Consumer electronics driving hard disk innovation

The increasing use of hard disk drives in consumer electronics products is beginning to play an important role in development and support of new drive technology. Smaller and quieter drives are being demanded and the consumer market may also help increase demand for drives based on new technologies such as Serial ATA and help push research into new recording methods, an executive of a leading drive manufacturer said.

"In the past the hard drive in the home has been located in the PC but today we see the hard drive expanding to become useful in many more areas in the home," Seagate Technology's director of global consumer electronics marketing, Rob Pait, said.

"The single place we find the most action around product development and sales is in the TV space," he said.

Once the exclusive domain of the analog VHS tape format, personal video recorders (PVRs) based around hard disk drives are making inroads into living rooms alongside other hard drive-based devices such as Microsoft's Xbox games console and various audio jukebox or MP3 player products.

Shipments of hard drives for consumer electronics products totalled 5.8 million units in 2002, according to Thomas M. Coughlin, president of storage market analysis company Coughlin Associates.

Coughlin expected the market to hit 18.2 million units this year and expand to 84.4 million by 2008 with personal video recorders accounting for almost half the market.

At that level consumer electronics drives would account for around 20 per cent of the entire drive market in 2008, according to projections.

While the capacities of drives used in consumer electronics products may be similar to those found in personal computers, typically ranging from 40GB to 160GB, there were several requirements that demand companies such as Seagate develop new drive technologies, Pait said.

"Right after the first PVR, we had more of a focus on acoustics," he said. "With the advent of WebTV we began to pay attention to what happens when a device like a hard drive is in the den or bedroom."

If it is constantly recording, the last thing consumers want is to be kept awake by hard drive noise, he said.

The drives also have to be optimised to work best with video streaming rather than the random access that is typical with a computer. That means turning down the amount of error checking the drive does because a constant stream of video data is more important than a perfect bit-for-bit flow.

Consumer drives which deal with long sequential files usually had slower rotation speeds than PC drives, Pait said.

"If you put [consumer hard drives] in a PC you might be disappointed with their performance," he said. "In the consumer electronics market space too much error checking can be harmful to the system. In a video streaming application you are looking for a smooth stream going from the hard drive through the system to the television. If the drive spends too much time looking for errors then it can interrupt this process and cause a blank screen on the TV."

Until recently, this lower error correction has been accomplished by a number of proprietary methods but the industry recently agreed on a standard way to do this, called T13, which is included in the latest version of the ATA specifications.

While reduced error checking technology is of little use to PC or enterprise storage users - an imperfect flow of data can cause programs to crash or applications to misbehave - demands of users to store more data or high-definition video could help push up demand for drives based on new technologies and that could lead to lower prices for all users.

An application such as high-definition television, already available commercially in the U.S. and Japan, involves a much faster data stream than conventional television and Pait said that could help drive set-top box makers to adopt Serial ATA interface drives in products.

The need to store more data is also spurring research and development.

Seagate was looking into several future technologies including perpendicular recording, where the magnetic bits were stood upright rather than laid flat to reduce the amount of space they took up on the disk surface and thus enable more bits to be crammed on the disk, Pait said.

The company is also looking at a technology in which a laser beam is used to warm up magnetic bits just before they are written to so that they become more stable and hold data more reliably.

Consumer electronics customers were also demanding smaller drives in capacities of 2.5 inches and smaller, he said.

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Martyn Williams

IDG News Service
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