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An OCZ solid-state drive. (OCZ/OCZ)
An OCZ solid-state drive. (OCZ/OCZ)

DATA STORAGE

Memory's next big leap: solid-state drives Add to ...

When people think of disk drives, it's only natural that the traditional spinning platters come to mind. These mechanical beasts, often with huge capacities, grace most of today's computers.

These drives are still great for storing large amounts of data, but they can be rather pokey when it comes to system startup and loading programs. And they produce a lot of heat.

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In the quest for faster startup and data access, someone must have wondered why they couldn't store everything in random access memory (RAM). RAM is fast, and uses little power. Mind you, it did have one tiny problem - when you turned off the power, the data disappeared. But now there's a kind that doesn't lose its data when the power shuts down.

It's known as non-volatile memory, and it's found in modern solid-state drives (SSDs), which use memory instead of spinning disks to store data. They have no platters and no motors, just banks of chips.

SSDs appear to your applications as ordinary disk drives. They plug into the same kind of interface as a regular hard drive, and newer operating systems such as Windows 7, later versions of Mac OS X (the best support is in Lion) and some Linux systems support them natively.

Because there are no mechanical limitations, SSDs are many times faster than standard hard drives. They also use considerably less power, and generate little heat, making them suitable for everything from servers to smart phones. That's why the research firm Gartner anticipates the solid-state drive market will quadruple in size over the next few years, growing to $4.2-billion in 2015 from about $1-billion (U.S.) in 2010. Unit growth is predicted to reach 9.4 million units shipped in 2015, from 1.3 million units in 2010.

As with any technology, SSDs do have their gotchas. They're expensive - an 80-gigabyte drive costs about $200, while a mechanical drive of the same size goes for about $50. A 250-gigabyte model can set you back about $650. When you consider that a terabyte of spinning disk can be had for less than $100, large SSDs become attractive only in specialized circumstances.

One place where these drives can be invaluable is in mobile devices. When every gram counts, solid-state components save weight, both in the drive itself and in the heft of the battery required to support it. And, because there are no moving parts, SSDs can withstand more jostling.

However, all solid-state drives are not created equal. Users have reported everything from performance degradation to outright death. For example, Corsair, to its credit, recently issued a recall of its new 120-gigabyte units to address substandard performance.

As with any new technology, there will be hiccups, both in the hardware and supporting software. SSDs have improved immensely over the past couple of years; they're much more robust and reliable, and they will only get better, but it still behooves the potential buyer to do some homework first.

Today, an SSD is best used to house an operating system and application software. Large volumes of data can still live on a spinning drive, and you get the best of both worlds: fast startup and software loading combined with economical storage for data.

Recently, another choice has re-emerged: the hybrid drive. First seen five years ago, hybrids combine a spinning disk with a small built-in SSD. Software determines which files are accessed most frequently and stashes them on the SSD, where they can be accessed quickly. Originally driven by the slowness of Windows Vista, and supported by the now apparently defunct industry organization the Hybrid Storage Alliance, their first incarnation wasn't quite up to scratch, and they faded away quickly.

However, thanks to improved technology, they are returning. The market research company Objective Analysis has forecast the hybrid HDD market will grow to 600 million units by 2016, with $34-billion in revenue. Drive manufacturer Seagate predicts that 80 per cent of its shipments will be hybrid drives in five years, and the company has already released a successful second-generation hybrid.

In another decade or so, users may regard mechanical hard disks in the same way that young people now look at the typewriter: "How primitive!"

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