IBM Data storage

In all tape formats, a tape drive (or "transport" or "deck") uses motors to wind the tape from one reel to another, passing tape heads to read, write or erase as it moves.

Magnetic tape was first used to record computer data in 1951 on the Eckert-Mauchly UNIVAC I. The recording medium was a thin strip of one half inch (12.65 mm) wide metal, consisting of nickel-plated bronze (called Vicalloy). Recording density was 128 characters per inch (198 micrometre/character) on eight tracks.

Small open reel of 9 track tape

Early IBM tape drives were floor-standing drives that used vacuum columns to physically buffer long U-shaped loops of tape. The two tape reels visibly fed tape through the columns, intermittently spinning the reels in rapid, unsynchronized bursts, resulting in visually striking action. Stock shots of such vacuum-column tape drives in motion were widely used to represent "the computer" in movies and television.

Quarter inch cartridges, a data format commonly used in the 1980s and 1990s.

Most modern magnetic tape systems use reels that are much smaller than the 10.5 inch open reels and are fixed inside a cartridge to protect the tape and facilitate handling. Many late 1970s and early 1980s home computers used Compact Cassettes encoded with the Kansas City standard. Modern cartridge formats include LTO, DLT, andDAT/DDC.

Tape remains a viable alternative to disk in some situations due to its lower cost per bit. This is a large advantage when dealing with large amounts of data. Though the areal density of tape is lower than for disk drives, the available surface area on a tape is far greater. The highest capacity tape media are generally on the same order as the largest available disk drives (about 5 TB in 2011). Tape has historically offered enough advantage in cost over disk storage to make it a viable product, particularly for backup, where media removability is necessary.

Tape has the benefit of a comparatively long duration during which the media can be guaranteed to retain the data stored on the media. Fifteen (15) to thirty (30) years of archival data storage is cited by manufacturers of modern data tape such as Linear Tape-Open media.

In 2002, Imation received a US$11.9 million grant from the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology for research into increasing the data capacity of magnetic tape.