A disk is a round plate on which data can be encoded. There are two basic types of disks: magnetic disks and optical disks.

On magnetic disks, data is encoded as microscopic magnetized needles on the disk’s surface. You can record and erase data on a magnetic disk any number of times, just as you can with a cassette tape. Magnetic disks come in a number of different forms:

  • Floppy disk: a typical 5-inch floppy disk can hold 360K or 1.2MB (megabytes). 3?-inch floppies normally store 720K, 1.2MB or 1.44MB of data.
  • Hard disks: these can store anywhere from 20MB to more than 10GB. Hard disks are also from 10 to 100 times faster than floppy disks.
  • Removable disks: those are hard disks encased in a metal or plastic cartridge, so you can remove them just like a floppy disk.

Removable cartridges are very fast, though usually not as fast as fixed hard disks.

Optical disks record data by burning microscopic holes in the surface of the disk with a laser. To read the disk, another laser beam shines on the disk and detects the holes by changes in the reflection pattern.

The machine that spins a disk is called a disk drive. Within each disk drive is one or more heads (often called read/write heads) that actually read and write data.

Accessing data from a disk is not as fast as accessing data from main memory, but disks are much cheaper. And unlike RAM, disks hold on to data even when the computer is turned off. Consequently, disks are the storage medium of choice for most types of data. Another storage medium is magnetic tape. But tapes are used only for backup and archiving because they are sequential-access devices (to access data in the middle of a tape, the tape drive must pass through all the preceding data).

A new disk, called a blank disk, has no data on it. Before you can store data on a blank disk, however, you must format it.

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