Your Memory in a Flash

With portables more packed than ever, flash memory looks like the future.
Magazine Contributor
5 min read

This story appears in the August 2007 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Portables: Everybody wants one. But with portables come issues--issues of weight, inadequate runtimes and the trauma that data can experience when the floor breaks a portable's fall. As if those problems weren't enough, new notebooks will be packing extra weight around the middle: Vista and Microsoft Office Suite 2007.

Some claim that a dose of Flash memory is all a portable needs to become a highly functioning member of computing society. Specifically, the latest generation of drives from Samsung and Seagate put 128MB or 256MB of Flash cache in front of your portable's platters so they don't have to spin up as often to feed the processor. In fact, Samsung's MH80 drive remains idle 99 percent of the time, says Andy Higginbotham, director of hard disk drive marketing at Samsung. This greatly reduces wear and tear as well as the drive's vulnerability to sudden stops. MH80's idle platters draw 70 percent to 90 percent less power than a traditional drive and generate less heat, he adds, letting your notebook get by with a smaller, cooler-running power plant.

Hybrid hard drives, or HHDs, also help with Microsoft's new Windows version, which can be quite a load--especially when running its new Aero interface. Turns out Vista can use Flash memory in clever ways to boot up more quickly and shuttle its pudgy Office 2007 offspring on and off your hard drive more quickly. In fact, hybrid drives depend on Vista's new hooks to do what they do, so Windows XP machines need not apply.

But with Fujitsu, Hitachi, Toshiba and other drive-makers also signed onto the hybrid concept, HHDs are pretty much the future. So while they're just trickling out today, expect to find hybrids in 6 out of 10 mainstream notebooks by year-end 2009, says Matthew Wilkins, iSuppli's principal analyst for computer platforms. It's all about the steep price drop of NAND Flash memory, which used to cost almost 100 times as much as an equivalent amount of disk storage. "By 2009, that price gap will dwindle to a factor of slightly less than 14," predicts Wilkins.

Intel agrees that NAND Flash is the future of portable computing--especially for smaller devices. It has long used a bucket of fast memory for most-often-needed data, so the slower parts of a PC don't drag down its ultrafast processors. But Intel takes a slightly different approach: The new Intel Turbo Memory card moves the Flash off the drive and onto the processor side of the I/O bus. Intel manufactures its own NAND Flash; it's also a major provider of all-solid state hard drives with up to 8GB storage capacity--for now.

Brave Small World
Meanwhile, U.S. vendors are readying laptops with a 2.5-inch, 160GB version of Samsung's MH80 HHD fronted by 256MB of its OneNAND Flash memory. It will be followed by lower capacities, including an 80GB version in Samsung's own R55 Multimedia Notebook being introduced overseas. Higginbotham expects third-party suppliers to release Samsung hybrids under their own labels into U.S. retail outlets in coming months, selling for about $2 a gigabyte.

Not a bad upgrade because, in tests on near-identical Samsung Q45 notebooks, the portable with the MH80 hybrid drive booted up in half the time and shuttled applications into and out of main memory 30 percent faster than the portable with the traditional drive. Able to fulfill data requests without spinning up its slumbering platters, the drive added 30 minutes to the notebook's battery runtime, reports Higginbotham. Cooler-running hybrid drives need less in the way of fans, heat sinks and other heat and noise mitigators.

Seagate's Momentus 5400 PSD has very much the same operating profile--160GB storage capacity, a 256MB non-volatile cache and 5400RPM platters--and brings the same advantages to the party. Both drive families connect to portable motherboards in standard fashion--via a 3GB-per-second SATA connector. They're interchangeable, so you don't have to worry about checking drive labels when buying a Vista portable.

Why not just go with solid state disks altogether? Price and capacity. As far as Flash has come, magnetic platter technology will still increase storage density and cut per-gigabyte costs faster. Aside from their weight and power advantages over traditional drive technology, independent tests by Samsung and Dell Computer show SSDs logging the fastest data transfer rates. But capacities do top out at 32GB--for the moment--so they're most likely to be found in sub-3-pound portables where weight and battery life are the drivers.

In the near term, expect laptop vendors to follow Dell's lead and just let you choose the Flash option that best fits your budget and the priorities you assign to storage capacity, portability and battery life. Dell offers all three types of Flash on its Latitude D830, D630 and D430 portables, with a hybrid drive adding about $150 to their purchase prices and an ITM card about $110. Dell's 32GB SSD is a speed demon--but it adds about $450 to a portable's price tag. Of course, as with all technology, you're guaranteed lower prices in the future.

Flash can't bring that laptop up to full computing parity with your desktop. But it's a step in that direction.

Mike Hogan is Entrepreneur's technology editor.


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