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Alternative Memory for Laptop Users

Road warriors need computer memory to commute between branch offices, meet clients, and telecommute. You've hear about thumb drives, CDs, and floppy disks, but what about solid-state hard drives?
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Integrated flash memory has long been found in portable devices, be it cell phones, personal digital assistants, media players and USB thumb-drives. But you just might find flash storing all your programs and files in your next laptop.

In fact, computer manufacturers including the likes of Dell, Sony, Fujitsu, Toshiba, and Samsung have already began shipping mobile PCs with up to 32-gigabytes of built-in NAND flash memory. NAND, one of two types of flash memory, refers to higher capacity storage and faster read/write speeds, over the other type of flash memory, the older NOR architecture.

Unlike magnetic rotating hard-disk drives used in most laptops today, computers with “solid state drives” (SSDs) such as those with NAND flash memory, use less power and are faster, too.

“Because of the lack of moving parts, ostensibly the benefits they offer are long battery life and they operate faster, too,” explains Michael Gartenberg, vice president and research director at Jupiter Research, a New York City-based technology advisory firm.

“Think of solid state drives as the memory in your iPod nano, but with larger capacity, which is required to run your computer,” adds Gartenberg.

Solid state more durable, quicker

James Slattery, product marketing manager for the Flash Products Group at Intel Corporation, says solid state drives are also more resistant to damage. “In the mobile-client market, SSDs offer high durability with increased performance," Slattery says. "That coupled with lower energy consumption makes this a very interesting proposition.”

Other benefits of computers with SSDs as opposed to more traditional memory, such as hard disk drives (HDDs) include the following:

  • faster boot-up times,
  • quieter performance,
  • and more light-weight computers. 

With all of these advantages over hard disk drives, why aren’t we all using laptops with SSDs?

The answer boils down to two “C” words: cost and capacity.

Ultra mobile machines still more expensive

SSD-based laptops and smaller “ultra-mobile” PCs (UMPCs) are still considerably more expensive than computers with comparable HDDs. While prices are dropping, price for SSDs are roughly $6 to $7 per gigabyte, compared to about $0.20 for traditional HDDs.

“Solid state laptops might not be ideal yet for the small-to-midsized space, where companies are sensitive to price,” explains Gartenberg. “There’s also a trade-off with capacity, so most small businesses looking for the most bang for their buck are better off with traditional [hard disk] drives.”

After all, many entry-level laptops today include 120GB of hard disk space, while SSDs -- commercially -- are currently maxed out at 32GB. (Santa Ana, Calif.-based SimpleTech has announced a 64GB SSD and a 256GB enterprise-level drive.)

For business users who store large collections of music, photos, and/or videos on their computers, a 30-odd gigabyte drive is simply not enough space, Gartenberg adds. While these SSD machines are a little bit faster than HDDs, the speed difference is not significantly greater. In addition, says Gartenberg, "While they may be more energy efficient, it comes at a steep price.”

Intel’s Slattery highlights another potential problem. “A con of SSD in this market is based on the inherent wear-out of the flash in excessive write environments.”

Slattery believes SSDs and HDDs will exist together for some time as computer manufacturers wait for prices of SSDs to drop, capacity to improve and kinks to be worked out of the technology.




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