New storage format could hold 220 terabytes of games—on tape

Commodore Vic 20 cassette tapes

Photo via flickr user Dejdżer / Digga

Get this: IBM and Fujifilm have come up with a way to fit 220TB of data onto a cassette-like tape that fits in the palm of your hand. It won't be available for a few years, but it's miles ahead of the current industry tape standard, LTO-6 (Linear Tape-Open), which holds a mere 2.5TB on a 10 by 10 cm, 2 cm-thick cartridge.

Today, we usually think of PC storage in terms of hard drives (old and slow) and SSDs (the future!). SSDs are faster than hard drives and less prone to damage, and they're growing speedier by the year, as we move from the SATA interface to m.2 and PCIe. But IBM and Fujifilm's advancement in tape storage is a cool reminder that old magnetic tape isn't as irrelevant as we may assume. And once upon a time, tape was one of the go-to methods for storing and playing PC games.

PC games have a long history of storage mediums stretching back before the SSD and the hard disk: DVDs, CDs, 3 1/2-inch floppy disks, 5 1/4-inch floppy disks. And, on systems like the Commodore 64, VIC-20, and ZX Spectrum, cassette tapes. The Commodore 64's Datasette standard that was particularly popular in the UK. Those datasettes typically stored about 100 KB of data on each 30-minute side. That's 100 kilobytes.

Meanwhile, these newfangled storage tapes can handle 220 terabytes, or, y'know, 220 billion kilobytes. That's a whoooole lot of Gunship.

So what does this new breakthrough in magnetic tape mean for games? Well, probably not much. Tapes are, realistically, better suited as a long-term storage medium—they're by far the cheapest storage medium per bit, but at the cost of retrieval time, which can be as much as a minute. Tape will never be as fast as solid state storage, even if it can hold vastly more data. We'll stick to gaming on our SSDs, where 128 kilobyte programs don't take 10+ minutes to load.

If you want to check out old cassette games, though, it's not so easy these days. Without the original hardware, old cassette games are obviously difficult to play on modern PCs. 3 1/2-inch floppies, by comparison, had a much longer lifespan of forward compatibility. While some of us may have forgotten cassette games ever existed, there are fans out there working to preserve them. The ZX Spectrum emulation community, for example, has amassed a digital cassette library of more than 3000 tapes, with an estimated 18,000 left to go.


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