Zip Disk Data Recovery: How To Do It

I had a collection of zip disks that contained data from the 1990’s. Now it’s 2016, and after some trial and error, most of the data has been recovered. The background on why I was doing this, and what didn’t work for me, is documented in a previous post. This post explains what did work for me.

A friendly warning to the reader: I’m a tinkerer, and a maniacally obsessive part of me enjoys devoting whole days to coming up with solutions to strange technical problems. For most people, if you have obsolete media lying around, it’s probably best to hire a pro (more on that here). Or if you’re lucky enough to be on good terms with a maniacal tinkerer, ask them nicely to help you out. If they say yes, it’s going to cost them time and maybe money, so make sure to bribe them with wine, or horchata, or whatever they’re into.

For fellow maniacs who are nutty enough spend time on this sort of thing, the following may be helpful.

USB To The Rescue

Zip drives with a modern USB plug are still available. It has been two decades since these were the newest thing, but media has a way of sticking around. Wikipedia has a writeup on why people still use these things — ranging from “it’s the best way to move data between really old computers” to an aviation company that still uses zips to distribute navigation databases.

I’m not sure what I’d think if I boarded an airliner and saw the captain using a zip disk. Given that some of the planes we fly around in today were designed around the same time as the zip disk, maybe it makes sense sense.

At the moment, USB zip drives cost anywhere from $60 to $200, depending on if it’s new and whether it’s the 100MB, 200MB, or 750MB variety. I got lucky and got a used one on Amazon for around $60.

Trusty Mac Mini

Tucked into a box of gear that “may be useful some day” was a mac mini. Its name is Awesomebot7000. I inherited it when a friend’s company went out of business. It worked well with the zip drive, unlike other rigs I had tried with the same drive.

The Good, The Bad, The Unrecoverable

I was able to recover a little over half the files. A few of the disks would not even mount (show up.) Many of the disks that remained had at least one file that was at least partially unreadable. Copying the files to Awesomebot7000’s disk by dragging rarely worked; it seems OS X would start copying the files, and as soon as it ran into a single bit it could not read, it would give up without saving any of the data it could read. Which seems like a silly way to write a copying routine. Manually dragging individual files would have been impractical because of the number of files involved.

What worked for me was:

rsync -r -v /Volumes/Zip\ Disk/Desktop DF/ ~/Desktop/recovered/

This worked best for me (compared to cp and scp) because it would give problem files a few tries before giving up. Some trial and error showed that files that had problems would consistently have problems, whether I was using rsync, cp, or scp. There were cases where one of the files would be partially copied by one of those methods, while other methods could copy none of a problem file. I failed to take notes on which got the partial copies of bad files, but those partial copies were rarely useful anyway.

Because of the retries involved, copying a 100MB zip disk to the local HD could take quite a while, especially on badly degraded disks. “Quite a while” meaning “longer than my attention span”, because I’d generally go find something else to do while rsync did its thing. It felt like anywhere from 5 minutes per disk to most of an hour.

Click of Death

Legend has it that zip drives are subject to a sort of hardware virus called “The Click of Death”. These tales say that if an infected disk is inserted into a zip drive, the zip drive will make a clicking noise, and from thence forth the drive will be infected. Once the drive is infected, any disks inserted into that drive will be infected…spreading the problem without limit. These stories also say that the Click of Death instantly and totally obliterates all data on infected disks.

There was quite a hubbub about this, with Iomega saying it was a myth, and irate customers filing a class action lawsuit against Iomega in 1998. There are still people today who believe that zip disks and their manufacturers are bad and evil, respectively.

Back in the 90s, I used zip disks extensively and never experienced the rumored hardware virus. Reading these old disks in 2016, I would hear a click noise when the drive was having trouble reading a disk. That got me worried; was this new USB zip drive erasing / infecting all my disks?

As an experiment, after letting the drive click a bunch of times trying to read an unreadable disk, I put in a series of “good” disks that had been read previously. I’d then copy the files from the good disks…and the good disks never became unreadable. The files that had been readable before remained readable. If I put the unreadable disk back in, the drive would click like before. I could even isolate it to specific files; try to read a single unreadable file, and the drive would do the clicking thing. But try to read a “good” file on the same disk, and it could be read repeatedly.

The drive is semi transparent, so I was able to watch the mechanism during this process. I’m pretty sure that click is just the drive resetting to try again. There are parts that “click back” into a default position.

So if you hear your zip drive clicking, don’t freak out. It might just be trying again. Or it might be that Click of Death thing…but probably not. See the Wikipedia writeup if you want the nitty-gritty on the Click of Death. There is some good theory there to explain what some people experienced. I had an experience with SyQuest cartridges once that suggests a different way that a whole stack of magnetic media can be rendered useless, without the drive being at fault.

Victory

So I got most of my files back. Turns out I had duplicated many of the files over multiple disks, so there was some sorting to be done. Now they’re backed up in the cloud. I’ll probably never use most of these files again (Marathon game saves, for example.) But there was novelty in seeing some things I had not thought about in a long time, like a web site I made in 1998, and collection of illustrations for print ads.

I’m happy to have accomplished this, and am now comfortable sending the zip disks to the recycling center. The drive will go to a friend who who has a similar project to do. And I’ll have one less box of baggage to keep track of.

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