on a bootable 360k game diskette that did not have a standard DOS 0-sector, but the FC5025 utility still made an image of that diskette, and browsing that image with HxD leads me to believe that it is likely undamaged (although I’ll have to put together some kind of x86 bootable emulator to test it for sure).

    So far, FC5025 is 10 for 10. Good stuff!

  30. ADStryker says:

    FYI … I’ve been able to run some of those old ’80s MSDOS programs using DOSBox (http://www.dosbox.com/).

  31. Rick says:

    Better late than never. I’m glad to come across this because I have thousands of disks. Not all DOS based, but it’s a start. I have Commodore 64 / 128 stuff, Amiga, and DOS.

    I’m looking forward to getting into it all and putting everything on a single CD.

  32. Tricia says:

    I too have a lot of old floppies. I have no idea why I’ve kept them this long. I don’t even know what is on most of them. But there are a few that are labeled and are probably worth extracting the data from. Now for the big question… Will they be coming out with a version for the very old 8″ floppy format? Yes, I am that old. And then of course there are the paper punch hole tapes and old IBM cards.

  33. fredex says:

    One thing I haven’t figured out from either this review, OR the manufacturer’s web site, is when running a Linux box, does this device make the drive look like a “normal” USB floppy drive? I.e., when I stick a diskette in it could I mount it and see files just as I do on the 3 1/2″ USB floppy I already have? or does it do anything useful ONLY with the MFG’s provided software?

    All I want to do is grab ‘dd’ images of several hundred diskettes, and I don’t need any special software for that as long as it presents itself to the system just like any other USB drive would.

    thanks in advance!

    • LWidman says:

      fredex, The vendor provides both a GUI and command-line utilities that can be run in batch mode (which should be just as good as dd for processing a lot of disks). I tested under Ubuntu 11.04, and it worked flawlessly once I put the label side up and selected the correct density (see my comment above of today’s date). I didn’t see it appear as an ordinary USB drive, however. lspci showed the vendor’s USB card but df did not show the device. The vendor does supply a file for /etc/udev/rules.d that you could use to try to get a handle on the device if you didn’t want to use the CLI utility provided.

  34. maddydog says:

    I have a question about reading the backside of flippy disks, and please don’t bite my head off if it’s a stupid question: couldn’t you just open the floppy disk by prying open the top, removing the disk, and inserting it back in its case upside-down? I remember back in the 80s it was easy to open these floppys by pulling open the case, which were sealed by heat. I can’t remember WHY I was opening them, but I’m sure I had a good reason. ;)

  35. Miro says:

    I know, there is probably not huge market, but by googling I was surprised that there IS market. There are still thousands of reasons why people want to access old 5.25″ floppies, and I wonder WHY nobody created complete “5.25 floppy drive to USB” similar to 3.5″.
    The same situation when I was looking for some vacuum tubes and first time to google it, I was very pleasantly surprised, that not only that they are still produced, but there is HUGE demand for them.

  36. I got an FC5025 last year and it’s been working great for me. The disk image feature was especially helpful because I ran across some “Gutenberg” floppies. That program ran under Apple DOS, but did not save its files in the DOS file-system. Was able to figure out the directory, sector interleaving and chaining, etc. and then extract the files from the disk images.