Solid State Disk Will Go Mainstream in 3, 2, 1...

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The Notebook Wars

Currently, SSDs from the likes of Toshiba, Samsung and Micron can be found in notebooks from vendors such as IBM/Lenovo, Apple, HP, Dell and Toshiba. According to Krishna Chander, an analyst at iSuppli Corp., 2008 is an introductory phase, a time for resellers, consumers and suppliers to watch what happens when SSD rubber hits the road. He sees SSD notebooks becoming mainstream in the 2011-2012 time frame. By 2011, he says, SSD will achieve 27% penetration in notebooks, increasing to 35% in 2012.

The two drivers for the SSD boom in notebooks are capacity and price. Currently, average capacities in available notebooks hover at 64GB, but the two largest manufacturers of NAND flash memory are already moving to larger capacities. Toshiba began shipping a $2,999 notebook based on its own 128GB SSD in June and Samsung has promised to ship 128GB SSDs to hardware makers by the third quarter. Samsung has also said it will release a 256GB SSD in 2009.

Meanwhile, Intel has announced a 32-gigabit flash chip, produced via a joint venture with Micron. It will ship in the second half of 2008, and Intel plans to quickly move the chip into solid-state drives in the 80GB to 160GB range, according to Jon Stokes, a senior editor of the Ars Technica Web site.

At the current capacities, mainstream users will be slow to adopt SSD devices this year, Chander says. Things will change when notebooks transition past the 100GB level, though, and by 2011, Chander sees average capacities at 200GB, increasing to 350GB in 2012.

However, for true road warriors who value lightweights and extended battery life, even 32GB capacities are just fine. "Power savings is the key attraction," Chander says, "in addition to the immediate log-on and extended battery life." Since SSDs generally lack moving parts, their response to a computer log-on is almost instantaneous, meaning they go into "read" mode very quickly, Chander explains. Hard disks, on the other hand, have to achieve stable rotation-per-minute speeds before starting to fetch required data. This entails a slight delay in loading the operating system into the processor and memory from the hard disk, he says.

In addition, SSD extends batteries by 15 to 30 minutes, he says, and the drives use less than 1W, vs. 2W for a notebook hard drive, he says. They also resist what's called "drop shock" -- because SSD is not a mechanical technology, the drives can sustain impacts without breaking.

Zsolt Kerekes, publisher of online storage publication, believes that what he calls the "featherweight notebook" market will be a key one for SSDs, especially since SSDs can be more effective at accelerating application performance in notebooks than sticking with hard drives and boosting the speed of the CPU, he says. "The SSD provides desktop application performance in a low-weight, long-battery-life form factor that is impossible to achieve using microprocessor technology, where high speed means high power, fans, etc.," according to an article he wrote on the Web site. "In a well-designed notebook, the designer can use SSD acceleration to give the same overall application performance as would be needed by a traditional notebook design using hard drives and a processor with three to five times higher clock speed."

IDC analyst Jeff Janukowicz agrees that the ripest market in the near term for SSD is in sub-four-pound, sub-$1,000 notebooks like the HP Mini-Note PC (with a 4GB SSD) and the Asus Eee (with up to 40GB SSD). Consumer adoption of the lightweight notebooks will begin later this year, he says.

It Comes at a Price

The price differential is still a big factor for traditional SSD notebook buyers, however, and Janukowicz says it won't be until 2010 that SSD will become more mainstream for higher-end notebooks. Currently, SSDs cost about $3.45 per gigabyte, compared with about $0.38 per gigabyte for hard drives, and they add a minimum of $500 to a notebook's price tag. "When you look at a 160GB notebook that's $400 to $500 cheaper with a hard drive, that's what buyers will think they need rather than a 32GB or 64GB SSD," Chander says.

Chander expects SSD prices to reach 72 cents per gigabyte by 2011, decreasing to 31 cents in 2012. At the same time, of course, hard drive prices will also steadily decrease, and capacities will climb. Still, somewhere in the 2012 to 2015 range, he sees SSD prices dropping low enough that the benefits outweigh the price differential.

Additionally, because hard drives are mechanical devices and not semiconductor-based, they will always have a fixed cost of $40 to $50. So by 2016, Chander sees the two technologies reaching price parity.

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