Cornices Tiny Hard Drive

Cornice doesn't call it a hard drive, but their tiny "storage element" refines spinning platter technology to the nth degree. Extreme Tech reviewers take a look at the technology and what it means for consumers.

Imagine a spinning glass platter overlaid with an ultra-thin magnetic film. Then imagine a magnetic head flying above the platter, based on GMR (giant magnetoresistive) head technology originally developed for desktop and server hard drives. As that little mental picture develops, it sounds suspiciously like were talking about a hard drive.

In reality, Cornice -- a startup formed by former Maxtor engineering VP Kevin Magenis -- doesnt call their tiny storage device a "hard drive." Theyve dubbed their new product a "storage element." Its likely the company believes that "hard drive" is often associated with reliability issues. The Cornice device is specifically designed as a compact storage subsystem for portable consumer electronics hardware.

The first products on the market supporting the Cornice technology are digital music players, including the Rio Nitrus, Creative Labs MuVo2, and the iRiver IGP-100 (one of the few players to natively support the open-source Ogg Vorbis audio compression standard).

Other products built around the Cornice drive include the Samsung ITCAM-9 (an MPEG-4-based miniature camcorder) and the MPIO HS100 1.5GB USB portable drive from Korean manufacturer Digitalway.

As we hinted at in our introduction, Cornices storage element is fundamentally based on hard drive technology. The device utilizes longitudinal magnetic recording using GMR heads, thin film, glass discs, and PRML read channels, much like current generation desktop hard drives.

Cornice specs the minimum read/write transfer rate at 4MB/sec, which is good enough for audio and even compressed video use. The tiny drive has two key attributes that make it useful to its target market: low power usage and ruggedness. Spin-up, for example, takes 207ma, roughly 1/10th that of a typical 2.5" notebook hard drive. Although idle current is a scant 30ma, the drive simply shuts down most of the time, spinning up only when the application demands it. Additionally, the storage element has no buffer, unlike traditional hard drives. This means that hardware that uses a Cornice storage element must implement its own buffering if its required.

The drive connects directly to the host via a proprietary, 20-pin parallel bus. Cornice is reluctant to release the areal density or spin rate of the drive, but 1.5GB in a 1-inch diameter platter is fairly high density, if not on the bleeding edge. Since ruggedness is another key parameter, the design shouldnt be overly aggressive in its areal density spec. Given that competing 2GB-and-up devices spec 30 gigabits per square inch, the Cornice drive probably comes in at a bit less than that.

Other companies have tried to ship one-inch hard drives, most notably MarQlin Corp and the GS Magicstor. MarQlin has yet to actually produce anything yet but Magicstor has been shipping 2.2GB and 2.4GB compact flash type II cards. Another similar product, Hitachis (formerly IBM Storage) Microdrive, is also available in a compact flash format.

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