Hard drives ramp up in 1999

Hard drive capacities are likely to double or triple in the coming year, while the size of drives remains stable and performance improves somewhat, according to analysts and desktop PC vendors.

Also coming: self-diagnosing "smart" drives that warn you of a possible impending crash.

Hard drive experts often talk of a "sweet spot," the drive capacity where dollars-per-megabyte and supply converge to create the most popular configuration. "In 1998, the sweet spot was around 4GB," says Robert Katzive, an US-based analyst at Disk Trend. "In the next year, it should be somewhere in the 5GB to 10GB range," Katzive says, with 6GB or 8GB the most likely capacity.

Kevin Knox, research analyst at GartnerGroup, concurs. "We're going to see 4.6GB be a minimum for around six months or so. Then we'll move quickly to 6.4GB."

30GB -- for the year 2000

The top size of the most expensive desktop drives could easily be nearly two times the 16.8GB that IBM reached in early 1998 with its DeskStar 16GP drive. "We're looking at a 30GB drive by the time the year 2000 rolls around," predicts Martin Reynolds, another GartnerGroup analyst.

IBM, among the leaders in drive capacity, expects to begin selling its new 25GB DeskStar 25GP in the first half of 1999, says David Walling, manager of strategy and support at IBM's Storage Systems division. "We see continued growth for the desktop," Walling predicts.

Notebook drives, which must be smaller than desktop drives and typically have fewer drive platters, will still show healthy capacity increases, says Bob Moore, senior product marketing manager for portables at Gateway. "8GB is the biggest you can get right now," says Moore, but he says drive vendors will offer 10GB and 14GB notebook drives in 1999.

Fast, Faster, Fastest

Hard drive performance has continued to improve in recent years, though seek times have stabilised at around 9 milliseconds due to physical limitations, Walling says. This year the big performance jump will come in the rotational speed of hard drives; currently, 5,400 revolutions per minute (rpm) is typical for desktop PCs. "There'll be a trend toward 7,200 rpm by the end of 1999," predicts John Mason, US director of product marketing at Compaq.

Faster rotation translates into less time loading programs, but it will offer the biggest boost to applications such as word processors and spreadsheets that frequently access multiple files on the hard drive, says IBM's Walling. Software that tends to load a single large file, such as movies and graphic images, will benefit far less.

Also likely in 1999: drives that use predictive failure analysis to warn you of hardware problems that could hasten a crash. Walling says IBM has used the technology for its own diagnoses since 1991, and several years ago a vendor consortium called SMART developed uniform standards for reporting disk failures. While some such products have shipped, such diagnostic help hasn't been widely promoted to consumers -- but Moore says some new drives might come with software for viewing the information.

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