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Lighter laptops move to flash-based drives

With 500-gigabyte hard drives in laptops coming soon, why would you even consider buying a notebook with a seemingly paltry 32GB or 64GB solid state drive?
/ Source: contributor

With 500-gigabyte hard drives in laptops coming soon, why would you even consider buying a notebook with a seemingly paltry 32GB or 64GB solid state drive?

The answer, computer makers hope, is because those laptops will appeal to weighed-down road warriors and corporations tired of fixing the hard drives of employees’ dropped or damaged notebooks.

Solid state drives, which use flash memory, are significantly more expensive than laptops with hard drives.

But with no moving parts, unlike hard disk drives, they’re also considered more reliable and rugged, boot up more quickly and can offer longer battery life.

In the past year, several notebooks in the 2- to 4-pound range using flash-based solid state drives have been released by companies such as Dell, Toshiba and Sony. Prices range from $2,100 to $3,400.

Moving toward solid state drives
Apple’s 3-pound MacBook Air, announced last week, is one of the higher-profile examples.

The laptop, with a 13-inch screen, comes in two versions.

The first has an 80-gigabyte hard disk drive, and starts at $1,799. The second has a 64-gigabyte solid state drive and starts at $3,098.

Neither comes with an optical drive, and both laptops look the same.

“It’s not visible from the outside, so it’s not like there’s much of a cool factor to it,” said Thomas Coughlin, author of “Digital Storage in Consumer Electronics: The Essential Guide,” due out in March.

“But if you’re really thumping that computer around, and vibration and shock resistance are important enough to you, you will pay the extra money to have a notebook that will perform under those conditions.”

“It’s exciting to see someone like Apple introduce a solid state option,” said Jeff Janukowicz, research manager for solid state drives and hard drive components at market research firm IDC.

“We’re at the beginning of a wave of seeing more personal computers introduced with SSD.”

$5.4 billion in revenues by 2011
IDC believes ultimately it will be a big wave. Solid state drive revenues are expected to increase from $373 million in 2006 to $5.4 billion in 2011, the research firm said in a report.

Flash memory is already widely used in smaller devices like digital music players, cell phones, GPS units and cameras.

Joggers who are music lovers know that a flash-based player is a better choice for their daily run compared to players with hard drives.  

Flash-based players are quick to boot up, and don’t face the risk of skipping or getting damaged as easily as players with hard drives.

Hard disk drives use rotating, magnetic platters to read, write and store data. Flash-based solid state drives are made up of chips, which are less volatile.

“There’s extremely high reliability with it, and the reason is that there’s no moving parts, there’s nothing spinning,” said Jim Elliott, director of flash marketing at Samsung Semiconductor, Inc.

“So it has very good impact resistance, and there’s virtually no heat and no noise.”

Big on consumer appeal
Samsung is one of the key players in the flash market, and plans to introduce a 128GB solid state drive this year for notebook computers, as does Hitachi.

So far, laptops with solid state drives have been offered in mainly 32GB and 64GB configurations.

That doesn’t seem like much, especially for those who keep lots of video, audio and photo files on their laptops.

Both Samsung and Hitachi recently announced they’ll be making 500GB laptop hard drives this year.

“Your average business notebook user does not have a lot of media files, so 64GB is sufficient,” said Elliott.

“Once we get into the 128GB space toward the middle of this year, that’s where we’re going to start getting into some of the consumer appeal,” he said.

“If you think about some of the emotional equity that somebody has with having personal items, such as photos, videos, a music library, on their machine, they obviously want to protect that.

“There’s going to be a very strong value proposition for SSD in that space, because anybody who has ever lost data to a hard drive failure in the past will understand from a very personal standpoint what that means.”

Coughlin said laptops with the smaller drives are akin to “an older concept that’s been around awhile: the thin-client model. In the thin-client model, you would not try to have the same sort of storage capacity in the laptop that you would with a hard disk drive.

“The whole idea is to get your applications and your content from the Web and the network, not from the local storage device.”

Price remains an obstacle
For many consumers, price may be the biggest impediment to going the solid state drive route. The cost of manufacturing flash-based solid state drives is much higher gigabyte-for-gigabyte compared to hard disk drives.

That’s expected to change over time, as economies of scale and technological improvements to manufacturing take hold.

A lesser issue is lifespan, which is unlimited with a hard disk drive, Coughlin said.

In contrast, “the basic memory cell in a flash memory device wears out with the number of writes to it,” he said.

However, said Elliott of Samsung, with a minimum of 10,000 write cycles, “we absolutely expect the (SSDs) write endurance to well outlive the device itself.”

Flash memory’s durability was a plus in one recent laptop produced at the lower end of the price scale.

The XO computer, made for children in developing countries by the nonprofit One Laptop Per Child program, has a 1GB flash drive, runs on the Linux operating system and costs $188.

By using flash memory, “you can make a computer that provides enough storage capacity, as well as processing and bandwidth, to be useful to people running very lightweight applications,” Coughlin said.

“In doing so, you may enable a whole new type of device like these very low-cost computers that can be used in places where people don’t have a lot of money.”

A symbiotic relationship
Coughlin is president of Coughlin Associates, a data storage consulting service, and is also the founder of the Creative Storage Conference, most recently held at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

He sees the relationship between flash and hard drives as “symbiotic,” rather than competitive.

“Increasingly, people are starting to realize the importance of backing up and protecting their content,” he said. “Behind that flash-based player, or computer, there’s probably going to be an external hard drive there, providing support or storage.

“What’s really being created is an ecosystem, with many, many ways — using many storage devices — for joint content of one sort or another, of various sizes, capacities, resolutions for different kinds of devices.”