An extra, costly floppy drive would overkill when transferring a page of letter, storing game level data, or distributing a piece of BASIC program, and non built-in ones have to be paid. A tape recorder matches all these aspects in a lesser way, sooner or later.

For users outside of world of data-heavy paperwork, what are cheapest solutions, consumables and peripheral counted, to manage reusable media of, say, several kB to several hundred kB in the 70-80s?

To begin with, Ti-59 magnetic strips can hold 480 steps each of custom program. Disassembled. 14-drive-cleaning.jpg

  1. Pinch roll.
  2. Magnetic head clamp,
  3. Magnetic head front,
  4. Capstan 15-tape-switch.jpg

PS: From a retrospective point of view, a home PC cheaper than a cassette player should have had deserved some cheaper means of storage, shouldn't it?

In 1982 a 1530 cassette cost $75 while a Taiwan MPF-1 computer costs $70.

  • 6
    What the logic in refering to such a very specific thing as the Ti-59 magnetic strip, that was almost impossible to use on anything than a Ti-59. I also have trouble understanding the statement that "A tape recorder matches all these aspects in a lesser way, sooner or later." In the 70-80 a C60 cassette tape could be bought in almost any shop for a quite small amount of money (nothing near a 5.25 floppy in price).
    – UncleBod
    Commented Oct 31, 2021 at 9:33
  • 10
    If you can't afford a cassette player then you can't afford a computer. In UK 1981 Cassette players were £20 and computers e.g. the cheapest ZX81 ~£100
    – mmmmmm
    Commented Oct 31, 2021 at 10:05
  • 6
    A decade is too long a time frame. In 1980, desktop computers were for aficionados and technophiles. Floppies were expensive, but so was everything else in computing. By 1989, any computer with no hard drive was chintzy. Commented Oct 31, 2021 at 10:51
  • 5
    For the IBM PC and its clones, a floppy drive was standard (a hard disk was not), so there was no extra drive cost, just the media. To add to @WalterMitty's comment, the system space is too wide. Are we talking about "home computers" or machines used for business?
    – dave
    Commented Oct 31, 2021 at 11:49
  • 6
    One more point: a lot of people didn't even have to buy a cassette recorder. They already owned one. Most households even had several cassette recorders in the early 80's.
    – UncleBod
    Commented Oct 31, 2021 at 17:02

4 Answers 4


Punch cards were the cheapest storage medium for small data sets. Remote Job Entry terminals such as used by Control Data Corporation included a card reader and line printer. The initial member list for 3PBS-FM was stored on punch cards then membership lists could be produced by printing the deck at no cost. Cards could be punched at no cost. So Punch Cards were zero cost, small data set storage that could be fed into a computer system for processing. When it came time to transfer to an IBM system the cards were read into the CDC Cyber and a magnetic tape written for data transfer to the IBM system. Assuming you eventually realize the 6-Bit characters from the CDC world are not going to make sense to the default IBM character set. This was a zero cost, data transfer from CDC to IBM.

Alternatives to standard Punch Cards were the IBM Port-A-Punch cards and then Mark-Sense cards. These could be used to record small data sets and did not rely on a punch card machine to program their cards. Catch with the Port-A-Punch cards were they could drop chads in the high speed card readers which would alter the data or program. Mark-Sense cards could only be read on appropriate card readers such as the Documation M600, HP readers, etc. Typical installations at schools and universities, etc., would have an associated line printer. Again, zero cost, small data set storage and processing.

Next step up in cost were audio cassettes and at slightly higher cost there were data cassettes using the physical standards for audio cassettes. Early microcomputer systems such as the National Semiconductor SC/MP kit, Motorola MEK6800D2 Kit, etc., all provided audio cassette interfaces. For example the SC/MP Applications Handbook, 2C4-1 'Interfacing a SC/MP System To A Cassette Recorder' references a $40 Panasonic RQ309AU cassette recorder for accuracy and reliability tests.

Manufacturers could also modify cassette transports to increase speeds by removing the audio circuitry and using NRZ encoding with an appropriate interface. This increased the cost of the cassette interface. Although data storage cost was still the cost of storage. Commercial manufacturers produced their own cassette transports such as the DEC TU-60 Dual Cassette Transport with TA-11 Cassette Interface could also use audio cassettes for data storage for PDP-11 systems with the CAPS-11, RT-11, RSX-11M operating systems. That is the data storage was the cost of an audio cassette while these could be read at home on hobbyist or on commercial equipment.

Next step up in costs were storage systems like the Exatron Stringy Floppy Drive for the TRS-80. These used a unique storage media that did increase cost. Cost was the trade off for higher speed.

Floppy disks would be the next most expensive storage media and they went through a surprising number of generations. Refer to the List of Floppy Disk Formats on Wikipedia.

Next most expensive media was magnetic tapes and they were followed by disk packs.

Edit:- Should have included paper tape in the comparison of storage costs. Catch with paper tape was the initial production of the tape as it required an ASR-33 Teletype or some other form of punch equipment e.g. Heathkit H10 Papertape Reader/Punch or DEC PC05 Paper Tape Reader/Puncher. Typically you had to buy a box of blank tape that was typically much more expensive than a single audio cassette. The Oliver Audio Engineering OP80A paper tape reader was the cheapest means of reading paper tapes while the Heathkit H10 provided a complete paper tape solution.

Another standard that I overlooked was the Interface Age magazine's Kansas City standard Flexi disc floppy ROM which was designed to be played on a standard audio phonograph turntable. Catch was storage was cheap (free with the Interface Age magazine) but the home user could not write the floppies i.e they were Read Only.

  • Until you said "box of tape", I'd generally thought of paper tape as being stored on rolls, though I guess the footage I saw of the PDP-1 used a fanfold arrangement. I wonder how the cost of fan-fold and roll tape compared? I'd guess the latter would be cheaper, but wonder how they compared in terms of usability and reliability.
    – supercat
    Commented Nov 1, 2021 at 15:38
  • 2
    The cards themselves were cheap but the card reader surely was expensive. Commented Nov 1, 2021 at 17:19
  • Spot on, @MartinRosenau - the card readers would dwarf the cost of a cassette player and cost a lot more than a floppy themdays.
    – TonyM
    Commented Nov 1, 2021 at 22:52
  • Tally 424 paper-tape reader cost $825 in 1964. I wonder if a standalone/built-in puncher grew cheaper in the 70s when an audio-cassette interface assembled cost $174.
    – Schezuk
    Commented Nov 2, 2021 at 2:51
  • OP80A Paper tape reader kit was $74.50
    – PDP11
    Commented Nov 2, 2021 at 23:49

The cheapest mechanism was paper. The storage method was printing it out. The entry method was typing it in. This is a tried and true technique that flourished into the 90s and is arguably still used today, save it's now known better as "cut and paste".

Most every type of mechanic was used in the past to widely distribute software and data, paper was the dominant form. I can hold any number of thousands of magazines that relied on this mechanism for wide distribution.

Other mechanisms were also tried. Bundled tape cassettes, bundled records like vinyl records, only flexible to survive shipping. For a short period there was a bar code style scanner that you could buy and read source code from magazines like Dr. Dobbs. But the device was at least $100 to purchase, and it didn't last long. There were also radio broadcasts of software, but those required cassette interfaces. Inevitably, of course, this evolved in to CD-ROMs.

Remember 101 BASIC Games? How was that distributed? And how popular was it?

A paper card reader is extremely expensive. A paper tape reader is also expensive. To quote the lawyer Gennaro from Jurassic Park: "Is it heavy? Then it's expensive."

Paper is cheap. Really cheap.

BASIC, FORTRAN, LISP, assembly, Forth, HEX DUMPS, all of these have been shared via print to be coded in by the user. I distinctly recall typing in, twice, with a friend, an extensive hex dump of a Life program for the PET. It never worked, either time, and we were pretty thorough that we got the codes right. So I don't think it was us.

Later, magazines would introduce programs (which were typed in) that let users type in code and added checksum and other verification techniques to better ensure error free transfer of the data.

So. If you want cheap, the printer is over there. If you want really cheap, here's a pencil. Is it efficient? It was efficient enough to be the primary mechanic for a wide range of enthusiasts for 10-15 years. So, it's got that going for it.

  • I wouldn't consider paper a storage media. Distribution media - maybe, considering the "100 best BASIC programs for your xxx" - But these books weren't exactly cheap as well.
    – tofro
    Commented Nov 1, 2021 at 16:13
  • @tofro besides I am quite sure most people did ad me, saved the program on a cassette after typing it in.
    – UncleBod
    Commented Nov 1, 2021 at 16:17
  • I would take minimum hourly wage into consideration of cost per transfer if you have to do time-consuming writing and typing.
    – Schezuk
    Commented Nov 2, 2021 at 2:31
  • A Databar Oscar barcode reader cost under $80. With a thermal printer, technically you can store and load data an order of magnitude faster.
    – Schezuk
    Commented Nov 2, 2021 at 3:09
  • "cut and paste" as a technique was used by Thomas Jefferson to produce a bible with all the miracles redacted out. Commented Nov 3, 2021 at 10:44

The cheapest ways for storage of data are the ones that are high-volume, off-the-shelf products that are not specifically produced for the computer market - and operate on high-volume consumer electronics. The compact cassette player (a cheap consumer device, not an expensive specialized computer manufacturer product) that could be had for less than $20. The example you give (TI magnetic strips) is the exact opposite of this (small market, specialized product, small customer base), so might have been cheap to manufature, but definitely not cheap to buy.

  • 1
    Were there any computer aimed for the home market in the early 1980s that didn't have a cassette interface? Even the first model of IBM PC had it...
    – UncleBod
    Commented Nov 1, 2021 at 16:19
  • @UncleBod. Even an Altair 8800 had a $174 audio-cassette interface.
    – Schezuk
    Commented Nov 2, 2021 at 3:18
  • But a magnetic strip reader can be much simpler thus cheaper.
    – Schezuk
    Commented Nov 2, 2021 at 3:23
  • @Schezuk Altair is a computer from 1974. Are your question about 1970's or 1980's or any time in history?
    – UncleBod
    Commented Nov 2, 2021 at 4:19
  • 1
    @Schezuk if you ignore Economy of scale and how the market works, then yes. If you don’t, you will see that TI magnetic strips were sold at much more/bytes of storage than compact cassettes
    – tofro
    Commented Nov 2, 2021 at 7:28

You could use cassette. GWBASIC still supports the cas: device.

In essence, its output was as in a modem, but the thing was recorded onto ordinary cassettes. The files were stored sequentially, so you had to wait for the tape to go through.

Then floppy disks came along, and you could store stuff on that, using microsoft's innovative fat5 (6.2 names).

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