Smartphones moving to fancier flash drives

Better flash memory for smartphones will be comparable to the solid-state drives found in laptops today, according to Micron Technology.

Memory chip makers will offer more sophisticated flash drives for smartphones--technology that will be comparable to the solid-state drives found in laptops today.

The Palm Pre comes with an 8GB flash memory drive: flash drive makers like Micron Technology will market more sophisticated flash drives for future phones.
The Palm Pre comes with an 8GB flash memory drive: flash drive makers like Micron Technology will market more sophisticated flash drives for future phones. Palm

Today's flash drives, which typically range up to 32GB in capacity in products like Apple's iPhone, often use relatively unsophisticated techniques for reading and writing data. In general, the technology is not very different from that used in basic cell phones or digital cameras, according to Brian Shirley, vice president of Micron's memory group.

But as smartphones--and possible future tablet devices--become more like personal computing devices and less like basic MP3 players, memory chip makers will begin offering more sophisticated flash memory, said Shirley, in a phone interview.

"In nearly all MP3 players today it's almost exclusively 'raw' NAND. And at some point we anticipate moving more to a managed NAND," Shirley said. NAND is the type of flash memory chip used in all flash cards and solid-state drives.

Managed NAND falls somewhere between very basic flash drives--such as Secure Digital, or SD, cards--and pricey solid-state drives (SSDs) used in laptops and servers. "It's something in between the raw NAND that we've been talking about for cell phones and MP3 players and the full-blown SSD space," Shirley said.

"We believe this will be fairly busy (market) space in 2010," he added.

Solid-state drives used in laptops like the Apple MacBook Air and Dell Adamo get their performance from highly-developed, sophisticated controller chips and firmware, which manage how the data is read and recorded. Though managed NAND wouldn't necessarily reach this level of sophistication, it would begin to approach it.

The iPhone uses raw NAND with a separate controller, according to Gregory Wong, founder and principal analyst at Forward Insights, which does research on flash memory technology.

"They like to have control over the flash and the controller so they can boost performance," he said. "They're very cognizant of differentiating their products. The user experience is what is important to them. Whether it means you can download your music or video very quickly, whether it means you can find the data very quickly--that ties in to how they manage the NAND," he said.

But even Apple is looking for better performance as it looks to continue its very successful strategy of making its products different, according to Wong.

And future Netbooks may also use this kind of flash memory. Netbooks today using Intel Atom processors and the Windows operating system use, almost exclusively, hard disk drives. But a new category of Netbooks dubbed smartbooks--devices that are always on, always connected, and boast all-day battery life--are expected to come to market in 2010 packing flash drives. These small laptops may be candidates for managed NAND.

About the author

Brooke Crothers writes about mobile computer systems, including laptops, tablets, smartphones: how they define the computing experience and the hardware that makes them tick. He has served as an editor at large at CNET News and a contributing reporter to The New York Times' Bits and Technology sections. His interest in things small began when living in Tokyo in a very small apartment for a very long time.

 

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