September 28, 2006


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Disk drives without disks
Solid state drives have way more flash
By John “jaQ” Andrews

Your disk drive is too slow.

I know, I know, you think it’s your processor that doesn’t have enough gigahertzes, or that your computer has a virus. Unless you’re among the 68 percent of Internet users that consider RealPlayer a virus, no, your computer doesn’t have a virus.

Simply put, the hard drive is the one component of PCs that has not kept pace with the rest. The reason? It’s too physical. There’s an actual moving part, for goodness’ sake — one or more platters that spin, each read by a magnetic sensor. Most speed advances have come when engineers figured out a clever new way to send more bits and bytes at the same time over an electrical connection, or change the material used in that connection. They’ve applied these techniques to the disk drive, but they can’t overcome the simple fact that physical pieces have to move into place.

Oh, sure, disks have sped up, but not much, considering. The first disk drive was integrated into IBM’s RAMAC 350 system in 1956. It held 5 megabytes, was the size of two refrigerators and spun at 1,200 revolutions per minute. Today, high-end server drives that fit in your hand and hold 500 gigabytes aren’t uncommon; that’s a 100,000-fold increase.

Rotation speed? 15,000 rpm. 12.5-fold increase. Pitiful.

The solid state drive could put an end to that bottleneck once and for all. Rather than using spinning platters like a depressing lounge act, an SSD uses flash memory to store data. Hard disk drives all have some memory on them, from small caches to speed up program loading and document saving time to hybrid drives that integrate a gigabyte or two to make booting up faster. But Samsung released a laptop in Korea in June with a 32GB SSD. Granted, the laptop was very expensive and otherwise pretty low-end, but as a proof of concept, it was compelling.

What advantages do SSDs offer over disk drives? For one thing, speed. That laptop claimed a three-fold increase in data read times over disk drives, which means your PC can boot up faster, come out of sleep and hibernation modes faster, and load giant games faster. There’s also a greater resistance against shock; in fact, flash storage has been standard in a lot of military hardware for years now.

SSDs also take up less power than spinning disks. That may not matter in a desktop system, but laptop users know that power is time — the less energy sucked up by moving parts, the longer they can stay unplugged. Less power usage also means less heat generation, which means the rest of the PC (and body parts close to the lap) is not as vulnerable to heat damage.

Both Samsung’s 32GB SSD and a similar unit just announced by TDK are a little bit smaller than a standard laptop hard drive but have the same connector, so the laptop doesn’t have to be re-engineered at all. They’re pricey, of course — about $900 more than comparable disk drives — but as with all things electronic, as production ramps up and processes get refined, the cost should take a nosedive.

Higher capacities won’t take long, either. Heck, back in April I was already writing about 64GB USB flash drives. Catch up, guys, will ya?

09/21/2006 Movies, just click your mouse!
09/14/2006 Laptops for less
09/07/2006 GPS everywhere
08/31/2006 The printer dilemma
08/24/2006 A series of tubes
08/17/2006 More music, more places
08/10/2006 How big is your drive?
08/03/2006 It's a WiFi world
07/27/2006 Fancy a spot of memory?
07/20/2006 Under the sea
07/06/2006 eBaysic training
06/29/2006 You paid money for that?
06/22/2006 Processing ... processing ...
06/15/2006 C:\Run for the border
06/01/2006 The keyboard is mightier
05/25/2006 Geek phone home
05/18/2006 Super highway information
05/11/2006 How to host a site
05/04/2006 If they mated
04/27/2006 Apples to apples
04/20/2006 Flash uber-drives
04/13/2006 Web site, by you
04/06/2006 Ayyy, jaQ's right!
03/30/2006 Choose wirelessly
03/23/2006 Tax programs cometh
03/16/2006 And the Spammie goes to...
03/09/2006 Take in the Vista
03/02/2006 Cheap moviemaking
02/23/2006 Go directly to iJail
02/16/2006 Will you stamp your e-mail?
02/09/2006 War of the machines
02/02/2006 Faster than a speeding packet

01/26/2006 Free software made simple
01/19/2006 The Worst of CES
01/12/2006 Radio you
01/05/2006 Making Movies
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