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Flash memory technology has been around for years; its main advantage over traditional RAM memory is that it’s non-volatile, meaning it holds data when the power supply is turned off. That’s why it’s used in devices such as USB key drives and digital cameras.

But, until recently, high-capacity Flash chips have been too expensive for computer makers to consider using them to replace traditional RAM. Now, as manufacturing capacity grows, prices are dropping drastically. According to research firm Semico, in 2000, a gigabyte of NAND RAM cost around $1,900. Five years later, it’s a mere $50. And the firm expects that price to slide to around $9 by 2009.

Consequently, many companies are experimenting with Flash-based RAM. In April, Samsung, in partnership with Microsoft, announced a prototype of a “hybrid drive” that combines a standard hard drive with a sizeable Flash component. The device, which is expected to find its way into consumer PCs in late-2006 (around the time Microsoft’s new Vista operating system is scheduled to debut), uses the Flash component for boot-up and many basic PC storage needs.

Besides speeding up processes, the hybrid drive can add an additional 36 minutes to a standard laptop battery’s runtime, since the hard drive is less active. And it can shorten startup time, according to Andy Yang, strategic marketing manager for Samsung’s semiconductor division. “A 10-to-20 second reduction doesn’t seem like much,” Yang says, “but when you’re trying to access data, it has a significant impact on your user experience.”

Some devices might boot up even faster, according to Yang, especially those that do not require a full operating system. “The lag is a noticeable detraction from the PC entertainment experience…If someone had DVD playback capabilities on a flash device, you could play a DVD right away,” he says.

In a year or so, then, common complaints about PC startup delays – by Bill G. or John Q. – may be heard less often. And consumers may come a bit closer to experiencing the PC as just another appliance: ready to run as soon as it’s switched on.

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