While Intel touts Netbooks, SanDisk cites solid-state 'hype'

The up-and-coming solid-state storage format has pride of place in gear like the MacBook Air, but drive makers warn of a looming "trough of disillusionment."

SANTA CLARA, Calif.--At the Flash Memory Summit taking place here this week, makers of solid-state drives cited their worries about lackluster performance on Windows Vista and, with no small irony, the dangers of hype.

Solid-state drives have become the de facto storage device for the category of small, inexpensive notebook PCs called Metbooks, and they're offered in high-profile laptops such as the MacBook Air and ThinkPad X300.

Micron and Intel (first and second from right, respectively) participated in a panel discussion at the Flash Memory Summit
Representatives of Micron and Intel (first and second from right, respectively) take part in a panel discussion at the Flash Memory Summit. Brooke Crothers

While Don Larson, product line manager at Intel NAND Products Group, said the tiny size and low power requirements of Netbooks make them an ideal product for solid-state drives (adding that Netbooks are now migrating up to 10.2-inch displays), other SSD manufacturers engaged in a bit of self-examination. Both Dean Klein, vice president at Micron Technology, and Doreet Oren, director of product marketing at SanDisk, cited a Gartner report titled Hype Cycle for PC Technologies that showed solid-state drive hype peaking in June of last year.

"We're entering the trough of disillusionment," Klein said, citing the Gartner report.

SanDisk's Oren went on to say that new technologies float on a "sea of inflated expectations" with the disillusionment factor eventually "going on to a curve of actual adoption." Oren added: "There's a lot work still to be done."

So what are the outstanding issues tempering the hype? Windows Vista performance (more on Vista below) and SSD endurance. "SSDs wear out," said Todd Dinkelman, an applications engineer at Micron. And manufacturers have to make sure the wear-out happens gracefully and no sooner than five years, according to Intel, Micron, and SanDisk.

Dinkelman said that solid-state drives wear out due to data writes to the disk, which, in turn, is based on usage patterns. Put simply, a user constantly pounding an SSD with writes (recording data to the disk) will see a shorter life cycle than a person casually using such a drive in a Netbook for e-mail and web browsing.

Though hard-disk drives have endurance problems of their own, solid-state devices are particularly sensitive to the repeated writing of data to one area of the drive. All manufacturers agree that improved technology that intelligently controls the way data is written will mitigate this flaw to the point that it should not be a major issue in the upcoming generation of drives.

Ultimately, the next generation of drives need to be rated as, for example, five-year devices for heavy usage and longer terms for light usage, said Avi Cohen, managing partner at Avian Securities.

Gartner's Hype Cycle for PC Technologies shows SSD hype peaking in June 2007
Gartner's Hype Cycle for PC Technologies shows SSD hype peaking in June 2007 Brooke Crothers

And the next generation is coming. Micron has already announced solid-state drives ranging up to 256GB in capacity and Intel is on the record as stating that it will follow suit with large-capacity drives. Upcoming drives for laptops are based on next-generation multi-level cell (MLC) technology that provides higher data densities, greater performance, and better reliability than drives used in ultra-light laptops today.

Last but not least there's the Vista problem: Solid-state drives do not perform well when doing certain operations on Vista. SanDisk's Oren expounded on what SanDisk CEO Eli Harari had stated last month in an earnings conference call. "It is well understood that Vista is not aware of what the storage device it is actually using," Oren said. "There's a lot of work being done at Microsoft together with SanDisk, together with Samsung, together with Intel and other standards bodies to actually enhance the awareness of the operating system of the device that it is using and we are heavily involved in that."

Micron's Dinkelman echoed this sentiment saying that a "new operating system would have to be developed in the PC environment" to make it better suited to solid-state drives.

"You need to have Microsoft on board," Cohen said. Some in the industry had expected Microsoft to integrate new features into a Vista Service Pack to make the operating system better optimized for solid-state drives but this never happened, Cohen said.

Sources at large SSD manufacturers also said that the first generation of devices may have been disappointing to some users because they didn't deliver the expected spike in performance--as the devices had been advertised to do.

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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