The venerable floppy disk, a survivor from the dawn of personal computing, outlived its usefulness several years ago. Floppies were never a very reliable place to store important data. And at a time when even a modest PowerPoint presentation can top two megabytes, the 1.44 MB floppy is too small for many ordinary tasks.
The floppy has hung on because there was no agreed-upon alternative. Now, it looks as if a writable version of the CD is poised to end the floppy's life as a technological zombie. You get a choice of the CD-R, which permanently etches material onto the disk, or the CD-RW, which lets you erase and rewrite material. The drives, which can write either type of disk, are available on most new computers or can be added to existing machines.
STORAGE WARS. For a long time, two floppy-like disks were vying to become the recordable medium of choice. The Iomega Zip Disk, with a capacity of 100 or 250 MB, and the Imation LS-120 SuperDisk, which holds 120 MB, were both worthy contenders, but neither managed to break out of a niche market. The 650 MB CD-R has also been around for years, but the cost and complexity of writing CDs kept it from winning popular acceptance.
Earlier CD-R technology required you to select all the files you wanted to copy to a disk, then write them in one uninterrupted stream. The process often failed, forcing you to throw away the disk and start over. New software lets you save or drag files to a CD like any other drive. The simplest solution is DirectCD for Windows and Macintosh from Adaptec (www.adaptec.com). DirectCD is included with most CD recorders. While a disk recorded using DirectCD can be read only on a computer running the Adaptec software, the program will convert the disk to standard CD-ROM format in just a few minutes.
In addition, CD recorders usually come bundled with software that allows additional tricks. You can, for example, copy any music or data CD. You can write a data CD using a designated set of files you have stored on your hard drive. Or you can assemble up to 70 minutes of music from tracks you have copied or downloaded to your PC. The music disks can be played on any audio CD player. Most CD writers come bundled with the necessary software. Again, my favorite products are from Adaptec--Easy CD Creator for Windows and Toast for the Mac.
The most compelling argument for the CD as the disk of choice is really cheap media. Zip or LS-120 disks cost around $10 apiece, even in 10-packs. CD-Rs are well under $1 apiece when bought in bulk without jewel cases. Reusable CD-RWs are less than $2. Distribution of files is an important use for floppies, and CDs are the first alternative cheap enough be be given away without thinking about it. CDs are also a terrific choice for laptops because there's no need for a drive in addition to the now-essential CD drive.
The main drawback to writable CDs is the cost of the drives. For a Windows desktop computer, you can get an internal drive, such as Hewlett-Packard's CD-Writer 8250i, for just under $200. If you want to avoid installation hassles, the $240 8210e model connects to a Windows 98 or 2000 machine using a universal serial-bus cable. You can use the CD writer to replace your existing CD-ROM drive, but if you have room for both, it will make copying disks a lot easier.
NOTEBOOK STANDARD. For laptops, you can get a portable unit, such as MicroSolutions Backpack CD-Rewriter, for around $300. But if you want to write disks on the road--and if your laptop lets you change drives--you'll be happier with a built-in unit. On a Dell Latitude CS, for example, substituting a CD-RW drive for the CD-ROM costs $299 more.
These prices are likely to drop as the drives become more popular. Acer America's TravelMate 600 recently became the first laptop with a standard CD-RW drive--and no floppy. As has so often happened with high-tech products, what was recently exotic, expensive, and difficult technology is quickly becoming cheap, easy, and standard. Once you get used to writing CDs, you won't want to go back to floppies.
STEVE WILDSTROM'S reviews and commentaries are a regular feature of Business Now, a weekly program on some ABC-TV affiliates. For a list of stations and times, go to www.businessweek.com/mediacenter/