A flash memory notebook: The sounds of silence

A lot of people are talking about flash notebooks, so CNET News.com's Michael Kanellos took one out for a spin.

Michael Kanellos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.
Michael Kanellos
4 min read

Do you want to know the best thing about a notebook with a flash memory drive, rather than a conventional hard drive?

It's the silence.

The notebook I'm testing--a Dell Latitude D830 with a 64GB from Samsung--hasn't emitted a sound in three days. Flash drives, which store data in NAND flash memory, don't require motors or spinning platters. Thus, there are no whirring mechanical noises.

Dell Latitude
A Dell Latitude with a flash drive. You can definitely tell a difference in performance, but is it worth the $900 premium? Michael Kanellos/CNET News.com

Compare that with my T42 ThinkPad. It sounds like a guinea pig got trapped inside, particularly during the start-up phase. Vzoooot. Cronk, cronk, cronk. Zip, zip. (Pause.) Gurlagurlagurla...zweeee.

The lack of a mechanical hard drive also means lower power consumption and less heat. In turn that means the fan rarely, if ever, needs to kick into action. As I type, for instance, the notebook is running eight video streams-- two from CNN, two from CNET, two from MSN, a video on new bands on Crackle, and a pirated Led Zeppelin video on YouTube--and the fan won't trip over. The computer is running on battery power and the videos, with a few minor gulps, are all running smoothly.

If it did have a conventional hard drive, the fan would have flipped on, sapping battery power, and cranking out some white noise. I know that because I got the fans on my ThinkPad (as well as home notebook from Hewlett-Packard) to start in similar circumstances.

Is the quiet and extra battery life worth nearly a $900 premium? In a word, no, but you've got to look at the future. Although in the price stratosphere now, flash drives will start to compete more directly with drives over the next four years. Flash memory density continues to increase at a rapid pace, doubling almost every year, and large manufacturers like Samsung, Toshiba, SanDisk and Intel have or are opening factories geared at churning out flash. Taken together, this will lead to an easy availability of chips, better capabilities, and recurring price wars.

Flash prices dropped 50 percent in 2006. Prices rose a bit in 2007, but then dropped 50 percent from the fourth quarter of 2007 to the first quarter of 2008, says Jim Handy of Objective Analysis. Hardware manufacturers can now buy 1GB of flash for $3, he added.

When the premium becomes more acceptable, say $100, the category could take off. The lack of noise isn't one of the benefits I expected, but it was tangible. Listening to the drive on my IBM always prompts two thoughts. One, turning on a PC takes more time than it should and, two, this thing could collapse at any moment. To be honest, the ThinkPad has never imploded because of a hard drive problem, but the internal clanking makes it sound like it could. Silence gets rid of a minor aggravation.

Flash drives also boost performance, although less than I expected. The Dell with the flash drive takes anywhere from 1 to 6 seconds to come out of standby mode, depending on what types of applications were left on. Occasionally, the video that was playing when the computer was put into standby mode starts again. The ThinkPad takes at least 12 seconds.

Starting the Dell after a complete shutdown takes 19 seconds. It takes the ThinkPad 45 seconds to get to the part where I can enter a password. After the password is entered, it takes another 55 seconds before the computer is operational. Some of the slower times on the ThinkPad can be attributed to a slower processor and a more ornate start-up cycle. Even if you don't take that into account, the flash advantage only comes to seconds.

"If it takes one and a half minutes versus two minutes to boot up, are you going to care?" asked Handy.

Weirdly, shutting down both computers takes about the same amount of time. (Flash drives can take minutes off the launch of Outlook, but I couldn't test it because of network problems.)

Flash drive
The drive itself. Samsung puts its flash into a bay that would ordinarily accommodate a much larger 2.5-inch drive. As the market takes off, Samsung will chop down the size of this module. Michael Kanellos/CNET News.com

Battery power is tough to compare. The Dell has a larger battery pack than the ThinkPad. The ThinkPad is also much older. Still, the Dell with the flash drive seems to last longer than notebooks with standard drives. Fully charged, the battery says it will go five and a half hours, and the time remaining on the battery seems to follow the clock, i.e. an hour of battery time nearly comes to 60 minutes when few applications are on. With eight video streams, the five hours drops to two, but then kicks back up as windows are closed. Handy noted that a flash drive might consume a watt of power while a fast drive might consume 12 watts.

The drawback is the price. The same Latitude with an 80GB standard hard drive currently sells for $869 on Dell's site. Swapping the drive for a 64GB flash hard drive adds $899 to the price. The upgrade more than doubles the price of the notebook to $1,768 and slightly eliminates storage. That's down from the $920 price for the flash drive a few months ago, but out of reach of most buyers. (And it's worse at other vendors. Apple, which started offering flash drives after other PC makers, sells its 64GB flash drive upgrade for $999.)

Photos and high-definition video, among other applications, is also boosting the need for storage, which can favor hard drive makers. Samsung, among others, believes that corporate buyers only need around 64GB of storage, which will be economical to provide in flash in a few years. Consumer laptops, however, come with 160GB to 500GB of storage; 500GB of flash may not be reasonably affordable until 2012, and then consumers might need terabytes.

But if you can offload files onto a backup hard drive, flash could work for you.