When you look at a floppy disk, you'll see a plastic case that measures 3 1/2 by 5 inches. Inside that case is a very thin piece of plastic (see picture at right) that is coated with microscopic iron particles. This disk is much like the tape inside a video or audio cassette. Take a look at the floppy disk pictured. At one end of it is a small metal cover with a rectangular hole in it. That cover can be moved aside to show the flexible disk inside. But never touch the inner disk - you could damage the data that is stored on it. On one side of the floppy disk is a place for a label. On the other side is a silver circle with two holes in it. When the disk is inserted into the disk drive, the drive hooks into those holes to spin the circle. This causes the disk inside to spin at about 300 rpm! At the same time, the silver metal cover on the end is pushed aside so that the head in the disk drive can read and write to the disk.
Floppy disks are the smallest type of storage, holding only 1.44MB.
How Hard and Floppy Disks Work
The process of reading and writing to a hard or floppy disk is done with electricity and magnetism. The surfaces of both types of disks can be easily magnetized. The electromagnetic head of the disk drive records information to the disk by creating a pattern of magnetized and non-magnetized areas on the disk's surface. Do you remember how the binary code uses on and off commands to represent information? On the disk, magnetized areas are on and non-magnetized areas are off, so that all information is stored in binary code. This is how the electronic head can both write to or read from the disk surface.
It is very important to always keep magnets away from floppy disks and away from your computer! The magnets can erase information from the disks!
Instead of electromagnetism, CDs use pits (microscopic indentations) and lands (flat surfaces) to store information much the same way floppies and hard disks use magnetic and non-magnetic storage. Inside the CD-Rom is a laser that reflects light off of the surface of the disk to an electric eye. The pattern of reflected light (pit) and no reflected light (land) creates a code that represents data.
CDs usually store about 650MB. This is quite a bit more than the 1.44MB that a floppy disk stores. A DVD or Digital Video Disk holds even more information than a CD, because the DVD can store information on two levels, in smaller pits or sometimes on both sides.
Uses of Floppy Disks
You might wonder: If all the information is stored safely inside my computer, why would I need to store it outside? There are several reasons why portable storage is so important.
Floppies make it possible to backup important information in case it is lost by the computer. Do you remember in Lesson 2, we talked about RAM and ROM? RAM loses its memory each time the computer is turned off, but ROM keeps information stored even when the computer is not turned on. Well, sometimes computers have problems that can cause them to crash. No, that doesn't mean they jump off the desk and smash on the floor ;-). A crash is something that happens inside the computer's circuits and can make it forget things. Some crashes can even make ROM forget everything! Having important information backed up on disks will allow you to put it back into your computer's memory. Backup disks can save you lots of time and headaches!
Disks also allow information to be transferred between different computers. Let's say that you are working on a project using a computer at the library, but you don't finish it by closing time. There's your project sitting in the computer. How do you get it home to finish it on your computer? You write the information to a disk, take it home and upload the information into your computer from the disk. What an easy way to transfer information!
Uses of Compact Disks
The most common use for compact disks (aside from playing music) is storage of software programs. When you purchase a computer game, the program that tells your computer how to run the game is stored on a CD. You move the program into your computer's memory by installing it. Some programs are transferred completely into your computer's hard drive. However, many programs are very large and would take up lots of memory space on your hard drive. To keep that from happening, these programs are designed to only upload part of the program onto your computer. The rest of the program stays on the software. The program cannot be run from your computer unless you have the CD in the disk drive so that RAM can read the rest of the program from it.
With the introduction of CD-RW (disk drives that can write to compact disks as well as read from them), CDs can now be used for storage much like floppies. Using a CD-RW, computer data can be backed up to a CD. All kinds of information that was too large to fit on floppy disks can now be saved on CD. Many people store music files or family photos on CD.