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ZoomFloppy (First Impressions)

Today I will be giving my first impressions of the ZoomFloppy, a new PCB that allows people to connect old Commodore floppy disk drives to modern PCs via USB.

(I’ll pause a minute while most of you leave the room. You are excused. See you tomorrow.)

I have, on several occasions, talked about the process (and difficulties) of converting physical Commodore 1541 diskettes into D64 disk images, the format used by most Commodore 64 emulators (including WinVice). Most recently, I talked about it here, here, and here. To save you an hour of back-digging, here’s the gist of those posts: I’ve found two reliable methods to convert real disks into D64 images (and back). One involves using a 486 running DOS and a special cable (x1541). The other involves using a 1541 Ultimate, a device that attaches to a Commodore 64. While both solutions work great, neither is without its drawbacks. The 1541 Ultimate runs around $200 US (with tax and shipping) and requires a working C64 computer to run. X1541 cables work best with older parallel ports on 486 computers running DOS, which brings its own unique logistics.

There’s also the FC5025, a USB controller for 5.25 floppy drives. The FC5025 is $60 (shipped), plus you’ll need to supply your own 5 1/4 floppy drive. The FC5025 is good at what it does, but it doesn’t do what I need it to do. It archives PC/DOC-based disks perfectly, but can only read the front side of Commodore 64 and Apple II disks. The FC5025 is also a read-only solution. I own one and use it for archiving old DOS disks, but for archiving Commodore 64 disk collections (almost all of which contain disks with information on the flip side), it’s not a good solution.

This brings us to the ZoomFloppy.

The ZoomFloppy was developed by Nate Lawson and is being manufactured by Jim Brain. It currently sells for $35 US, which makes it the most inexpensive solution to date. It’s USB, so “installing” it is a matter of connecting the card to your computer using a standard mini-USB cable and supplying the drivers.

The ZoomFloppy’s packaging is sparse. The card shipped in an anti-static bag. Inside the box there was also some tissue paper, and a folded-up piece of paper with the GNU General Public License printed on it. Something noticeably missing was a piece of paper with some instructions. A sticker on the anti-static bag pointed me to http://www.go4retro.com/products/zoomfloppy. After searching that page longer than I’d like to admit, I found the link to Nate’s page, which contains links to the installation manual and drivers. The driver installation on my 64-bit Windows 7 machine did not work like the documentation suggested it would, but after manually installing the driver, Windows 7 saw the card. It wasn’t a particularly difficult installation, but the whole process reminded me that the ZoomFloppy is currently, and probably always will be, intended for computer-literate hobbyists.

The 1541. She lives.

ZoomFloppy supports transferring data to and from 1541 disk drives using either serial or parallel cables. Serial cables are the ones most Commodore owners are familiar with. On its side, the ZoomFloppy has a female serial connection identical to the one found on the back of a 1541 drive. A standard C64 serial cable is used to connect a 1541 to the ZoomFloppy. That configuration supports both converting real C64 diskettes to D64 images, and writing D64 disk images out to real floppies. I suspect this is what most people will use the ZoomFloppy for. The ZoomFloppy also supports parallel connections. This requires, at a minimum, modifying your 1541 by adding a parallel port to it. I purchased my parallel port kit from the highly recommended Peter Scheper. (I haven’t installed it yet, but when I do, expect another post on the topic.) Using the advanced parallel connection allows the ZoomFloppy to also read and write nibbled G64 disk images. It’s not a feature most people need or will even want, but if you’re interesting in backing up (or studying) copy protected diskettes, it is well worth the effort.

The ZoomFloppy is designed to work with the OpenCBM tools which are command line tools available for Windows, Linux, and Macintosh machines. For those who prefer GUI interfaces, there are also free front ends available. I downloaded CBMXfer, just to give it a whirl.

Within fifteen minutes, I had discovered the ZoomFloppy in my mailbox, opened the box, installed the drivers, found online documentation, got the card installed, fetched a working 1541 drive from my garage, retrieved a random C64 floppy from the archives, transferred a real disk to a D64 disk image, and launched the image in WinVice.

Click to Enlarge

The only real issue I’ve encountered so far is that one of the D64 images I copied was corrupt. I couldn’t find an option for retries or error checking on CBMXfer, but I see it as an available option via the command line. I’ll do some more experimenting with that tonight. It “seems” like I got better results by turning “warp mode” off, which increases the copy time from just under a minute to just over one.

I can’t believe I’m saying this, but once I get a parallel port installed on my 1541, it looks like I’ll be transferring my old C64 collection over one more time. It’s a Herculean task, but doing it and doing it right is important to me.

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4 comments to ZoomFloppy (First Impressions)

  • Stephen B

    I cannot believe it, only $35. Beats the heck out of dragging out the 486 and a X1541 cable. I could not get a XE1541 cable running reliably on a modern pc either.

  • AArdvark

    What’s the difference between the last time you archived your floppies and this upcoming round? Don’t you just turn the floppy over and archive the back side as well?

  • Rob

    @Aardvark: Wife asked the same question, so it’s valid. With a parallel port installed, the ZoomFloppy supports disk nibbling. D64 disk images are quick and dirty copies of the data which work in emulators, but don’t contain any of the hidden or extended data on a disk (like on games with copy protection). In fact, games with copy protection can’t really be backed up into D64 format. Nibbled disks (.NIB format) can be converted to G64 format, which DOES keep all that extra data. .NIB is the format the Commodore Software Preservationists are using. It’s like the difference between MP3 and FLAC.

    To be honest, I probably won’t RE-archive the disks I already have done in D64 format (2/3 of my old collection). The ZoomFloppy uses a bit more advanced tools that have things like error checking and retries that should help archive trickier things.

    Also, the FC5025 (if that’s what you were referring to) uses PC floppy drives, which physically cannot read the backside of a C64 or Apple floppy without modifying the drive sensors, which is beyond my skill set. The ZoomFloppy is a much better Commodore-centric solution.

  • John Feinberg

    I ordered a ZoomFloppy and it arrived today. I asked my dad for a 1571, which has been sitting patiently on my Mac Pro waiting for this day to arrive. After a little bit of unix tinkering, I got OpenCBM working on my Mac. The ZoomFloppy adapter really works! It’s a little hard to believe. So far I’ve only got one floppy disk, a disk filled with tax programs that my dad wrote. A friend of mine from middle school, now living in Texas, has a treasure trove of c64 floppies filled with programs that we wrote ourselves. Hopefully I will be able to persuade her to mail me some of them so that I can make D64 image files.