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The Answer To All Your 90s Storage Woes!
Floppy disks not big enough for you? We were certainly pushing the limits in the late 90s… So enter the Fujifilm Flash Path: a vintage device that allowed Windows 9x, NT and Mac OS 9 users to use SmartMedia cards in a standard floppy drive - available in capacities up to 128MB!
Join me as I go on a retro photography adventure and try out this fascinating gadget myself. Was it a viable way to move files around in the mid to late 90s?
Big thanks to Rich for introducing me to the Flash Path and giving me the chance to get my hands on one!
Just lately I’ve been playing with this - the Flash Path floppy disk adapter from 1998. It’s a cool little device that allowed a PC or Mac with any old bog standard High Density floppy drive to read or write up to 128MB of data - that’s the equivalent of around 100 of these, and in this video I’m going to take a look at it and see what it’s all about.
I’m Rees, and welcome to another episode of ctrl-alt-rees.
But first - for reasons that will become apparent very shortly - I feel we should talk about Toshiba’s SmartMedia card, a flash memory format released in 1995. Right from the off we can see that the design of the card - with the placement of the label and notched corner - was heavily inspired by the old floppy disk media that it was intended to replace, a smart marketing move on Toshiba’s part - if you pardon the pun.
Indeed, the SmartMedia card was originally called SSFDC - standing for Solid State Floppy Disk Card.
But how is this relevant? Well, the SmartMedia card and this Flash Path floppy adapter go hand in hand, as it happens, as it’s this media format that the Flash Path uses internally to store its data, nicely bringing the concept of the floppy disk replacement full circle.
And this was indeed a viable way to move files around in the mid to late 90s - bearing in mind that CD burners and their media were still very expensive and slow at this point and that USB flash drives wouldn’t come onto the market until 1999.
The cards themselves were built around a single NAND flash chip with no onboard controller - to keep costs down - and were capable of speeds of up 2Mbit/s, more than enough to saturate the first generation of low speed USB ports that maxed out at 1.5, which had started to appear in early 1996.
But USB was exotic new technology and still a rare luxury to most people in ’96, and wouldn’t start to see mass adoption until version 1.1 came around in late ’98. Dedicated card readers - where they were available - were expensive, and so those trailblazing early SmartMedia adopters - mainly early digital camera users - would’ve read from the cards using their camera’s built in serial interface at a maximum of 115kbps.
As it happens the Flash Path floppy disk adapter compares very favourably, with a common High Density floppy controller running at over 4 times that speed at 500kbps, and of course the Flash Path adapter isn’t subject to the seek times that lead to floppy usage being much slower in reality.
So to test this thing out I’m gonna need some files, and as the main use case for the Flash Path was indeed digital cameras, I decided to splash out on this Olympus D-380 from SmartMedia’s peak in 2002, when it was used by around half of the digital cameras on the market. Anyway - enough talk. Let’s get some pictures.
So now we have a card full of images, we just need to transfer them to the PC using the Flash Path, and that means installing some drivers. It’s compatible with Windows 9x and NT, and Mac OS 9. Incidentally, a year after this was released, Apple would release the iMac which actually did away with the floppy drive completely, a move that was seen as pretty controversial at the time.
It’s also interesting to note that while the Windows version offered full read/write access, the Mac version was read only.
I actually managed to track down a more up to date version of the Windows drivers, it seems the last version released was 3.0.7, I’ll put a link to download that down in the description.
So now it’s just a case of inserting the card into the disk, and the disk into the drive and… Oh, erm, evidently that’s not working.
Now of course flash memory needs to be powered to work, and standard floppy drives have no way of providing that power. There were actually 2 different voltages for SmartMedia, the original being 5V which is what I have here, and later on a 3.3V standard was introduced, although it was pretty short lived and was only really used by Apple for their QuickTake digital cameras. Devices could determine the voltage of the card and restrict the use of incompatible cards using the location of the notch on the corner - although it’s probably important to point out that early 5V devices can fry the 3.3V cards so be careful if you have a device that uses those.
As it happens this Flash Path supports both voltages so we’re safe either way.
But of course we’re not going to get any voltage at all if the batteries are dead - so I’ll change these CR2016s which are more than likely 20-odd years old for some fresh ones.
So… Time to try again and… Well at least we’re getting a FlashPath error this time. It says to check the SmartMedia card and - oh - seems like it’s actually possible to insert it the wrong way up. Nice design!
Anyway, here we go, and as you can see, there’s a little icon in the system tray that tells us the adapter is up and running, and we can browse the files just like any other floppy disk. So let’s copy our photos over to the hard drive.
One thing that is a bit eerie is that the floppy drive is completely silent copying files - there’s no need for the drive head to move and, in fact, no moving parts at all. I appreciate that the fans are pretty loud in this machine, what with it being a Pentium 4 and all, but even so, it’s definitely weird.
The transfer takes 4 minutes and 15 seconds, which seems painfully slow for what turns out to be 8.4MB worth of data.
As a basis for comparison I thought I’d try out USB as this later camera and PC do support it, and that involved tracking down proprietary drivers - as is quite common for these early devices, it doesn’t connect as a Mass Storage Device. Thankfully Olympus’s Canadian website still happens to be mostly stuck in the early 2000s - and although the download link had fallen victim to bit rot, I did manage to rescue the file from the Wayback Machine and of course I’ll also link that down below.
So where were we? Oh yes transfer speeds. So our 8.4MB of files took 4 minutes 15 to transfer using the Flash Path. While using USB - admittedly on a camera and machine that date to around 4 years later - the same transfer takes 14 seconds. Progress!
To browse these photos I thought I’d go for a suitably old school solution and install Paint Shop Pro 7 - an absolutely essential piece of software for any retro PC - and now we can browse the files and see what they actually look like.
As for the quality of the pictures? Well, they’re surprisingly good actually for a 20 year old camera, particularly the outdoor ones, and it just goes to show that the whole workflow actually works very well.
Of course, with the cards being both readable and writable on a Windows PC the Flash Path would’ve actually been a perfectly usable solution for moving all sorts of other files around as well - certainly a lot more convenient than floppy disks, and a lot cheaper than CD-Rs. It’s a shame a DOS driver or indeed a solution for other floppy-based systems was never released, but it’s still a cool thing to play with - although I should point out that it’s actually not possible to format the cards in a computer using this solution, and SmartMedia doesn’t support any kind of automatic wear levelling for its flash memory, so just a couple of things to bear in mind.
It’s also interesting to note - and I had no idea where to fit this in within the narrative of the video so I’ll just shoehorn it in here - that SmartMedia also supported hardware DRM, and this was actually used in Samsung’s Yepp MP3 players for commercial music releases, as well as in the GamePark GP32 handheld for games. But I guess that’s a story for another time.
So, what became of the Flash Path - and indeed SmartMedia as a format? Well, recordable CD drives and media were coming down massively in price around the turn of the century - god that phrase makes me feel old - and USB flash drives came about at the same time and really took off as USB started to become more ubiquitous.
The last SmartMedia devices were manufactured in 2006, and although 256MB cards were planned the world had moved on by that point and so they were never released. Also adding the extra flash chips to the cards to reach that capacity would’ve broken compatibility with older devices due to the fact that the flash controller was something that had to be implemented on a device by device basis.
I should add that there were MMC and Sony Memory Stick versions of these which were released later on as well - I do actually have an MMC version here - but of course they all eventually met the same fate and nowadays all of those incompatible standards are largely behind us and SD or Secure Digital is pretty much the universal standard for removable flash storage - and I do think that’s a good thing.
I’d like to thank Rich - a patron, long-term supporter of the channel - and a good friend - for introducing me to this and allowing me to get my hands on it to try out. His name along with all of my other lovely patrons is on screen as I speak and if you’d like to join them there’s a link down in the description as always.
So finally all that’s left is to thank you for watching, and I’ll hopefully see you again next time.
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