You can walk into your local computer dealer and buy an EIDE hard drive with up to 28GB of storage. That may seem large, but hard drive makers are working hard to make it look puny.
Last week, Seagate Technology announced a breakthrough in packing data: It jammed 105,000 concentric tracks of data onto 1in of a hard drive platter.
That's about eight times the density of today's hard drives. To picture just how tiny those tracks are, imagine trying to write 420 rows of text on the edge of a standard sheet of paper.
But don't expect to see hard drives based on this technology at your local dealer soon. Seagate's storage feat remains in the lab for now, and a spokesperson says it will be two to four years before such products are ready for your PC.
Seagate uses Optically Assisted Winchester technology, which combines conventional magnetic read/write heads and a low-intensity laser beam. The beam travels through optical fibre to the read/write head, where it's reflected onto the disk surface by a tiny micromachined mirror. This laser technology provides the ability for precision placement of the head.
And instead of the conventional all-metal disk platter used in current hard drives, Seagate's technology uses plastic platters coated with an extremely thin layer of transition-metal alloy.
OAW technology allows disk platters to hold up to 36GB, and since drives usually have two to six platters, capacities of up to 216GB are possible. But you won't necessarily find drives that large available from the start. Seagate spokesperson Tyson Heyn says what ships will depend on what applications require at the time.
Duelling drive densities
Meanwhile, other major developers of hard drive technologies aren't exactly planning to eat Seagate's dust.
IBM is pushing the limits of its current Giant Magnetoresistive Head technology, used in many of the company's high-capacity hard drives. (It has demonstrated densities approaching OAW's in the lab, as has Fujitsu)And Big Blue is working on some truly exotic storage technologies.
Holographic storage uses a laser beam to store data in a crystal-lattice structure the size of a sugar cube. In a recent test, IBM crammed the equivalent of about 10,000 pages of text into a cube, and forecasts much larger capacities.
Further out, IBM's Atomic Force Microscopy uses technology similar to an electron microscope. Theoretically, it could read and write data at densities of up to 300 Gbits per inch. If this technology ever comes to market -- which is far from certain -- it could result in hard drives packing more than 100 times the capacity of today's crop.