Flash Memory: Today the iPod, Tomorrow the World?

By John G. Spooner  |  Posted 2005-12-07

Flash Memory: Today the iPod, Tomorrow the World?

Editors Note: This story is part of Innovations 2006, a continuing series of stories from the reporters and editors of Ziff Davis Internet. Instead of the usual mile-high look at the year ahead, these articles examine particular technologies and markets in transition, including whats in store for them.

Flash memory is gunning for the premier job in personal computers: Storing important data.

Flash, the memory chip technology that retains data when powered down, has been grappling for an opportunity to take over the data storage duties from hard drives in music players and, increasingly, computers.

But, despite offering advantages such as small size and offering customers as little or as much capacity as they need to buy, flash chips are not likely to replace hard drives as the primary data storage medium for mainstream PCs during 2006 or even in subsequent years due higher costs and lower potential storage capacities, experts said.

Hard drives, which range from a 1-inch models of about 4GBs to a 3.5-inch, 500GB models and sell for about $40 to $200 or more, still offer the best bang for the buck in storage, the experts said.

However, thanks to efforts by Microsoft Corp., Intel Corp., Samsung Electronics and others, the two technologies will begin to coexist in devices during 2006.

Click here to read more about the ways flash memory is used in electronic gadgets.

The combination of flash and hard drives promises to improve the performance of PCs—and notebooks in particular—by cutting boot times and bumping up notebook battery life as data can be stored outside of a drive in flash, where it can be quickly accessed while the drive is shut down to save power.

Both Samsung and Intel have been working on ways of hybridizing flash memory and hard drives, while Microsoft is expected to offer SuperFetch—a feature that can take advantage of flash memory to boost system performance—as part of its Windows Vista operating system. Vista is due in the fall of 2006.

Samsung, which makes both hard drives and flash memory, is adding flash memory directly to its hard drives, said Don Barnetson, associate director for flash memory marketing at Samsung Electronics.

A hybrid hard drive with a relatively small amount of flash—as little as 128MB—can cut the power consumption of drive by about 95 percent, giving notebooks as much as an extra 30 minutes of battery life, while also reducing the boot time of Windows XP to as little as 15 seconds, Barnetson said.

"Youre able to spin down the [hard drives internal] platters and store that information in low power cache and every 10 minutes spin up the drive and flush the cache out," he said.

Samsung expects hybrid drives to begin spreading in conjunction with Windows Vistas late 2006 arrival. They could become a mainstream PC product as soon as sometime in 2007 and could also benefit businesses by helping to cut the power consumption and heat production of servers and network storage gear, Barnetson added.

Intel has been working on a somewhat different hard drive-flash memory hybrid it calls Robson Technology. Robson, which thus far has used flash memory packaged into a module that fits into a slot on a notebooks motherboard, uses standard NAND flash memory from numerous manufacturers, together with a PCs hard drive.

Click here to read more about Intels recent foray into flash memory for data storage.

"On startup, you retrieve information from the nonvolatile memory [flash] instead of the hard drive—this is faster—then, during the operation of the PC, write to nonvolatile memory and dont spin the disk and save battery life," said Mike Graf, a manager for mobile platform strategy inside Intels Mobile Platforms Group.

Although Robson will work in any type of PC and with several operating systems, including Windows and Linux, Intel believes its ability to reduce boot times and boost battery life offers the greatest benefits to notebooks. Thus the company is targeting the portable PCs first, Graf said.

Still, Robsons exact arrival in systems is still to be determined, he said.

"We believe the technology is fairly mature. Were going to be talking to the OEMs about whats the right intercept point—the introduction point," Graf said. But, "We havent decided yet."

Next Page: Combining flash memory chips.

Combining Flash Memory Chips

Meanwhile, Samsung has also been working on solid state drives, which combine numerous flash chips. The company believes that its solid state drives could replace traditional hard drives in notebooks.

Last May, Samsung announced plans to offer a line of flash-based drives with up to 16GB of storage capacity, which can fit within the footprints of notebook hard drives.

One of its flash drive lines, which offers up to 8GB of storage capacity, fits into the same space as a 1.8-inch notebook hard drive. Another mirrors the size of a 2.5-inch hard drive and can hold up to 16GB, the company said.

"Initially, we think this will be relatively small application," Barnetson said. "Were not going to be converting 60GB or 80GB [hard] drives to flash any time soon. The price spread is too large."

Instead, he predicted the flash-based drives would show up in small notebooks where less data storage capacity is acceptable and buyers are willing to trade off a higher price for less weight and small size.

Click here to read more about Samsungs plans to boost its output of flash memory and other chips.

Cost will play a huge role for flash, going forward. Storing data "is just cost, cost, cost. Thats all it is. Its nothing else," said Ed Dollar, chief technology officer for Intels Flash Products Group. "I dont think youre going to see nonvolatile memory take out a 60GB hard drive in the short term. Its just not going to happen."

PC makers, which continually weigh the cost of a given feature versus its benefits as seen by their customers, agreed that while switching to flash memory could help slim down their notebooks, it would also drive up costs, due to flashs higher price per megabyte.

Thats why, right now, "For an everyday PC, flash is probably not the answer," said Gary Elsasser, a vice president in charge of product development at Gateway Inc. "Im not sure its going to be impressive enough a change for customers to say, Im willing to spend the money for it. Customers must demand it or else the extra cost wont sustain it in the marketplace. The verdict on that is still out."

Indeed, "The end-user benefit needs to be tangible. If youre adding cost to the systems, you need to make sure youre adding value at the same time," said Mark Cohen, distinguished engineer and director of Think Offering Management at Lenovo Group LTD., maker of the ThinkPad notebook.

"I dont see anything significant happening thats going to change the balance of the way flash and hard drives are used" in the near term, Cohen said.

Even Samsungs Barnetson agreed wide adoption of fully flash-based drives is at least several years in the making, due to the memorys price.

"It takes time to reach the price points that consumers demand," he said. "When flash comes within 50 percent (of hard disk prices), were talking about a compelling" proposition for PCs.

But flash has become more popular in some areas. It has displaced hard drives in some music players, for example. Once limited to low-price players, Apple Computer Inc. used flash in its iPod Nano music player, introduced last September.

The sleek-looking player costs between $199 and $249 and offers either 2GB or 4GB of flash memory for storing music and data.

By using flash memory, Apple was able to make the Nano smaller than its predecessor, the iPod Mini. Although the Nano offers less storage capacity—the Mini offered up to 6GB of hard drive space—customers appear to value its size over its capacity.

Thats something that companies like Samsung are banking on when it comes to spreading flash drives into PCs.

Intels Dollar, for one, said flash has time on its side. The solid state memory can actually take advantage of the rising capacity of hard drives, he argued.

Flash could start to replace miniature hard drives in applications that require relatively small amounts of memory, where it may become difficult to find hard drives below a certain cost point.

Different executives said it was about $40 to about $60. Meanwhile, flash chips continue to increase in capacity thanks to the progress of semiconductor manufacturing.

But where companies might increasingly turn to flash to build a device with 2GB or even 4GB of onboard storage, they are likely to stick to hard drives for larger capacities, such as 10GB, due to cost reasons, Dollar said.

Ever cautious, PC makers may approach incorporating flash even more slowly.

Flash "is something well look at very carefully to understand what the benefits are," Lenovos Cohen said.

"Im never going to say no to anything. Its something were keeping our eye on. But for desktops or notebook applications, I dont see it happening in the short term—the next couple of years plus."

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