A few weeks back, we reflected on some of the worst storage mediums of all time. From reel-to-reel to HD-DVD, those deplorable storage devices induced groans and eye-rolls across the board. As something of a palette cleanser, let’s take a moment to commemorate the best storage mediums we’ve ever seen.
While Spanish cave paintings and Gutenberg’s printing press were massive jumps forward in terms of storing information, this article is focused strictly on the modern era. There are many more variants than I could possibly account for, so today we’ll only be focus on the five very best storage mediums.
Okay, I’ll admit that this entry is a bit of a cop-out. I’m not really calling out one specific implementation, but I will take this opportunity to sing the praises of magnetic tape as an affordable way to back-up massive amounts of data. From the Uniservo in the 1950s to the 185TB tape announced earlier this year, magnetic tape has served as a reliable and affordable way of storing data for the vast majority of computing history.
There have been plenty of poor implementations over the years, and both reel-to-reel and VHS made it onto our list of worst mediums. However, magnetic tape has been a versatile mainstay throughout most of the last century. Portable audio players, home video players, and industrial storage solutions all came to prominence thanks to magnetic tape. Even many of the first games for the ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64, and Atari came on tape. Without these thin magnetic strips, there is a good possibility that the information age would have been stillborn.
The 8-inch and 5.25-inch floppy disks had their 15 minutes of fame, but the 3.5-inch floppy released in the early 1980s was the perfect pocket-sized storage medium for the burgeoning home computer market. These small diskettes were sturdy, easy to store, and offered a generous amount of space for the time. After all, most people were only storing text files and small programs. Storing massive music and video libraries on your computer was something straight out of science fiction back then.
By the late ’80s, the 1.44MB diskette was standardized, and that remained the dominant removable storage device until CD burners became affordable in the late ’90s, despite some not-so-valiant attempts by the Zip and Jaz drive to unseat the humble floppy. When the very first iMac launched without a floppy drive in 1998, Apple was mocked and ridiculed by many tech pundits at the time because 3.5-inch floppies were so prevalent. History has, of course, vindicated Apple’s decision to ditch the floppy, but that doesn’t mean a few nostalgic tears haven’t been shed over the death of the floppy disk.
While some audiophiles are still clinging to vinyl to this day, the compact disc helped bring music into the digital age. While the first music CDs were released in the early 1980s, it wasn’t until the 1990s that the format started to really take off. This convenient optical format gave consumers their first real taste of music that won’t degrade after repeated listening, and effectively replaced cassettes in portable audio players and car stereos. Few can forget the impact that the CD had in the console wars, too: Sony’s decision to go with CDs instead of cartridges resulted in some of the first truly epic games, such as Final Fantasy VII.
In the 1990s, a number of competing memory card formats hit store shelves. CompactFlash and Memory Stick were both released before the SD standard was introduced, but neither format saw the same large-scale adoption. In part, the early success was attributable to a favorable licensing structure, but the swift iteration of the format has kept the SD card as the de facto standard.
Over the last decade and a half, we’ve seen the SD card standard grow to include a smaller footprint, larger capacity, and faster speed. Even minuscule consumer electronics can take advantage of micro SD cards, and the newer cards can even be used to record 4K video in real-time. The competing standards simply can’t offer the same bang for your buck, so SD remains the only type of memory card that matters in 2014.
Solid-state hybrid disk
Hard disks have clung on as a dominant storage medium for decades now. Introduced in the mid-1950s, the hard disk has stayed strong, and it continues to defy its critics by offering a better cost-to-size ratio year after year. Solid-state drives (SSDs) are now quickly growing in popularity, and the increase in speed over HDDs is undeniable. However, good ol’ spinning platters continue to stick around, and the advent of solid-state hybrid drives has breathed new life into this aging storage medium.
By combining the low cost-per-gigabyte of HDDs and the impressive speed of SSDs, the SSHD has quickly become the go-to storage for consumers looking for the perfect balance between cost and performance. SSHDs use a large hard disk to store the data, and then cache frequently used data on the small, fast flash storage. A quick price comparison shows that a 2.5-inch Seagate SSHD with 1TB of traditional storage and 8GB of flash costs about $110. In comparison, a comparable 1TB 2.5-inch Samsung SSD costs roughly $450.
For just about a quarter of the price of an SSD, an SSHD offers many of the same performance boosts — especially regarding boot times. There’s no doubting that pure SSDs will take over some day, but the rise of the SSHD has shown that hard disks still have a lot of life left in the 21st century.
As we transition away from our loudly whirring machines to completely silent devices, our storage mediums tell the story of the maturation of computers on the whole. The very first hard drives were roughly the size of household appliances, and could store less than 5MB a pop. Now, our portable devices can easily store every song, video, and application we could ever want. We’ve had our fair share of duds, but our storage mediums continue to impress even after all these years.