Flash memory to speed up hard drives

No more long waits for your PC to wake up. Longer laptop battery life. Data that survives a drop. These are the promises of solid-state-memory disks (SSDs), which use flash memory to supplement or replace today's hard drives.

Samsung is working on two types of products: pure SSDs and hybrid drives that combine traditional hard disks and flash memory. Pure SSDs give you all the benefits listed above but cost a lot more than today's drives. Hybrids will offer extended battery life and faster boot-ups, but should have only a small price premium (if any).

Gigabyte takes another approach: a PCI card with RAM that your system can use as a drive. The card should offer faster data access, plus energy savings, but it needs constant power to store your files.

Flash drives

Enterprises already use SSDs; such drives cost thousands of dollars per gigabyte. But flash has grown more affordable, making mainstream use viable. "More affordable" is relative, of course: Flash's cost per gigabyte is still over 50 times that of a hard disk.

This premium buys a drive that doesn't rely on power-hungry spinning platters with mobile read/write heads perched near data surfaces. The end result is longer laptop battery life -- over 30 minutes longer, vendors estimate -- and lower energy bills when you're plugged in, plus more protection for your data when your system endures rough handling. Another perk: If you now wait seemingly endless seconds for your PC to reboot, an SSD may save several seconds each time.

Samsung's drives, which should be shipping before you read this, will include 1.8-inch and 2.5-inch versions in capacities ranging from 2GB to 16GB, with an additional 2.5-inch 32GB model (their prices are not yet set). The SSDs will replace traditional drives first in subnotebooks and tablets.

Mixed storage

Microsoft and Samsung's planned hybrid drive should provide better battery life and shorter wake-up times, with negligible additional costs. Whenever your laptop idles or goes to sleep, you can save apps and files to the hybrid's 64MB or 128MB of fast flash memory instead of to the conventional portion of the drive. The data stored in flash will be available almost instantly, saving time at wake-up and boot-up.

The flash part of a hybrid drive will also function as a sort of supercache that's large enough to let you work using only the data stored there. That not only grants you a bit more speed, it allows both the mechanical part of the drive and normal cache memory to power down for long periods -- with a resulting drop in battery use.

To use the supercache, your PC's operating system must support the technology. Microsoft plans to include that support in the next Windows OS, which is due out next year.

RAM drive

You don't need flash memory to gain SSD-like benefits. Gigabyte's US$50 IRAM PCI card uses up to 4GB of DDR RAM to create storage that looks like a normal hard drive to your PC. Coming this summer, the IRAM can improve your PC's performance, save power, and reduce the wear on your hard drives. A rechargeable battery can preserve data for about half a day during a power outage, but don't permanently store vital data on the card.

Hybrid drives or Gigabyte's card should offer a good balance between price and performance. But until costs drop further, many users may find that the extra data security and power savings aren't worth the steep costs of pure SSDs.

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Jon L. Jacobi

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