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The latest external storage system is the astonishing Zip Drive developed by Iomega Corp., a company based in Roy.

It's also the hottest.The Zip plugs into a computer's parallel port - the same one your printer accesses. It's nondenominational, working slickly with both Macs and PCs.

With the Zip, computer storage is multiplied exponentially. Each small changeable Zip disk - actually a portable hard drive - holds a staggering 100 megabytes of information. For comparison, it holds more than 270 of the old double-sided, double-density floppies; more than you can pack onto 69 of today's high-density 3.5-inch diskettes.

All that storage flexibility goes for about $200, including the unit that plugs into the computer. Each additional Zip Disk is around $20. The disks are thicker and much heavier than 3.5-inch floppies but about the same convenient width.

Instructions are clear and easy.

The Zip Drive Unit attaches to your computer's parallel port. A special program floppy sets up the system on your computer, icon and all. This allows the computer to find its way to the Zip Drive, where it accesses a "Tools" Zip Disk that facilitates transfers. It's a simple matter to copy anything from the computer onto the Zip storage drives, at stunning speed.

Iomega is promoting the system as an extension hard drive. Each member of the family can keep a disk. Kids can put games programs on their own Zip Disks; mom can use hers to file checkbook programs and details about family finances; Dad can fill his drive with, well, all those ".jpg" files downloaded from the Internet late at night.

However, my use was a one-shot deal, when I decided to replace my computer's internal hard drive. I hooked up the Zip Drive unit the Deseret News has and stored EVERYTHING that was on my old hard drive, using two of the 100-megabyte Zip Disks. (Apparently only one Zip Disk comes with each unit, but we had three.) As long as I operated the drive correctly, the transfer was smooth and fast.

OK, OK, I did get derailed. The program asks if you're certain you want to erase everything on a Zip Disk when you're about to put something else on it. After I filled the first disk, I grabbed another and stuck it in the drive.

Did I want to erase everything on this disk? asked the program. Thinking it was only a "read.me" file, I clicked on yes. The program had a fail-safe check, asking if I wanted to see what was on the disk before I erased it. But I thought I knew so I declined. Zip then erased it and transferred the rest of the files from my hard disk onto it.

While this was going on, the realization hit me: I had absent-mindedly grabbed the Tools Disk and erased everything on it. It wasn't a blank. Tools would be needed again, especially since I was using the paper's drive. Iomega kindly sent me new Tools Disks by overnight delivery; wisely, they were write-protected.

I've come across only a couple of minor drawbacks, besides my wasting a Tools Disk: if you use Zip only to transfer things onto a new hard drive, it's difficult to dump the program off your computer once you're done with it; it makes connections in several places. But few would buy one just for that purpose.

Also, Zip Drives and Zip Disks are still hard to find. Demand is so great that Iomega must be having trouble keeping up with orders.

I found a dealer advertising them on the Internet - Harmony Computers, Brooklyn, N.Y. - that offers Zip Drives at $189 per unit and $20 per disk.

Because of the demand, said Harmony, buyers face a backlog of one to two weeks.

Potential uses of this slick new drive are vast. You could back up all your data files in an instant. You could transfer programs to a new hard drive.

Zip set me ruminating about my first experience with data storage. I blundered into a computer science course at the University of Utah in 1967 or '68; the weak-brained monster computer fed on stacks of IBM cards. They were the kind that used to come with warnings about not folding, spindling or mutilating.

To write a line of code for a program, we had to laboriously punch each instruction on one card, clacking away on an attachment that was something like a typewriter keyboard. We wrote one line of code per card. I remember a lot of "GO SUB" routines, elementary algebraic equations and "IF . . . THEN" orders.

Each card represented so much careful work; each routine required such a great deal of puzzling; every program needed at least scores and scores of cards.

Mainly my memories are visceral: late in the afternoon as the sun was setting outside the tinted windows of the Merrill Engineering Building, I'd pile my stack of cards into a receptacle on the long, low computer. When I punched the button, or however I told the device to run the program, it would give a mighty mechanoid belch - "BRAAAAAPP!" - as the cards flew through the chute.

Then the computer would extrude a printout saying the program could not run.

Somewhere in that dismal stack I had typed a division sign when I meant to multiply, or maybe I had mixed up the order of a sequence. If I remember correctly, we were supposed to write three programs; none of mine ran. I think I got a mercy D.

The punch cards were the computer's external memory. Too bad we didn't have Zip Drives instead. We could have spared whole forests in British Columbia.