End of the conventional hard drive in sight?

This might well be the beginning of the end for the hard drive: in mid-May, Dell became the first manufacturer to market a laptop using flash memory instead of a hard drive. Other manufacturers will be joining the company before year’s end with solid-state disk (SSD) technology of their own. For users, this is all good news.

Hard drives (HDD) use ”ferromagnetic” storage media to record data. The surface of special metal plates is magnetised. SSD, by contrast, works purely digitally.

The fundamental difference between SSD and its other flash storage brethren and HDD lies in the fact that flash technology has no moving parts, explains Dell’s Christoph Kaub.

SSD is already in use in MP3 players and cellphones, and like other flash storage media is not sensitive to jolts, notes Joerg Wirtgen from the Hanover-based magazine c’t.

”If you drop your laptop, for example, the data will almost certainly remain undamaged,” he says. Another benefit of SSD is that it makes little noise and generates less heat, Kaub claims.

One can also expect it to use less energy. Another bonus is speed. ”SSD memory is several times faster than normal laptop hard drives,” Wirtgen says.

Dell is currently offering flash memory with 32 or 64 gigabytes of storage — relatively small compared with hard drives. That’s because SSDs are currently more expensive to produce.

”The costs are significantly higher than for a comparable laptop with a traditional hard drive,” says Christoph Kaub. Consumers should plan on shelling out several hundred more dollars. ”We hope that the prices will drop significantly by the end of this year or the beginning of 2008,” he says.

Other manufacturers nevertheless also want to bring SSD laptops on to the market. Fujitsu Siemens, for example, has indicated it will release a model this summer. The Lifebook Q — a business model — will hit the stores with flash memory inside. Samsung too reports intentions to release an SSD device.

The usefulness of flash memory in desktop PCs is questionable. Conventional disk drives and RAM maintain a significant cost advantage over SSD.

”I think the prices for traditional drives will continue to sink, meaning that SSD will have a hard time competing in the near future,” Kaub says.

Flash memory does not just work in the form of SSD: Intel has a model that supports hard drives. The technology, known as Robson or turbo memory cache, consists of a 512-megabyte or one-gigabyte hard drive. It notes which programs are used heavily and saves portions from them, explains Intel spokesperson Hans-Juergen Werner. It can help programs load and run faster.

Intel plans on offering the turbo technology for desktop PCs soon — with two or four gigabytes of memory. Wirtgen from c’t sees the trend more likely to head toward hybrid hard drives, namely traditional drives with turbo memory modules.

”Those could be interesting if the flash buffer is large enough,” he says. — Sapa-dpa

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