iPad Points Toward an SSD Future

Tech Analysis: As eWEEK Labs Senior Analyst P. J. Connolly wraps up an evaluation of the iPad and prices some solid-state drives, the end of the road for conventional hard disks looms on the horizon.

I've worked with portable computers since the TRS-80 was the state of the art, but the iPad is the first portable that made me feel like I had the future in my hands.

I really enjoyed taking an iPad for a spin, if three weeks and counting can be called that. I almost don't want to return it to Apple; it's a lot harder to misplace than a mobile phone, and it's far less awkward than a notebook computer. I can do work on the iPad that would be impossible on a phone, even one with a QWERTY keyboard. For me, this is simple device lust.

That's because most laptops, netbooks and notebooks allow you to take the desktop environment wherever you need to, but they bring desktop-style constraints with them. Even traditional tablet PCs (remember those?) are just a little too awkward to use while standing. The iPad, on the other hand, is light enough that you can use it one-handed, as if it were a mobile phone.

Unless you're headed to Yankee Stadium, that is. It seems that New York's American League club classifies the iPad as being too much like a notebook computer to be allowed inside the ballpark. I haven't learned the reasoning behind this decision, but it's possible that the iPad could be used as a weapon, and as one man in Denver found out, it's definitely a target for thieves.

This ban gives me another excuse to stay out of Yankee Stadium-not that I need more reasons to avoid the Bronx, being a fourth-generation Detroit Tigers fan. I take that rivalry seriously: If anyone asks me how open-minded I can be, I point out with a straight face that some of my best friends root for the Yankees.

But I side with the Yankees' management on one point, which is that the iPad is more like a notebook computer than a mobile phone. If anything, slate-type devices are the future of portable computing, though they still need some work. (For example, I wanted to use the iPad to write this column from a park bench, but the skies were clear and I've learned the hard way that the iPad hates direct sun.)

Longer battery life and touch-screen technology aren't responsible for opening up this range of possibilities; it's the solid-state hard drive, or SSD. No ifs, ands or buts about it, when flash memory went from being a place to park bootstrap code to a practical replacement for the hard disk, everything changed.

I agree with my eWEEK colleague Wayne Rash that cost is the main obstacle to general adoption of SSDs. But I wonder how long that will last.

It's true that mechanical hard drives are currently the best value for money. According to my local source for computer parts, a 160GB SSD costs about 10 times as much as a conventional hard drive of the same capacity. But that's today, and the cash difference is only about $400. Does anyone believe that this gap can't be closed dramatically in five years?

Look at what happened during the recent television wars. In 2002, conventional CRT units were still widely available; today, you can barely give them away. It's hardly far-fetched to say the conventional hard disk is likely to go the way of the CRT before 2020.

I know that the next portable I purchase is going to have an SSD instead of rotating brown matter, but I have a couple of years to decide whether that machine will be a notebook or a slate. Fortunately, that choice can wait for the future.