OVER THE LAST FEW YEARS years, a hard disk drive has become virtually standard equipment on any system used for serious business or home computing.
While there are a half-dozen utilty programs on the market to analyze and repair hard disks, not many developers have been )) paying attention to floppy drives.
This is a shame, because floppy drives are still an important part of any computer system.
If your hard disk crashes or won't allow your system to boot, you can still start it from a floppy disk. If you use floppies to make backups of vital files (which you should do regularly), the condition of your floppy drive can be critical. Naturally, if you're using a system without a hard disk, your floppy drives are the key to getting your computer to start in the first place.
Having just used my computer to duplicate 600 disks, I was getting a bit worried about wear and tear on my floppy drives, so I was delighted when a new product called Trackmate arrived in the mail.
The manufacturer, Travelmate America, produces cleaning kits for all kinds of magnetic media, including audio and videotape cassettes.
The $34.95 Trackmate package contains diagnostic software and a unique drive head cleaning disk that uses special brushes moistened with isopropyl alchohol. It's available for IBM-compatible and Apple Macintosh computers.
While drive cleaning kits have been around since the dawn of personal computing, this is the first I've seen that will test your drive and clean it.
A word about floppies is in order here. While floppy disk drives don't operate at the close tolerances of hard disks, they're subject to more environmental damage.
Unlike hermetically-sealed hard disks, floppy drives are open to the air. This allows dust, dirt, smoke, cat hair and the remants of your kids' peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to collect inside them. Likewise, floppy disks themselves can collect contaminants.
When the magnetic read-write head of your floppy drive comes in contact with a disk, it can pick up or deposit this garbage. If the drive head collects enough garbage, it won't read or write properly. If a dirty drive head scratches your disk, you've lost it. Either event will cause the computer operator to slip into four-letter word mode.
Trackmate is designed to head off this problem. The system is easy to use, which is good because the glossy, four-page manual doesn't contain much information about making the program work.
When you run the program, a simple menu pops up in your choice of English, French or Spanish. I chose English.
The menu displays three subject areas: diagnostics, cleaning and reporting.
The diagnostic portions allow you to test the condition of your read-write head and the speed of your drive. These tests take only a few seconds. My drive passed both with flying colors.
If there's a problem with the read-write head, a cleaning will probably fix it. If there's speed problem, your drive probably needs adjustment. This is generally not a do-it-yourself project.
Unfortunately, repair shops charge $50 to $100 just to open a computer, plus an hourly rate. A new drive costs about $75 and takes about 10 minutes to install if you have the right tools (a screwdriver). So I don't know whether it's worth getting a repair shop to adjust an old one.
If there are no problems with the drive head, Trackmate recommends what it calls a "routine cleaining." If there are
problems, it recommends an extended cleaning.
Cleaning the drive head is a snap. I've never seen a drive cleaning disk quite like Trackmate's, but it seems to work.
Most cleaning disks look like normal diskettes, with a cloth cleaning pad in place of the magnetic medium.
You moisten the pad with cleaning fluid, put the cleaning disk in the drive and give the computer a command that causes the read-write head to access the disk. Instead of reading data, the drive head gets a cleaning.
Trakmate takes a different approach. Instead of a cloth pad inside, it has three small brush pads on the outside of the jacket. Using a gadget that works like a marking pen, you moisten the brush pads with pure isopropyl alcohol (the cleaning medium favored by techies).
When you tell the software to start cleaning, it sends commands that cause the drive head to brush across the cleaing disk. It take about a minute. Trackmate claims this is far superior to a rotating cleaning pad. Frankly, I don't know which is better. It's the kind of argument that engineers probably fight duels over.
If the pads look dirty when you're through, the program advises cleaning them with soap and water.
Each time you test or clean a drive, Trackmate records the event on your disk. You can view or print monthly reports showing what the tests found.
The cleaning disk is good for 52 applications, and the manual recommends cleaning your drive once a week. Some hardware experts I spoke with think this is excessive by several orders of magnitude. A couple of times a year is probably plenty, unless your drives get a real workout or give you errors.
Aside from the skimpy manual, the IBM-compatible version of Trackmate has a major flaw. The package comes in three configurations -- one for 3 1/2 -inch drives and two for the different types of 5 1/4 -inch drives. A dual version, with a $10 premium, contains disks for both drive sizes.
Unfortunately, none of the packages will acommodate computers that have two different types of 5 1/4 inch disks--the 360K variety found on XT-style computer and the 1.2-megabyte disks found on more powerful AT machines.
Many AT-style machines, including mine, have both kinds of 5 1/4 -inch disks. This means you have to buy two packages if you want to clean both drives--which makes Trackmate rather pricey for what it does.
Trackmate is a utility program that tests and cleans floppy disk drives.
System: Available for IBM-compatibles and Apple Macintosh.
Price: $34.95 for a 5 1/4 or 3 1/2 -inch drive package, $44.95 for both.
For information: Contact Trackmate America Corp., 14577 South Bascome Ave., Los Gatos, Calif. 95032, 408-356-0795.