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Can Seagate steer hybrid-drive market?

Price and industry standardization remain barriers to widespread adoption, but the biggest hard-drive maker could force competitors to keep pace.

Seagate Technology, the industry's largest producer of hard drives, has finally started shipping its first batch of hybrid hard drives for notebook PCs.

The Scotts Valley, Calif., company announced Monday that the Momentus 5400 PSD hybrid hard drive will be shipping in volume in notebook PCs. The 2.5-inch hybrid drive is a 160GB drive with 256MB of flash memory. Adding flash chips to the mix has produced notebooks that can get 50 percent better battery life, according to Seagate.

Seagate Momentus 5400 PSD
Credit: Seagate Technology
Seagate's Momentus 5400 PSD
hybrid hard drive.

Though Seagate is not the first to market with mechanical hard drives combined with flash memory chips--that was Samsung a few months back--the move will likely drag the other major hard-drive makers, such as Hitachi and Fujitsu, into the mix.

There are several potential inhibitors to widespread adoption of hybrid drives by the PC industry: the current expense of flash memory; a possible need for better optimization with PC operating systems, particularly Microsoft's Windows Vista; and hybrid drives' availability from a variety of sources.

Still, the timing for introducing the Seagate drives could be good. Several major notebook manufacturers have announced their intentions to use hybrid drives. The idea behind them is that storing some data on flash chips is faster and uses less power because it means not accessing the main storage of the mechanical drive. Notebooks, therefore, are a natural application for them.

"It absolutely makes sense to take advantage of nonvolatile semiconductor memory and the best aspects of the hard-disk drive technology," said John Monroe, a vice president of research at Gartner. Using the two technologies together has benefits for users, including faster boot times and better battery life.

Seagate says it's positioning the Momentus 5400 PSD as a mainstream option that balances the use of flash chips with the affordability of traditional hard-disk drives. Sony's Vaio SZ650 is currently shipping with the new hybrid drive from Seagate, and four other PC manufacturers have also signed on. It all depends on the order volume, but Seagate says its hybrid drives will sell for an approximately 20 percent to 30 percent premium over its standard hard-disk drives. A 160GB hard drive from Seagate, for example, costs approximately $130.

But it's likely going to take several years for these to catch on in the mainstream notebook market. In three or four years, hybrids still won't account for more than one-third of the drives used in notebooks, according to Gartner's calculations.

More work to be done
"It's going to take a while to get there," Monroe said. "There has to be continuing refinement in the OS, so you can take more advantage of this kind of hybrid technology."

Many are taking a wait-and-see approach, according to Jeff Janukowitz, research manager in IDC's storage group. Hybrid drives are still only beneficial for PCs running Windows Vista, and there have been some concerns about OS support from Microsoft and Vista, he said.

Though Seagate insists that it "works fine with Vista," there's still more work to be done so that each PC knows how to actually utilize the flash cache, particularly which kind of information to write on the flash.

"The BIOS (basic input-output system) doesn't always know how to talk with flash on hard drive," said Melissa Johnson, a Seagate product marketing manager. "You're not going to see a benefit from that side. It's...going to work, you'll still get 20 percent faster boot-up time, 50 percent battery savings, (but) the industry needs to learn to take advantage of the potential."

Flash capacity barrier
But right now, the biggest barrier to widespread acceptance is the capacity of the flash in the hybrid drives. While it's beneficial to be using some flash memory to store certain data, it's a piddling 256MB. One of Apple's iPod Nanos, for size comparison's sake, contains up to 8GB of flash memory.

Hybrid drives "won't be truly interesting until there are 2-, 4- or 8-gigabyte caches on the hard disk drive," said Monroe, and that is still a couple of years off. The reason is the price of flash, whose cost is still prohibitive for most major manufacturers of notebook PCs. The margins on notebooks are very thin, and tossing a flash-only hard drive into one drives the cost way up.

Getting the entire hard drive industry aboard will be key to wider adoption, says Gartner's Monroe. Yes, it's helpful that Samsung and Seagate are making hybrids, but others need to follow, and standardization is key. "Right now, certainly if Seagate hard disk drives and Samsung hard disk drives are not virtually interchangeable for (for example) a Dell notebook, that's not a good thing. Dell wants them to be interchangeable because they want more than one source," he said.

Hewlett-Packard, the biggest PC manufacturer in the world, has skipped hybrid drives altogether so far, and has gone straight to offering notebooks with solid-state drives. HP's first notebooks with a 64GB solid-state drive will ship in the next few weeks. HP went with the solid-state technology for its shock resistance and lower power consumption, according to a company representative. Solid-state drives use flash memory--or in some cases SDRAM (synchronous dynamic random access memory) in place of hard disk drives to store data. They are significantly more expensive than traditional hard disk drives.

Seagate has also announced its intentions to look into producing solid state drives next year, but first for the enterprise market, Seagate CEO Bill Watkins said in an interview with CNET News.com last month.