Solid-state drives: No rush to widespread success

Momentum is building, but the up-and-coming storage technology will have to wait a little longer still for its big breakthrough.

Will 2009 be the year that solid-state drives take off? Maybe not. The speedy drives are catching on, but wider acceptance will take time--and the bad economy isn't helping.

Costs are still high for these drives, which typically outdo--and in some cases blow away--hard disks in performance. "2010-2011...that's when we think the price points for the SSD market get attractive enough to really drive stronger growth," Sanjay Mehrotra, president and chief operating officer of SanDisk, said this week during SanDisk's third-quarter earnings conference call.

Samsung is the leading supplier of solid-state drives.
Samsung is the leading supplier of solid-state drives. Samsung

Indeed, there is still a wide price gap between hard-disk drives and solid-state drives. The difference, for example, between a 120GB hard-disk drive and 128GB solid-state drive--essentially the same capacity--on the new Apple MacBooks is $500. That's a deal-breaker for a lot of consumers. (On a Dell XPS M1530 notebook, the difference in price between a 250GB 5400rpm hard disk drive and a "Ultra Performance" 128GB solid-state drive is also $500.)

"On the mainstream notebook side we agree with SanDisk that the price points are too high and the added benefits received by customers from SSDs are just not worth the added expense," said Avi Cohen, managing partner at Avian Securities. "We expect the transition in notebooks to take a long time and will probably require Microsoft to change the OS in order to jumpstart this transition," Cohen said, citing the need for Microsoft to make Windows Vista and Windows 7 more SSD-friendly.

Eli Harari, chairman and CEO of SanDisk, believes that solid-state drives will have to wait a little longer yet for their breakthrough.

"It's still a very young market, and 2009 is not the year that it really takes off," he said during SanDisk's earnings call. In addition, solid-state drive demand will not be enough to siphon off the flash memory oversupply that is plaguing the flash memory industry, he said. "I don't believe...that 2009 inventory overhang is going to be solved through solid-state disks."

Nor does Intel--which just started shipping its first high-capacity solid-state drives this fall--see the market really taking off for a couple of years in laptops.

"I believe within in two years when the economies of scale come into play and the prices hit the right point, it will not only be in the more expensive systems but go down to mainstream (laptops)," Mooley Eden, Intel's general manager of mobile platforms, said in Taipei on Tuesday. Intel is shipping 80GB drives now and will ship a 160GB solid-state drive later this quarter.

Seagate, the largest hard-disk drive supplier, plans to enter the market in 2009 but sees "price as an inhibitor right now," according to Rich Vignes, senior manager of market development at the Scotts Valley, Calif.-based company. He also says standards work needs to get completed to make enterprise customers comfortable and "overcome endurance fears ."

Beyond that, enterprise customers are showing resistance to accelerated adoption of solid-state drives as the economy worsens. "Conditions across technology are awful," said Avian Securities' Cohen. "On the enterprise SSD side, where we thought it made the most sense for the transition to occur...we have seen a slowdown in momentum for this shift as CTOs and CFOs look to conserve cash and slow new adoption programs."

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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