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Flash for Laptops

Computers that use flash chips instead of a magnetic hard disk for memory are coming.
April 17, 2006

Flash memory storage, traditionally used in cell phones, digital cameras, and MP3 players, is finding its way onto the laptop. Last October, Intel unveiled a hybrid technology in which flash is used with a conventional magnetic hard drive to increase battery life. Then, last month at the CeBIT, a technology show in Hannover, Germany, Samsung Semiconductor displayed a laptop in which 32 gigabytes of flash completely replaces the hard drive (click here for an image of this flash chip).

Now, as storage densities rise and prices fall for flash technology, many industry experts expect that it’s only a matter of time before it becomes common in laptops.

There are numerous advantages to putting flash memory into laptops. The technology is based on transistors and has a design similar to microprocessors (see “Storage Grows in a Flash”), making flash memory chips more compact and lighter than magnetic hard disks – which could lead to featherweight laptops.

Additionally, flash has no moving parts, unlike a hard disk, where data is read from a spinning disk. This difference has two benefits: flash memory consumes less power, and it’s more rugged and less prone to failure, because there are no moving parts. “Anyone who’s had a hard drive wipe out knows you’ve got to be real careful with magnetic media,” says Ed Doller, CTO of the Flash Memory Group at Intel.

Yet flash memory still has one major drawback: cost. Many believe that this will keep flash from replacing laptop hard disks in the near future. Currently, flash storage costs about $25 per gigabyte – roughly 100 times more than magnetic storage. By 2009, though, 20 gigabytes of flash could cost less than $150, or about $7.50 per gigabyte, according to SanDisk, a data storage company. But this is still three times more than hard-disk prices today, says Tom Coughlin of Coughlin Associates, a data-storage consulting company.

Despite the relatively high cost of flash right now, companies such as Intel are already taking advantage of the benefits that even a small amount of flash memory affords. The company’s hybrid drive systems, available in early 2007, will use flash as a hard-drive cache. Some data will be accessed without requiring the hard drive to spin, saving energy. “It gives the ability to lower the power consumption and when you launch an application, it opens two times faster,” according to Intel’s Doller.

While the “most ambitious application of flash will be to replace the hard disk,” says Tso-Ping Ma, professor of electrical engineering at Yale University, hard-disk technology is a “moving target,” with advances that will continue to allow its capacity to increase and costs to fall. However, he adds, because flash is lightweight and uses less power, it is “very attractive for certain high-end applications,” such as portable video players and more expensive laptops.

In the near future, tablet PCs will likely be the first computers to completely adopt flash, suggests Norm Frentz, OEM marketing manager for industrial products at SanDisk. These portable computers might only need 10 to 20 gigabytes of storage, as opposed to the average laptop today with its 40- or 60-gigabyte hard disk. But by the end of the decade, he says, flash costs could be low enough that the price of large amounts of flash memory might not be as much of a barrier.

When it comes to completely replacing hard disks, however, the equation involves more than simply comparing storage prices, says Coughlin, it involves assessing in which applications flash makes the most sense. People might be willing to pay for a flash-based laptop, he says, if they see the benefits of one as significantly greater than a less expensive alternative. Frentz of SanDisk adds another plus: “Imagine a flight to Europe where you don’t have to charge your laptop.”

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