A magneto-optical drive is a kind of optical disc drive capable of writing and rewriting data upon a magneto-optical disc. Both 130 mm (5.25 in) and 90 mm (3.5 in) form factors exist. The technology was introduced commercially in 1985. Although optical, they appear as hard disk drives to the operating system and can be formatted with any filesystem. Magneto optical drives are common in some countries, such as Japan because of the success of the Sony MiniDisc, but have fallen into disuse in other countries.
Early drives are 130 mm and have the size of full-height 130 mm hard-drives (like in IBM PC XT). 130 mm media looks similar to a CD-ROM enclosed in an old-style caddy, while 90 mm media is about the size of a regular 1.44MB floppy disk, but twice the thickness. The cases provide dust resistance, and the drives themselves have slots constructed in such a way that they always appear to be closed. Originally, MO discs were WORM (write once, read many) drives, but later, read/write MO drives became available.
The disc consists of a ferromagnetic material sealed beneath a plastic coating. The only physical contact is during recording when a magnetic head is brought into contact with the side of the disc opposite to the laser. During reading, a laser projects a beam on the disk and, according to the magnetic state of the surface, the reflected light varies due to the magneto-optic Kerr effect. During recording, laser power is increased to heat the material to the Curie point in a single spot. This enables an electromagnet positioned on the opposite side of the disc, to change the local magnetic polarization. The polarization is retained after the temperature drops.
Each write cycle requires both a pass to erase a region, and another pass to write information. Both passes use the laser to heat the recording layer; the magnetic field is used for actually changing the magnetic orientation of the recording layer. The electromagnet reverses polarity for writing, and the laser is pulsed to record spots of "1" over the erased region of "0". As a result of this two-pass process, it takes twice as long to write data as it does to read it.
In 1996, Direct Overwrite technology was introduced for 90 mm discs eliminating the initial erase pass when writing. This requires special media.
By default, Magneto-optical drives verify information after writing it to the disc, and are able to immediately report any problems to the operating system. This means writing can actually take three times longer than reading, but it makes the media extremely reliable, unlike the CD-R or DVD-R media upon which data is written without any concurrent data integrity checking. Using a magneto-optical disc is much more like using a diskette drive than a CD-RW drive.
During a read cycle, the laser is operated at a lower power setting, emitting polarized light. The reflected light has a change in Kerr rotation and Kerr ellipticity which is measured by an analyzer and corresponds to either a logical 0 or 1.
Progress in magneto-optical technology received a boost in the spring of 1997 with the launch of Plasmon’s DW260 drive. This used Light Intensity Modulated Direct OverWrite technology to achieve an increased level of performance over previous magneto-optical drives.
The 130mm drives have been available in capacities from 650MB to 9.2GB. However, this was split in half over both sides of the disk. The 2.6GB disks, for example, have a formatted capacity of 1.2GB per side. The 130mm drives were always SCSI. The 90mm discs had their entire capacity on one side, with no capability to flip them over. The 90mm drives were available in SCSI, IDE, and USB formats. Capacities ranged from 128MB to 2.3GB.
While they were never particularly popular with consumers (the main consumer market was the 90mm drives), the 130mm drives had some lasting service in corporate storage and retrieval. Optical libraries, such as the Hewlett Packard 40XT, were created to automate loading and storing of the disks. A self-contained unit holding 16 or more disks and connected by SCSI to a host computer, the library required specialized archival software to store indices of data, and select disks. Popular uses were for legal document storage and medical imaging, where high reliability, long life, and (at the time) high storage capacity were required. The optical libraries could also manually be used on a Windows 2000/XP machine by selecting and ejecting discs under the Computer Management icon's Removable Storage Service, but this was cumbersome in practice.
Pinnacle Micro was a major manufacturer of magneto optical drives. 3.5" drives were 128MB and 230MB. 5.25" drives produced were 650MB and 1.3GB (Sierra), 2.6GB (Vertex) and 4.6GB (Apex). The Vertex and Apex were non-ISO standard drives and used proprietary media. Pinnacle Micro has ceased production of these products.
Maxoptix, a spin-off of Maxtor Corporation, is a major manufacturer of 130 mm or 5.25″ magneto optical drives. A current model is the T7-9100 drive, which has a maximum capacity of 9.1GB and is downward read and write compatible with 5.2GB, 4.8GB, 4.1GB, 2.6GB, and 2.3GB magneto-optical disks, and read compatible with 1.3GB, 1.2GB, 650MB, and 600MB magneto-optical disks. Popular older models of 5.25″ Maxoptix MO drives are the T6 Star, T6-5200 and T5-2600 MO drives. Maxoptix was acquired by Techware Distribution in 2008.
Fujitsu was a major manufacturer of 90 mm magneto-optical drives, exceeding 2 GB in capacity, but they have discontinued production and sale of this product category.
PDO Konica Minolta was the last manufacturer of 90 mm 3.5" magneto-optical drives. They had a 3.5" 1.3GB USB external pocket drive available for sale in the United States and Europe. Sources for this drive are, in the United States maxoptix.com.
As of the end of the first quarter in 2012, Sony is the last remaining magneto optical disk manufacturer. Some models are end of life, and therefore no longer manufactured by Sony - 3.5" 128MB, 230MB, and 540MB. EOL 5.25" disks include the 600MB, 650MB, 1.2GB and 1.3GB discs.
Magneto-optical drives should not be confused with Floptical drives, which likewise combine ferromagnetic and optical technologies, albeit in a different manner. Flopticals are 21 megabyte 90 mm magnetic diskettes using optical tracks to increase the tracking precision of the magnetic head, from the usual 135 tracks per inch to 1,250 tracks per inch. No laser or heating is involved; a simple infrared LED is used to follow the optical tracks, while a magnetic head touched the recording surface. The drives can also read and write traditional 90 mm diskettes, although not the 2.88 megabyte variety. Flopticals were manufactured by Insite Peripherals, a company founded by Jim Burke.
Progress in early 2000s
At the Consumer Electronics Show in January 2004, Sony revealed a 1 gigabyte capacity MiniDisc known as "Hi-MD." Hi-MD recorders can also double the capacity of regular minidiscs with special formatting that renders the disc unreadable (or writable) by non-Hi-MD minidisc recorders.
As with all removable storage media, the advent of cheap CD/DVD drives and flash memory has made them largely redundant. Magneto-optical disks in particular were expensive when new, and while highly reliable, the slow writing time also was a detriment. Magnetic tape formats like LTO have far surpassed MO media for high capacity enterprise-grade backup storage.
- Domain Wall Displacement Detection (DWDD), a new magneto-optical reproducing technology developed by Canon Inc. and Sony.
- Ultra Density Optical
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