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Answers and comments to Why were 5.25" floppy drives cheaper than 8"? suggest some reasons why floppy disks moved from 8" to 5.25"; basically it seems the smaller size reduced engineering difficulty and thus cost in a number of ways.

Given that, why not make the drives even cheaper by jumping straight to an even smaller form factor such as the 3.5" that was eventually settled on?

I can think of three possible reasons:

  1. Reduced size means reduced capacity! 5.25" was a trade-off between the desire to make the drives smaller which would indeed reduce cost, and the desire to preserve capacity.

  2. On the contrary, beyond a certain point, miniaturization becomes difficult and adds cost. With late seventies technology, 5.25" was the optimum balance between the cost of a larger mechanism and the cost of a smaller one.

  3. As it turns out, smaller was indeed cheaper, but that would've been too much of a leap into the unknown at the time, for an industry that as yet had no experience with disks smaller than eight inches.

Was it for one of those three reasons, or something else?

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    Using a quick geometric calculation, the capacity of a 3.5" floppy using the existing technology would have been about 70 kbytes. Perhaps the reduced maximum linear velocity of the smaller radius would have allowed for slightly denser data, but capacity still would have been quite small. – RichF Apr 2 at 14:06
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    Companies don't exist to (only) produce nice technology - their first and foremost purpose is - to make money. And if you have developed something that allows you to make money, you first try to sell what you have before developing "something better". – tofro Apr 2 at 14:17
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    @Raffzahn 'why not make the drives even cheaper by jumping straight to an even smaller form factor such as the 3.5" that was eventually settled on' seems pretty clear to me, though if anyone has a better idea, suggested edits welcome. – rwallace Apr 2 at 14:54
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    @rwallace When it's a process, it's called a shrink, not a shrinking, isn't it? – Raffzahn Apr 3 at 12:48
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    This reminds me of when (much later) in the 3.5" hard disk era HP came out with a 1.3" hard drive. No bigger than a small matchbox. But I think they had to sacrifice too much to get it that small - like, capacity - and it never went anywhere. (Here's a link - imagine: $500 for 40 MEGAbytes). Later, 2.5" drives became the standard for mass storage on small form factors like laptops. – davidbak Apr 4 at 6:22
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[W]hy not make the drives even cheaper by jumping straight to an even smaller form factor such as the 3.5" that was eventually settled on?

Because that needed a new technology. The move to 5.25 inch didn't change any technology involved. Everything stayed the same:

  • Drive design
  • Drive mechanics
  • Electronics (including analogue)
  • Material of floppies
  • Each and every step of Manufacturing of floppies

The only difference was in size, a linear shrink with a factor of about 1.5 (*1), which means the needed surface and thus size shrunk in half (*2). All without any basic change, just relative minor adaptations. For example to manufacture the floppies only the punch to cut out the magnetic foil with its corresponding holes (same for sleeves) and folding brackets closing a disk sleeve and so on had to be made. So just new tools to be installed on existing machinery. To produce 3.5" ones, new steps, different materials and different handling had to be developed - quite a large investment, especially compared to retooling.

It's a bit like the Tick part of the often cited Tick-Tock strategy Intel follows for CPUs. A shrink of an existing design just in scale, not design or function. The following Tock was then again a step of design changes (*3).

(Beside, a 3.5 inch drive in an 8 inch bay would just look ridiculous :))


Some comments (for example jcarons) asked why not going smaller, like 3.5, but keeping technology the same. Beside all the technical reasons regarding recording (like density), it's much about mechanical reliability. For example due thinner materials the medium gets more sensitive to damage - and more so, a smaller hole in the middle reduces reliability for centering while increasing stress on the material (due a reduced lever) at the same time.

This isn't anything theoretical, as Mitsumi tried exactly this with their 2.8" variation. Beside having meager capacity of 64 KiB per side, they were extremely unreliable. For Nintendo's Famicom-Disk they created a redesigned version borrowing the centering mechanism (in plastic) as well as a hard case, making it match the setup of a 3.5" drive - sans the slider, keeping the need for sleeves.

So, no, going way below 5" by keeping the 8" technology wasn't a serious option.


*1 - It's sufficient close to square root of 2 (1.41)

*2 - drive height was kept the same thus half volume. Later developments cut the height as well in half, resulting in 1/4th volume of a slim line 5.25 compared with a full height 8 inch

*3 - In fact it was a competition of many designs: IBM's 4", Sony's 3.5", Matushita's 3", Mitsumis 2.8", Sharp's 2.5" and Fujitsu's 2". Not to mention spiral formats like Sony/Canon's 2" VideoFloppy

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    @traal, literally the only difference between a 5.25" disk and an 8" disk is the diameter of the disk. Everything else is the same: the oxide layer used to store the data, the drive head used to read it, and so on. A 3.5" disk using that technology would have a capacity of less than 20 KB. In order to make 3.5" floppies viable, they needed to develop smaller drive heads and better oxide layers to get a greater storage density. – Mark Apr 2 at 20:58
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    You're conflating the change of size with the change of format, moving from the original "flat" floppy disk to the more cartridge-like 3.5" disk with added thickness, and the slide-out protection. I think the OP's question was more about why not make a 3.5" disk with the exact same technology as the 8"/5.25" disks... – jcaron Apr 3 at 14:37
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    I still don't see the "new tech"? The question isn't asking why they didn't use the 3.5 with all its metal bits, it's asking why it's 5.25, and not 6 or 5.5 or 4. You could pick any one of these sizes and produced a disk with no new tech at all, so why 5.25 specifically. The answer is below: they were following another existing format. – Maury Markowitz Apr 3 at 14:41
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    @MauryMarkowitz The question is clearly not about 6 or 5.5, but about making it considerable smaller then 5" - like 3.5, as the OP even supported in a comment to the question. – Raffzahn Apr 3 at 16:45
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    @jcaron becuse that would have not only drasticly reduced capacity, but also required a different mechanism to hold the media and allow centering it reliable. Mitsumis 2.8" tried exactly that and was notorious unreliable - until Nintendo packedged it in a rigid cardridge for the Famicom. – Raffzahn Apr 3 at 16:49
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A 2005 interview with Don Massaro, vice-president of engineering and manufacturing, and George Sollman, product manager, both of Shugart Associates, lists the design constraints that resulted in the world's first 5¼ inch floppy drive, the Shugart SA 400 minifloppy:

Massaro: [Dr. An Wang of Wang Laboratories] said..."I want to come out with a much lower end word processor. It has to be much lower cost and I can't afford to pay you $200 for your 8" floppy, I need a $100 floppy."

Sollman: We looked at all the various tape drives that were out there. We said we had to replace them and that this is the size and we said, "How big can you make the diskette?" It turned out to be 5 1/4.

So they wanted a disk drive that was (1) cheaper than an 8 inch floppy drive, (2) the same size as a tape drive (or they wanted a floppy disk to be the same size as a tape cartridge, the interview is unclear on this point), and (3) within that last constraint, they wanted the diskette to be as big as possible, probably to optimize capacity.

As far as we know, there was no market for a smaller form factor diskette until later, when—and possibly because—magnetic areal density had improved and made a smaller diskette more practical.

The new 5¼ drive debuted as a standalone unit in late 1976, then in the Wang 2200 PCS-II minicomputer (1977), a few years before the IBM PC (1981).

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    This is the actual answer. They had a bunch of cardboard cutouts representing various existing devices. Tape drives were common and were a good size. So they simply selected the largest disk that could fit into a tape-sized enclosure. I'm not 100% sure, but I suspect they were looking at QIC units, which were 5.75" wide, but it's also possible it was an early cassette-based format. – Maury Markowitz Apr 3 at 14:46
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    This makes a lot of sense. I had presumed the strange "and a quarter" was because it was some Japanese metric design which we were converting to Imperial units. However, 5¼" is 133.35 mm, which is an even more awkward number. – hackerb9 Apr 4 at 8:38
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    It was the QIC Tape Unit size as I recall. – Michael Karas Apr 4 at 11:22
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    Note that the 5.75" wide QIC units were "side load" units. Earlier QIC units were "front load" and much wider (rotated 90 degrees). The switch from "front load" to "side load" followed the same change made by cassette tape players, yet somehow a company managed to get a patent on QIC "side load" (apparently the patent office wasn't doing a good job of screening for "obviousness"). – rcgldr Apr 4 at 17:13
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    Wow! I had no idea QIC was that old - 1972. – manassehkatz Apr 5 at 3:06
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As Albert Einstein allegedly said “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.

The same applies to floppy drive size and many other things. There is a big difference between 8" and 5.25" in both drive size and disk size.

  • Drive size: 8" drives as part of an integrated system really limits your form factor choices. You can have the drives integrated with the monitor and everything else, like the TRS-80 Model II and then it doesn't seem so bad. But if you are making a smaller machine - e.g., Northstar Horizon, or a machine where the floppy drives are separate - e.g., Apple II, Atari 800, then 5.25" gives you a lot more options on how/where to place the drives.

  • Disk size: 8" disks require a large envelope (e.g., 9" x 9" or more typically stick them in a 9" x 12") to mail, and can only be stored one per page in a typical letter-size looseleaf binder. 5.25" disks can be sent in a smaller envelope and stored 2 per page in a letter-size looseleaf binder. They also work well with smaller software manuals - e.g., ~ 6" x 9", one per page.

However, jumping in the 1970s, to a smaller size would have resulted in either significantly reduced capacity (as already noted, if using the same track density and other parameters as 8" and initial 5.25" drives) and/or significantly increased costs due to more expensive (at the time) integration of electronic circuitry. So 5.25" gave the desired advantages - space, weight, cost - without going "too far".

When 3.5" did become a real thing, it came with a significant change - the hard plastic case. This brought in a new advantage of durability. At the same time, the technology for the necessary circuitry had advanced by that time enough to provide a higher capacity (720k and up) without a higher cost. This was also the era where the rest of the computer had shrunk enough to start producing laptops, where the size advantage of a 3.5" drive was critical. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, a typical motherboard the size of today's (or even 1990s) laptop motherboards, didn't include floppy drive controller, hard drive controller, video card, etc. So there was no practical reason to make the drives that small.

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The main issue was the limitations of available stepper motors and control hardware for them, and the sensitivity of the read/write head.

In order to read/write information from the disk the read/write head has to be positioned over the correct area. Then the head itself needs to either sense changes in magnetic flux (read) or alter the magnetic flux (write).

So each track needs to be wide enough that the stepper motor can reliably position the head over it. Unlike a hard drive where it's always the same stepper motor, floppy disks have to work with the motors in many different drives so the tolerances have to be a lot lower.

5.25" was as small as the could go while keeping the technology somewhat affordable and reliable at the time. Later Sony improved tracking and better motors were available, so 3.5" disks became commercially viable.

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Because the Hungarian state system at the time were unable to capitalize on the BRG MCD-1. That's it.

Marcell Jánosi patented the 3" "micro casette disk" in 1974, if the Hungarian bureaucracy wouldn't been in the way, there wouldn't have been any 5.25" disk as there was no need. Although the first working prototype was only made in 1979 that was because the factory director thought this didn't fit the COMECON plans. My grandfather, who worked there in the seventies claimed Járosi was close and the factory was ready by 1975 (he gave the date as my birth and I was born in 1975) to manufacture it. (He alas passed away in 1985, the year I learned BASIC on a ZX Spectrum my parents smuggled into the country and I saw some Commodore 64 machines using floppies and that's when he told me how Hungary had a better floppy ready a decade ago.)

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At the time, there wasn't a need for a smaller form factor. Reducing drive bay size from 8" format to 5.25" format was enough to allow companies to transition from wide and/or tall rack mount type cabinets to desktop like frames and 5.25" drive bays became a standard. Most current desktops still include some 5.25" drive bays.

Trivia - for hard drives, part of what drove the 3.5" form factor was the fact that mounting a 3.5" hard drive in a 5.25" adapter frame provided enough shock tolerance to allow it to be used in the early Compaq "luggable" computers.

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