Samsung releases SSDs in PCIe card form factor

Company pushes standard for smaller SSDs, which could usher new era for netbooks

Samsung Corp. today released a new solid state disk (SSD) drive aimed at netbook makers that is about 80% smaller than typical 2.5-inch laptop drives, a move that should enable even thinner, higher-performing machines.

Like any SATA flash drive, the new Samsung Mini-Card SSD, which has roughly the same dimensions as a PCIe card, can also be incorporated into desk top computers that have dual-SATA drive enclosures, allowing the higher-performing SSD to run applications while a standard hard disk drive (HDD) acts as a mass, internal storage device.

Samsung's new Mini-Card SSD is 1.8 x 2.01-inch in size, and only .15-inch, or 3.75-millimeters, thick. The new drives come in 16GB, 32GB and 64GB capacities.

The SATA mini-card SSD has an average sequential read rate of 200MB/sec. and an average sequential write rate of 100MB/sec., according to Brian Beard, flash marketing manager for Samsung Semiconductor. That compares with a Samsung 2.5-inch Spinpoint HDD that has an maximum sequential data read rate of 138MB/sec.

"The speeds are impressive for a 'netbook SSD' although they are measured in sequential speeds," said Joseph Unsworth, research director for NAND flash semiconductors at Gartner Inc. He added that random read/write rates are more representative of typical computer performance use.

Samsung's new SSD has the same form factor as a mini-PCI Express (PCIe) card, but uses the a SATA 3.0Gb/sec. interface. The size of the drive affords netbook manufacturers with the potential to architect thinner, lighter machines and to use what is sometimes less expensive flash memory as a primary internal storage device.

Samsung said it is pushing to standardize its new SSD form factor and its pin layout specifications at Joint Electron Device Engineering Council (JEDEC). Samsung said it could make the form factor a standard as early as the third quarter of this year.

Unsworth said miniPCIe SSD cards are nothing new: OCZ Technology Inc. and Super Talent Technology Corp., along with several other manufacturers, produce them. What is notable about Samsung's entry into the market is how it may impact an effort to standardize the smaller SSD form factor for netbooks.

"If it is an Open Standard and it has PC [reseller] support, then it will benefit from competition and will help propel the standard," Unsworth said.

Samsung's new netbook-targeted SSDs are available with optional full disk encryption for data protection.

Currently, most netbooks use hard-disk drives because they are less expensive -- at least at higher capacity points, Unsworth said. But SSDs have a clear advantage in size and performance compared to hard-disk drives, which Samsung's new form factor is exploiting.

"You can't say this is going to make netbooks more expensive or cheaper, but you can definitely say this will make netbooks lighter, thinner and higher performing," Beard said.

"The cool thing is the netbook can be optimized around SSD. The netbook may be using an Atom processor [from Intel Corp.], which is slower than a mainstream notebook processor, but with an SSD it may make up some of that performance."

While SSDs are far less expensive to produce than hard disk drives, flash NAND memory prices have hampered adoption of SSDs, particularly at the higher capacity level -- 64GB or more. "Capacities of 64GB [SSDs] are way too expensive compared to 160GB HDD price points," Unsworth said.

But as SSD capacity drops, it becomes far more competitive with hard disks, which have a fixed manufacturing price point.

"You can buy a $50 HDD with 120GB of storage. A 120GB SSD will set you back around $250-plus. You can buy $30 worth of flash, though -- as long as 16GB is enough for your needs," said Jim Handy, an analyst with Objective Analysis Inc.

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Lucas Mearian

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