SAN JOSE, Calif.—Falling flash prices are currently threatening Hitachi Global Storage Technologies Microdrive, and the company will need to hustle out a higher-capacity model to keep it in the market, an analyst warned attendees in a presentation at this weeks DiskCON show here.
“I said to myself, I can buy a 1GB CompactFlash card for $209.99 when a (1GB) Microdrive sells for $239—why should I buy a Microdrive? ” said IDC analyst Dave Reinsel at DiskCON, the annual trade show for the disk-drive industry.
These small drives are currently most prevalent in the digital photography market. However, analysts at the conference predicted that they will make new inroads in enterprise and consumer applications, such as digital-video security monitoring; automotive computing applications; and familiar business products, such as printers.
In the late summer, prices for 1GB CompactFlash cards dropped to a new low point, underselling the 1GB Microdrive. San Jose, Calif.-based Hitachi has announced 2GB and 4GB versions of the 1-inch magnetic disk drive, but they arent expected to arrive on store shelves until at least November.
Flash-memory and rotating-disk storage have rarely competed in the marketplace, even in notebook PCs. But the depth and breadth of mobile devices has allowed flash memory to challenge the areal density increases achieved by disk storage companies such as Hitachi as well as Seagate Technology and Komag Corp.
Digital camera suppliers typically bundle small flash cards with their cameras, leaving it to the consumer to purchase an additional card that can store a large number of high-resolution photos. When the 1GB Microdrive was introduced in late 2000, its creator, IBM, said that the drive would offer far more storage than the competing flash cards of the time. IBM later transferred the Microdrive to Hitachi as part of a merger of assets that will see IBM essentially exit the disk storage business over the next three years. The merger was announced in June 2002 and officially completed earlier this year.
Today, however, the Microdrives advantages have narrowed, hiding themselves on spec sheets. When a customer visits Dell Inc.s Web site to purchase a storage upgrade for a digital camera, he can choose either a 1GB SanDisk CompactFlash card for $224.96 or a 1GB MicroDrive for $341.96. Only if the customer digs further will he find that the Microdrive transmits data at about 13.3MB per second, while the CompactFlash cards data transfer rate is less than 2.8MB per second.
Meanwhile, SanDisk announced its UltraII CompactFlash card at the end of August, which boasts a write speed of 9MB per second and a read speed of 10MB per second. A 1GB card will cost about $429.99, and will be available at the end of September, according to SanDisk.
“If you look at a given application, some portable devices like digital cameras … didnt have enough capacity,” said John Best, Hitachi Global Storage chief technologist, in an interview. “A Microdrive offered the cheapest solution to store a few hundred pictures.”
But with flash prices dropping, a higher-capacity Microdrive will appeal primarily to customers who can take full advantage of its storage capabilities—say, with a large number of high-resolution images. “Its a moving target,” Best acknowledged.
Next page: Will new Microdrives arrive in time?
Hitachis Race for Higher
Hitachi is under pressure to ship its 2GB and 4GB Microdrive models on time. Hitachis 4GB model is due to hit store shelves this November at a price of $499; the company has not released a price or delivery date for its 2GB model. Flash vendors, meanwhile, have begun shipping samples of their own 2GB and 4GB flash cards; SanDisks 2GB and 4GB models are priced at about $499 and $999, respectively. However, SanDisks 2GB and 4GB offerings were scheduled to ship in the summer, and have now been delayed until December, a spokesman said.
SanDisks cards are designed for a thinner Type I form factor, while the Microdrive requires a Type II slot. In addition, the Microdrive requires the use of a FAT32-compliant camera; there are about 13 cameras already on the market that use the FAT32 file system, according to the enthusiast journal Digital Photography Review.
The pressure from flash capacity means that the timing is right to announce higher-capacity drives, John Osterhout, business manager for Microdrive products at Hitachi Global Storage Technologies, told an audience at DiskCON. Every drive will use a single disk platter, to minimize cost, Osterhout added. The drives will continue to be developed with as many common components as possible between IBMs 3.5-inch, 2.5-inch, and 1.8-inch drive families, Best said.
By necessity, the Microdrive also consumes more power to rotate the disk than flash memory. According to Hitachi, the 2GB and 4GB Microdrives will require 305 milliamps to write data, compared to the less than 35 milliamps needed to write to a CompactFlash card.
“Youve already got enough components on a digital camera that consumer power: the display, the microprocessor, the CCD,” said Mike Wong, a spokesman for SanDisk. “You dont want to add another.”
“We do not view [the Microdrive] as a competitive threat at all,” Wong added. “It used to be that there were a couple things going for the Microdrive: capacity, then price, and access time and read speed. Flash memory pretty much addressed all of those issues… Dont get me wrong; the Microdrive is an incredible piece of technology, but it does have the problems of a rotating device: high power consumption—theres a lot of power needed for a physically rotating thing—as well as ongoing issues with durability and moving parts. Theres no real comparison with just a piece of silicon.” Two other factors will affect the race between the Microdrive and flash memory, IDC analyst Reinsel said: video, and operating shock. As both camps push capacity higher and higher, digital still image cameras may provide a more robust capability to record video—a dead heat between both technologies, he said.
“Each geography chooses to use peripherals in their own way,” Reinsel said. “Honestly, in the U.S. I dont think it will that matter all that much. People in the U.S. havent integrated cell phones that much into their lives. … Overseas, however, peoples commutes are two hours long, and they want to do other stuff with their lives rather than sit and look at each other.”
But the Microdrive suffers the same vulnerability to non-operating shock that traditional drives do, meaning that the any product that can withstand being dropped, such as a cell phone, will almost certainly favor flash, he said.
“Drop your cell, break your hard drive?” Reinsel asked. “Uh-uh. I dont think so.”