Flash Memory: Today the iPod, Tomorrow the World?

Innovations 2006 Analysis: Is Flash memory taking over the world? It's not likely to in 2006 or even 2007. But it will begin showing up in PCs much more often in the near future, thanks to work by Intel, Microso

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.

/zimages/3/28571.gifClick 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.

/zimages/3/28571.gifClick 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.