Is your priceless data locked away on an Iomega Zip disk from the 1990s or 2000s? There are several easy ways you can copy files from Zip disks over to a modern PC or Mac yourself. We’ll show you how.
Before you get too excited about transferring data from a vintage Zip disk to a modern computer, you need to know that successfully copying data is only half of the solution. Once the data is safely on your new machine, it might be trapped in an obsolete file format that your modern apps can’t read or understand.
To actually read the data you copy over, you’ll need to figure out how to use virtual machines or emulators such as DOSBox and vintage applications to convert your data into a format you can use, and that’s far beyond the scope of what we’re going to cover below.
If your Zip disks have been stored in a hot, humid attic or damp basement for 20 years, it’s possible that you might have trouble reading them. Mold can grow on the magnetic disk surface itself in the wrong conditions, and that spells danger for your data. If your disks show signs of extreme mold or water damage but the data on them is very valuable, it might be worth trying to contact a data rescue service first. Attempting to read a very dirty disk can further damage the data on the disk or damage the Zip drive that’s attempting to read it.
Otherwise, if your Zip disks are clean and in good shape, have been stored in a mostly climate-controlled space all these years, the odds are good that you’ll be able to read them. But you’ll need a working Zip drive first.
To read any data off of a Zip disk, you need a Zip drive. Luckily, there are vintage USB Zip drives that still work with modern PCs and Macs. If you don’t have a USB Zip drive already, you’ll need to borrow one from a friend or buy one yourself.
As of December 2021, you can get a USB Zip Drive on eBay for anywhere between $50 and $200 depending on condition and type. Almost any Zip drive with a USB connection will work, including the 100 MB, 250 MB, and 750 MB models. The higher capacity drives can read the smaller capacity disks (such as 100 MB) easily. Just make sure you don’t buy a Zip drive with a parallel port or SCSI connection by accident. Those non-USB models won’t work with modern PCs or Macs.
Once you have a USB Zip drive in hand, how you proceed depends on if you’re working from a Windows PC or a Mac. We’ll cover each scenario in a different section below. We’ll start with Mac first because that has the most caveats.
If you’re trying to read vintage Mac-format Zip disks with a recent Mac running an up-to-date version of macOS, you’ll run into a significant roadblock very quickly. That’s because most Mac-formatted Zip disks use the now-obsolete HFS or HFS+ file system format that macOS today can’t read.
What is a file system, you ask? It’s a software method that determines how an operating system writes data to (and reads data from) a storage medium such as a disk or hard drive. Today’s Macs use the APFS file system. But until Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard (2009), the Mac operating system supported writing to HFS and HFS+ disks. So if you formatted a Zip disk using a Mac before 2009, the odds are very high it’s in HFS or HFS+ format.
To read HFS or HFS+ Zip disks, you’ll need to use a Mac running macOS 10.14 Mojave (2018) or earlier. If you don’t have one, you can attempt to run an earlier version of macOS in a virtual machine, then link it to your USB Zip drive. But that’s a very technical and difficult solution for most people.
More easily, you can buy a cheap, used Intel Mac Mini running an older version of macOS, then copy the files over to a modern machine via a USB key or LAN. That’s not as bad as it sounds: as of December 2021, you can get an early Intel Mac Mini (such as a Core Solo or Core 2 Duo model) for around $50-$100 on eBay. They are plentiful, so keep an eye out for a good deal on one in working condition.
Once you have the vintage Mac in hand, just plug your USB Zip drive into the Mac, open the drive icon that appears in Finder (or on your desktop), and drag your files over to copy them. Once on the intermediary Mac, you can copy the files to a USB flash key or over a LAN to your modern Mac.
Ironically, while recent versions of macOS don’t natively support legacy Mac-formatted Zip disks, they do support legacy MS-DOS and Windows disks. So if you have any IBM PC- or Windows-formatted ZIP disks, you can insert them into a Zip drive plugged into your Mac and copy the files over easily. Go figure!
If you’re on Windows 10 or 11, it’s really easy to copy data from a Zip disk. First, plug your USB Zip drive into a spare USB port on your PC. Then insert a Zip disk, and the drive will appear in “This PC” in File Explorer, usually labeled as “USB Drive.”
Double click the Zip drive’s icon in File Explorer and you’ll see the contents of your Zip disk. You can copy the files just as you would with any other disk or drive. For example, you can drag the file icons where you want them to go, or right-click and copy, then paste to a destination.
Windows can read Zip disks formatted with FAT, FAT32, exFAT, or NTFS formats commonly used by MS-DOS and Windows over the decades. Windows 10 or 11 can’t read Mac format Zip disks unless you use a special utility called HFSExplorer, with mixed results. For Mac disks, it’s best if you read them on a vintage Mac then copy the files over to your Windows PC via a USB drive or a LAN.
If you hear lots of clicking from your Zip drive while attempting to read a disk, you could have a bad Zip drive or a bad disk. If this happens, try reading other Zip disks, ideally ones that were stored in a different condition. It might just be the one disk that is bad. If none of them work, either all the disks are bad (less likely) or the drive is faulty (more likely). In that case, buy another USB Zip drive on eBay and test it out.
If you don’t have more Zip disks to test your drive with, you could also buy a blank Zip disk on eBay and attempt to format it, then read and write to it. If that works, then the disk you were originally trying to read is the problem.
If your data is extremely valuable, a data rescue or recovery service might be worth the expense. A data recovery service is a business that specializes in recovering data from damaged or obsolete computer media. Such a service can be very expensive, so if it’s just a cat JPEG from 1995 you want to recover from a Zip disk (or a floppy disk), it might not be worth it.
We can’t recommend a particular recovery service, but if you Google “data rescue service Zip disk,” you will find potential services you can consider. Remember to shop around, compare prices, and also look for reviews (if available), before mailing off your priceless disks. One final tip: If you do mail your Zip disks, make sure to insure the package for any amount, because they are less likely to get lost in transit. Carrier employees can be liable for damage to insured items, so they treat them more carefully. Good luck!