Solid-state drives (SSDs) are this year's sudden motion sensor--minus the impact. It's hard to come up with new, sexy features for hard drives, but removing the spinning parts is a good start. Hard disk drives use magnetic platters (usually plural) with read/write heads. These drives are remarkably resilient despite the chance for things to go wrong. Sudden motion sensors, found in many laptop drives, allow drive heads to retract or "park" before an impact to prevent disk crashes.
SSDs have no such problem: there are no moving parts. While they're designed to fit in the same form factors as laptop hard drives--1.8 and 2.5 inches--while using existing interfaces, they're entirely different technology. It's memory wrapped in a compact package designed for heavy use and fast reading and writing.
While SSDs have been kicking around in less hard-drive oriented forms for several years, it was only with the introduction of Apple's MacBook Air with a 64 GB SSD option in January 2008 that they hit a broader awareness. Apple charges US$1000 to swap out the 80 GB hard drive in their base model with a 64 GB SSD (the price jumps from $1800 to $2800). Other computer makers offer even more expensive upgrades.
But when I questioned Apple's laptop product manager back in January about the advantages of an SSD over a conventional spinning drive, he was hard pressed to come up with advantages. In the interim, it's become clear that the current generation drives consumer slightly less power, read but don't write data faster than magnetic drives, and invulnerable to vibration that might destroy a regular hard drive but leave a laptop otherwise untouched. They're also absolutely silent.
Apple was trying to be ahead of the curve, as it often is, but only slightly so. Samsung's announcement in Taipei, Taiwan a few days ago -- see Martyn Williams of IDG News Service's write-up --of a 256 GB SSD due out later this year shows that we're still in the technology's infancy. As density of storage increases, prices per byte plummet, and other physical characteristics tend to improve, too.
Laptop hard drives were once expensive, finicky, and very low capacity relative to desktop drives. But now you can purchase 320 GB drives with all the trimmings for a reasonable price and excellent reliability and performance. A 4,200-rpm laptop drive was once typical; now 5,400 and 7,200 are de rigeur. Battery usage has also improved tremendously.
With 256 GB SSDs coming this year from Samsung and competitors, all of that should accrue to SSDs as well. Samsung's specs for the product put its read/write speeds at 200 MB/s and 160 MB/s, respectively, much faster than most laptop drives (two times the speed of Samsung's 64 GB drive), and it consumes just 0.9 watts, less than half that of efficient laptop drives.
Samsung didn't announce a price; earlier this year, competitor Super Talent said its 256 GB SSD would cost about $6000 at introduction. Some sources are speculating that because Samsung chose a different technology approach, the drive might retail for as little as $1000.