Solid-state disks for notebooks

Falling prices for nonvolatile flash memory have prompted some notebook manufacturers to go beyond hybrid disks and announce systems that replace the entire hard disk with a solid-state disk (SSD). Last June, Samsung Electronics Co. introduced two notebooks for the Korean market — the Samsung Q1 and Q30 — that use a 32GB flash-based SSD that looks like a standard 1.5-in. ATA hard disk drive. In July, Sony Corp. launched the Vaio UX90 micronotebook, which includes a 16GB SSD, for sale in Japan and China.

Compared with units with hard drives, SSD-outfitted notebooks boot up and run faster, are quieter and use less power. Samsung claims that its units will boot up 50% faster. But they aren’t cheap. Sony’s UX90, which sells for USD 1,805, costs $343 more than a unit with a 30GB hard disk. The Samsung notebooks start at USD 2,430. At current prices, 32GB of flash might add $700 or more to the price of a notebook, says IDC analyst John Rydning.

The price of flash, at about USD 17.50 per gigabyte, has already dropped below IDC’s predictions. However, that pales in comparison to disk drives, which cost as little as 65 cents per gigabyte. Disk drives also enjoy economies of scale — their cost per gigabyte decreases as capacity increases. In contrast, flash pricing tends to be linear. The crossover point for SSD versus traditional hard drives is 10GB, says IDC analyst Dave Reinsel. At capacities above that, hard drives are cheaper.

Today, flash SSDs make the most sense in rugged notebooks for military or industrial use. That’s the case at NStar. “The hybrid disk-drive technology is somewhat attractive to us, but I believe that the flash-only drives will be a much better model for us in the future when the pricing of high-capacity flash gets more into the range of commodity pricing,” says Jack Weilandt, the energy firm’s chief technologist.

Samsung’s solid-state disk drive does away with a magnetic disk entirely in favor of flash memory chips. Samsung has announced a notebook computer that will use the device. Costs will have to come down further and SSD capacity will need to expand before flash SSDs are viable in broader applications, says Rydning. He notes that while the disk footprint for Windows XP is 1.5GB, Vista is expected to come in at between 5GB and 15GB. “That eats up a pretty big chunk of the solid-state disk,” he says.

Weilandt is less worried. “For many applications, 32GB is more than sufficient for business use,” he says. Given the predicted declines in flash pricing, Don Barnetson, director of flash marketing at Samsung Semiconductor, thinks general-purpose notebooks with SSDs might not be too far off. “I think you’ll see [some systems] in the next year,” he says. “But it will go into the mainstream in three to five years.”

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