SyQuest cartridge

A lot of people have never even heard of a SyQuest cartridge. That’s really not a bad thing. It’s not often that a technology is actually ahead of its time and obsolete at the same time. The story of SyQuest is the story of humanity’s desire to store more and more. It’s not a pretty story. Ask anyone who was actually there.

SyQuest technology

A long time ago, there were a very small number of people who needed to move fairly large files. In the 1980s, you stored data on floppy disks that held 360 kilobytes. That’s roughly .0036 gigabytes, or roughly one-one-thousandth of the minimum amount of storage you can get on a phone.

There were a few people who really wanted to get more data than that from place to place. Artists in the nascent field of computer graphic design, for example. Architects, musicians, that sort of thing. Out of that need, SyQuest was born.

Engineer Syed Iftikar, one of the inventors of the PC hard drive, created a removable disk that made it easier to transport large files. His first efforts let you store 5 megabytes, but by the end of the decade he had hit upon the standard, a 44-megabyte cartridge that was big enough to hold most large files.

The glory days

SyQuest owned the large file transfer market in the early 1990s. Their largest cartridge held a whopping 200 megabytes, which is still about one 150th of what your cheapest phone today holds, but it was astounding back then. But yet, by the end of 1990s, the company was gone. What happened?

Problem #1: SyQuests sucked.

I can’t tell you how many times SyQuest cartridges failed on me. They had a specific noise they made when you put them in. If you heard that noise, they were toast. They were no good for storing files permanently because they would just up and quit on you.

Often times back in those days I’d see people bring two sets of the same data just in case one went bad. And there was one time that both sets went bad.

Problem #2: There were better options

By the late 1990s there were two better options. What you see above you is a Zip disk. The disk held 100MB of data and cost about 1/10th what a 200MB SyQuest cartridge cost. It was also a lot, lot more reliable.

Zip disks didn’t last too long in the marketplace but they did last long enough to kill SyQuests.

Of course the real winner of the day was the recordable CD-ROM. This was an incredibly cheap way to record and store 650 megabytes of data and if the disk actually wrote properly, it was practically impossible to destroy by accident. Even severely scratched ones could be read. If it wasn’t in pieces, it worked.

Every dog has his day

Of course, CDs gave way to DVDs, then to flash memory and now of course we use cloud storage. We transfer amounts of data equivalent to a full SyQuest cartridge about every 4 seconds from our phones, and that among other reasons, is a great reason why SyQuest cartridges are just a barely remembered nightmare.

About the Author

Stuart Sweet
Stuart Sweet is the editor-in-chief of The Solid Signal Blog and a "master plumber" at Signal Group, LLC. He is the author of over 8,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.