Staples | Choosing the Right Storage Device

Choosing the Right Storage Device

Diskettes, Zip Disks, CDs, DVDs, Tapes, or Portable Hard Drives

Not long ago — back when thin black ties were fashionable — the storage options for computer–generated data were limited to punch cards. Now that storage options have grown to match the increasing complexity and size of applications, the challenge, and the opportunity, for computer users is knowing which storage medium to choose.

Storage, portability, and collaboration

The most obvious concern is to make sure that your storage medium is large enough to accommodate your file or files. Storage size ranges from diskettes with 1.44MB (megabytes, or one million bytes) to portable hard drives with 60 or more GB (gigabytes, or 1,024 megabytes). According to Nagaraja Srivatsan, Sr. Vice President of the Client Solutions Group at Silverline Technologies, your decision should also be based on whether you're backing up files for the purposes of portability or collaboration. Here's a quick review of your storage options.

Storage options at a glance

Storage option




Limited, 1.44MB

Storing and sharing memos, letters, spreadsheets, and a few digital images. Requires a floppy drive.

Zip disks

100 – 250MB

Storing and sharing digital images, large spreadsheets and presentations (such as PowerPoint). Requires a Zip drive.

CDs (CD–R or CD–RW)

up to 800MB

Storing large presentations, digital images, multimedia, music, and much of your hard drive. Requires a CD–RW drive to write and read data, a CD–ROM drive to read data only.


4.7 – 17GB

Backing up your entire hard drive; storing movies, digital images, and large presentations. Requires a DVD–RW/CD–RW drive to write and read data, a DVD drive to read data only.

Tape drives

2 – 20GB

Backing up or storing all of the data on your computer

Portable hard drives

20 – 60+ GB

Great for traveling and making presentations, storing multimedia


  • Storage: Up to 1.44 MB, which is plenty for Word documents (memos, letters, reports) and small spreadsheets. This is not enough space if you want to back up several files or your entire hard drive.

  • Advantages: Highly portable, easy to take home or on the road. Also, files can be written to diskettes quickly, often in seconds. Diskettes are ideal for collaboration, since you can share files with colleagues, and they can send back comments.

  • Disadvantages: Limited storage. 1.44 MB is often inadequate for large or complex files. In addition, some computer makers, such as Apple, are now manufacturing new models without built–in diskette drives. Instead, they're installing built–in CD and DVD drives. If you don't have a floppy drive, you can always buy an one.

Zip disks

  • Storage: 120 to 250 MB (and growing). Plenty of room for almost any purpose, including PowerPoint™ presentations, large spreadsheets, and graphic–heavy reports.

  • Advantages: In addition to its ample storage, Zip disks are, in the words of journalist and compulsive gadgeteer, David DeJean, "the best things in the world for sneaker net." That is, they're highly portable — perfect for moving files across the office and from one computer to another. They're also extremely durable and, unlike CDs, scratch–resistant. Another plus is that Zip disks read and write information quickly.

  • Keep in mind: You must have a Zip drive to read Zip disks. Since not everyone has Zip drives, this can make collaboration a challenge. Though some computers come with built–in Zip drives, they are not standard. Fortunately, Zip drives are affordable and easy–to–use.

Zip disks are the best things in the world for sneaker net (for sharing files with colleagues)


  • Storage: From 185MB mini CD–R to 700MB. This size makes CDs a can't–miss choice for saving large applications (PowerPoint presentations, streaming videos, multimedia presentations, CAD packages, and, of course, music) and for backing up virtually all of the important files on your hard drive.

  • Advantages: CDs not only have vast storage, they're also very inexpensive (you can get 50 CDs for as little as $20) and can be carried anywhere. They also allow for random access. You can click right into a file from an index.

  • CD–R or CD–RW?: With CDs, you have two choices: read–only (CD–R) and read–write (CD–RW). A CD–R can only be "burned" with saved information once; CD–RW can be written over as many times as you like. CD–Rs, then, are ideal for permanently backing up information that you don't want to lose. CD–RWs are better for collaboration. For someone to send comments back to you, they'll have to be able to write–over files.

  • Keep in mind: To save files to a CD, you need a CD–RW drive (also known as a CD burner). Most new computers come with the option of built–in CD–RW drive. Typically, you can choose from a CD–ROM drive (which only reads CDs), a CD–RW drive, a DVD drive, or a CD–RW/DVD drive combo. Also, some CD drives can only read CD–Rs, not CD–RWs. Before you use or share CD–RWs, make sure you and your colleague(s) have a drive that can read a CD–RW.


Storage: From 4.7 to 17GB — big enough, in other words for almost any purpose.

Advantages: The advantages to DVDs are identical to CDs. As computer programs expand and evolve, DVDs will become more important — and more essential.

Keep in mind: DVDs are relatively new as a storage option (if not as a movie–viewing option) and require a DVD drive. DVD–RW drives are also available. You need a DVD–RW drive to write information to a DVD.

Tape drives

  • Storage: From 2 to 20GB. In the past, tapes have been used to back up systems and machines to protect data.

  • Advantages: Tapes read and write quickly, allowing you to back up your hard drive or system in minutes.

  • Keep in mind: All tape drives are sequential. That is, you may not be able to access data randomly as you can with CDs and DVDs. Tapes are for massive back–up rather than collaboration or portability.

Portable hard drives

  • Storage: From 64MB to 1GB (and more). If you travel and do presentations, portable hard drives are your best choice.

  • Advantages: Write information quickly and are highly portable. Also require very little technical know–how. You can usually just plug them into your USB port and go.

  • Keep in mind: Portable hard drives can be relatively expensive.

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