How to Read a Floppy Disk on a Modern PC or Mac
How to Read a Floppy Disk on a Modern PC or Mac: Remember floppies? Back in the day, they were essential. Eventually, they were replaced, and floppy disk drives vanished from new computers. Here’s how to access a vintage 3.5- or 5.25-inch floppy disk on a modern Windows PC or Mac.
There’s a Catch: Copying Data Is the Easy Part
Before we begin, you should understand a huge caveat. What we’re going to cover here—copying data from a vintage floppy disk onto a modern PC—is only half the battle. Once you copy the data, you have to be able to read it. It might be locked in vintage file formats modern software can’t understand.
You’ll have to figure out how to access or convert the data using emulators, such as DOSBox or other utilities, which is beyond the scope of this article.
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How to Copy Files From a 3.5-Inch Floppy Drive to a Modern PC
If you have 3.5-inch floppy disks formatted for MS-DOS or Windows that you want to copy to a modern Windows 10 or Windows 7 PC, you’re in luck. This is the easiest format to work with. The 3.5-inch floppy drives held on as a legacy product long after their 1.44 MB capacity had become absurdly small in relative terms. As a result, there are many semi-modern drives and solutions available. We’ll cover the options from easiest to most difficult.
Option 1: Use a New USB Floppy Drive
If you browse Amazon, Newegg, or even eBay, you’ll find many inexpensive (anywhere from $10 to $30) modern USB 3.5-inch floppy drives. If you’re in a hurry and want a plug-and-play solution for just a disk or two, this might be worth a shot.
However, in our experience, these drives are often frustrating in their unreliability. So, before you dive in, read through some of the reviews. Make sure you’re okay with risking your vintage data on a drive that probably costs only a couple of dollars to produce.
Option 2: Use a Vintage USB Floppy Drive
In the late ’90s and early ’00s, many manufacturers of slim laptops (like HP, Sony, and Dell) also produced external USB floppy drives. These vintage drives have much higher quality parts than the cheap USB drives now on Amazon. They’re also still recent enough to work without any repair.
We recommend searching eBay for something like “Sony USB floppy drive,” and trying your luck with one of those. Most are still supported as plug-and-play devices by Windows 10.
Despite the branding, you don’t need a drive that matches your PC. For example, a Sony USB floppy drive will work when connected to a USB port on any Windows PC.
Option 3: Use an Internal Floppy Drive with a Cheap USB Adapter
If you’re looking for more of a roll-your-own challenge, you could also buy a vintage internal 3.5-inch floppy drive. Perhaps you even have one sitting around. You can connect it to a generic floppy-to-USB adapter.
You can rig an external power supply for the floppy drive with the proper adapter. Another option is to mount the drive and adapter internally in a computer case, and then use a SATA power adapter there. We haven’t tested those boards, though, so proceed at your own risk.
Option 4: Use a Vintage Computer with a Floppy Drive and Network Connection
If you have an older Windows 98, ME, XP, or 2000 PC or laptop with Ethernet and a 3.5-inch floppy drive, it might be able to read and copy the floppy to the computer’s hard drive. Then, you can copy the data over your LAN to a modern PC.
The trickiest part is making sure the LAN networking between your vintage and modern machines works properly. It comes down to making Windows file sharing from different eras play nice with one another.
You can also upload files to an FTP site (perhaps, via a local NAS server), and then download them to your modern PC.
How to Copy PC Files From a 5.25-Inch Floppy Drive to a Modern PC
If you have 5.25-inch floppy disks formatted for MS-DOS or Windows you want to copy to a modern Windows PC, you have a more difficult task ahead of you. This is because 5.25-inch floppies fell out of regular use in the mid-1990s, so finding a working 5.25-inch floppy drive can be a challenge.
Let’s look at the options for copying the data to a modern PC from easiest to most difficult.
Option 1: Use the FC5025 USB Adapter and an Internal 5.25-Inch Floppy Drive
A small company called Device Side Data manufactures an adapter called the FC5025. It allows you to use an internal 5.25-inch floppy disk drive to copy data from 5.25-inch disks in various formats over a USB cable to a modern PC. The board costs around $55.
However, you’ll also need all the necessary cables, a power supply with a Molex connector for the drive, and, possibly, a vintage external 5.25-inch drive bay enclosure if you want a nice unit. Once you get it set up, the FC5205 is definitely worth it, though. It’s especially helpful if you also have 5.25-inch disks for non-IBM PC systems (such as Apple II) that you want to back up.
Option 2: Use a Kryoflux with an Internal 5.25-Inch Floppy Drive
Much like the FC5025, the KryoFlux is a floppy-to-USB adapter that requires a great deal of setup to get working. Again, you’ll need the KryoFlux board, a vintage 5.25-inch floppy drive, a power supply, cables, and, possibly, an enclosure.
The Kryoflux copies the disk’s data to disk image files. You can then use these with emulators or access them with a disk image tool, like WinImage.
The advantage of KryoFlux is it can back up copy-protected disks, or disks in many other system formats (Apple II, C64, and so on), and it does so with a high degree of accuracy.
The KryoFlux does have a few drawbacks, though. First, it costs over $100.
Second, it’s intended for the academic-software-preservation market rather than general consumers. This is why backing up, or even accessing the data on the disk, isn’t a very user-friendly operation.
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Option 3: Use a Vintage Computer with a Floppy Drive and Network Connection
If you have an older PC running Windows 98 or ME with Ethernet and a 5.25-inch floppy drive, it might be able to read the floppy so you can copy the data over LAN to a modern PC.
The same as the 3.5-inch drive option, you might have trouble getting Windows file sharing to work properly between vintage and modern PC.
There are other options, though. One is uploading the files to an FTP server from the old machine, and then download them from that server to the newer computer.
How to Copy Files From a 3.5-Inch Floppy Drive to a Modern Mac
The process of reading floppy disks on a Mac depends on which type of disk you want it to read. We’ll go over each type in the following sections.
1.44 MB Mac Floppies
If you have 1.44 MB Mac floppies, a modern Mac running macOS 10.14 Mojave or earlier should be able to read them with a vintage, USB floppy drive.
Many people prefer the Imation SuperDisk LS-120 USB drive. It’s a ZIP drive competitor that reads both its original, high-capacity floppies and regular, 1.44 MB floppies. You can still find these for a reasonable price on eBay. You can also use a vintage Sony or HP USB floppy drive.
If your machine’s running macOS 10.15 or later, you’re out of luck when it comes to native USB floppy support, though. Apple removed support for the Hierarchical File System (HFS) on vintage Mac floppies starting with Catalina. There might be some technical work-arounds, including restoring HFS support, but these are complex, and options are still emerging.
IBM PC 3.5-Inch Floppies
If you want your Mac to read IBM PC format 3.5-inch floppies, you can use a vintage PC USB floppy drive. (Ironically, Catalina can still read the FAT12 file system used by vintage MS-DOS floppies, but not old Mac disks.)
We tried a Sony VAIO floppy drive with a 2013 iMac. It didn’t have any trouble reading the files on a high-density, 3.5-inch IBM PC format disk. You can likely find a good Sony or HP USB floppy drive on eBay.
400 or 800 K Mac Floppies
If you have 400 or 800 K Mac floppies, things get much more complicated. The disk drives that wrote these used special encoding called GCR. This technique isn’t physically supported in most USB 3.5-inch floppy drives.
Recently, though, a new option called AppleSauce emerged for archiving 400/800 K Mac disks. It’s a USB adapter that allows you to connect vintage Apple II and Macintosh floppy drives to a modern Mac and read vintage floppies with incredible accuracy.
The biggest drawback is its price—the Deluxe version you need to read Mac floppies is $285. This is mostly because it’s a complex, very low volume hobbyist product. With this device and the appropriate vintage drive, though, you can read your floppies into disk images that can be used with emulators or extracted with other tools.
All Mac Floppy Disks
For all Mac Disks, your best bet might be to find a vintage Mac desk- or laptop with a 3.5-inch SuperDrive that can read and write 400/800 K, and 1.44 MB disks. Try to locate a machine from the beige G3 era that still shipped with floppies. The newer the better, because then you’re less likely to have to make repairs to get it working.
From there you can use networking to copy the files between the vintage and modern Macs, but that’s another can of worms, entirely.
It’s Complicated, But There’s Hope
When backing up old floppy disks, all the possible combinations of drives, systems, and formats comprise a complex variety of strategies that we can’t possibly cover here.
Luckily, there are other resources if you require something more complex, like accessing an 8-inch floppy drive that contains CP/M files. Herb Johnson maintains an impressive site full of technical data on various floppy disk systems if you’d like to learn more about how they work.
LowEndMac also has a wonderful guide to Mac floppy disk formats. Good luck!