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Flash storage in post-PC devices advances

Size, power consumption and durability helped to make tablets and smartphones possible

By , IDG News Service
December 21, 2010 08:31 AM ET

IDG News Service - Solid-state storage has helped to raise the wave of portable PC alternatives that has hit the market over the past few years, and 2011 is likely to see that technology become more affordable and better performing.

All the major tablets that have been announced or shipped this year use flash chips in place of a spinning hard disk drive (HDD) for storage. All smartphones also use NAND flash, as do many netbooks. Just as these types of devices won't wipe PCs out of the market in the next five years, flash won't displace HDDs in the foreseeable future. But what happens to flash storage affects a growing proportion of the digital tools used for work and play.

A move from spinning disks to flash chips brings benefits in three areas that are key to mobile devices: size, power consumption and durability. It also tends to reduce heat, which makes fans less necessary, and cut down on device startup time. The biggest downside of the technology is cost: A gigabyte of flash storage costs approximately eight times as much as the same amount of space on an HDD, according to Forward Insights analyst Gregory Wong.

That's one reason why Apple's iPad, which can cost as much as some Windows laptops, has a puny built-in storage capacity (in PC terms) ranging from 16GB to 64GB. Samsung's Galaxy Tab Android tablet comes with 16GB or 32GB of storage, with a port for expanding its capacity by another 32GB. The biggest HDDs are now advancing from 2TB to 3TB.

Yet buyers are willing to pay a per-gigabyte premium for these devices, partly because of svelte design, relatively long battery life and freedom from the long startup processes of full-fledged PCs. They also get storage that is less likely to fail if a device is banged or dropped, because it has no moving parts. Another justification may be that these consumers plan to use their new devices as adjuncts to the PC, where their main stores of data still reside.

Though HDDs themselves continue to get cheaper per gigabyte, coming advances in flash storage may help post-PC devices to take more ground from PCs, industry analysts say.

For one thing, flash is getting more dense. Following the same principles that are at work in ever-faster microprocessors, makers of flash chips continue to use tighter manufacturing processes. For example, in early 2010, Micron Technology began commercially shipping flash chips made with a 25-nanometer process, said Glen Hawk, vice president of the company's NAND Solutions Group. Without being more specific, Hawk said Micron expects to ship its next-generation chips about 18 months after the 25-nanometer introduction.

Samsung Semiconductor says it is using a process below 30nm and progressing toward one in the "low twenties," according to Steve Weinger, director of marketing for flash technology. "Things will happen this year," he said.

As with microprocessors, smaller means not just faster but less expensive for a given performance. Currently, Micron's 64GB SSDs (solid-state drives) sell for about US$130, but within about 18 months, prices will probably drop to about $100 for an SSD twice as big, at 128GB, Hawk said.

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