The following is an overview of how a floppy disk drive writes data to a floppy disk. Reading data is very similar. Here's what happens:
- The computer program passes an instruction to the computer hardware to write a data file on a floppy disk, which is very similar to a single platter in a hard disk drive except that it is spinning much slower, with far less capacity and slower access time.
- The computer hardware and the floppy-disk-drive controller start the motor in the diskette drive to spin the floppy disk. The disk has many concentric tracks on each side. Each track is divided into smaller segments called sectors, like slices of a pie.
- A second motor, called a stepper motor, rotates a worm-gear shaft (a miniature version of the worm gear in a bench-top vise) in minute increments that match the spacing between tracks. The time it takes to get to the correct track is called "access time." This stepping action (partial revolutions) of the stepper motor moves the read/write heads like the jaws of a bench-top vise. The floppy-disk-drive electronics know how many steps the motor has to turn to move the read/write heads to the correct track.
- The read/write heads stop at the track. The read head checks the prewritten address on the formatted diskette to be sure it is using the correct side of the diskette and is at the proper track. This operation is very similar to the way a record player automatically goes to a certain groove on a vinyl record.
- Before the data from the program is written to the diskette, an erase coil (on the same read/write head assembly) is energized to "clear" a wide, "clean slate" sector prior to writing the sector data with the write head. The erased sector is wider than the written sector -- this way, no signals from sectors in adjacent tracks will interfere with the sector in the track being written.
- The energized write head puts data on the diskette by magnetizing minute, iron, bar-magnet particles embedded in the diskette surface, very similar to the technology used in the mag stripe on the back of a credit card. The magnetized particles have their north and south poles oriented in such a way that their pattern may be detected and read on a subsequent read operation.
- The diskette stops spinning. The floppy disk drive waits for the next command.
On a typical floppy disk drive, the small indicator light stays on during all of the above operations.