Bye-bye hard drive, hello flash

Hard drives take up a lot of room and eat a lot of battery power. Flash memory could soon offer an alternative for notebooks.

The world as notebook users know it is about to change in a flash.

Manufacturers of NAND flash memory say they will expand the market for their chips over the next few years and colonize devices that now rely on hard drives or other types of memory. In turn, this could mean phones that can record several hours of video, or smaller notebooks with twice or more the battery life.

The NAND noise will be particularly strong at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) this week in Las Vegas, with manufacturers showing off the solid-state technology as an increasingly important component in cell phones and talking up how it will find its way into notebook hard drives in 2006.


What's new:
Flash memory is on track for an ever larger role in gear like cell phones and notebook computers.

Bottom line:
Hard drives may have a cost advantage as a way to store data, but they're bulky, take longer to start up and use more energy. Plus, flash prices are dropping.

More stories on flash memory

By about the turn of the decade, NAND could even replace hard drives entirely in some mini notebooks because of the increasing amount of data the chips can hold, according to Steve Appleton, CEO of Micron Technology, one of the world's largest memory makers. Flash also takes up less space and uses less energy.

"The average notebook has 30GB (of hard drive storage). How long is it before the notebook has solid state memory? Five or six years," he said. "I'm not saying drives will go away. There will always be a need for storage, but when was the last time you tapped out a drive?"

Jim Handy, an analyst at Semico Research, says NAND won't replace notebook hard drives as long as Microsoft keeps expanding the number of storage-heavy features in its software, but it will become standard in video cameras, displacing tape, recordable DVDs and mini drives. Flash-based cameras, already a staple in Japan, are smaller, and the cost premium associated with the chips can be hidden in a $500 camera.

"Video is not a hard-drive area. I expect it will go with flash," Handy said.

NAND flash will also begin to appear in car navigation systems and play a role in large data storage systems at corporations and government agencies in the relatively near future, said Jon Kang, senior vice president of Samsung Electronics' technical marketing group. Kang's enthusiasm is understandable: Samsung is the world's largest maker of NAND in terms of bits shipped.

"It is really creating a boon in consumer applications," he said.

As with many other technologies before it, costs are coming down as capacities are heading up.

The NAND evolution fits the pattern established in Moore's Law, which states that the number of transistors on a given chip will double every two years. Doubling the number of transistors on a memory chip allows manufacturers to put more memory cells on it.


Actually, the technology is moving a little faster than Moore's Law. A few years ago, NAND got produced on trailing-edge manufacturing lines. Now manufacturers are putting it on their cutting-edge processes. The shift has thus accelerated product development.

Currently, NAND chips double in memory density every year. The cutting-edge 4-gigabit chips of 2005, for example, will soon be dethroned by 8-gigabit chips. (Memory chips are measured in gigabits, or Gb, but consumer electronics manufacturers talk about how many gigabytes, or GB, are in their products. Eight gigabits make a gigabyte, so one 8Gb chip is the equivalent of 1GB.)

Another driving factor in the uptake of the technology is cost: NAND drops in price about 35 to 45 percent a year, due in part--again--to Moore's Law and in part to the fact that many companies are bringing on new factories. 1GB of flash costs a consumer electronics manufacturer about $45, said Handy. That will drop to $30 in next year, $20 in 2008 and $9 by 2009.

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