Minidrives to make big splash

By the end of the year, diminutive hard drives are going to start to become downright common, thanks to planned releases of portable music players and video cameras.

By the end of the year, tiny hard drives are going to start to become downright common.

Sony and Philips plan to release minidrive-based music players toward the middle of the year in the United States to capitalize on the growing interest in small electronics devices, said Kevin Magenis, CEO of Cornice, which makes the hard-drive element in the players.

Toward the end of the year, other manufacturers are expected to come out with video cameras containing minidrives, while at least one manufacturer is planning to release a device that can function as a portable personal video recorder (PVR) and a handheld.

"They (manufacturers) are all getting ready for the second half of the year," Magenis said. "I don't know what is going to take off, but I know they (consumers) need to have their stuff with them."

The tiny hard drives from Cornice and others hold far less than standard hard drives, with capacity ranging from just 1.5GB to 4GB. But they are also far smaller, measuring an inch across. (Toshiba is coming out with its own type of minidrive next year that measures less an inch in diameter.)

IBM invented the minidrive in the mid-1990s, but sales never took off. Music players with the small drives emerged in late summer 2003 with models from RCA and Rio.

Apple Computer then brought far more attention to the category with the iPod and the subsequent iPod Mini. "The iPod helped legitimize the market," Magenis said.

The models that Sony and Philips plan to release in the United States are already on sale in, respectively, Japan and Europe. The Sony device, which is marketed under its Aiwa brand, is about the same size as a business card holder, comes with 1.5GB of storage and can be expanded to 2GB.

Sony's device currently sells for $229, while the Philips player goes for $199. It is not certain what the devices will sell for in the United States.

The iPod Mini sells for $249 and comes with 4GB of storage.

The capacity and reliability of the new breed of minidrives is expected to increase over time. Currently, Cornice's drive tops out at 2GB and can survive a drop (inside a device) of about a meter. A 3GB version that can be dropped 1.5 meters will come out toward the beginning of 2005.

Magenis would not identify other manufacturers working on the devices, but said that one is a maker of portable PVRs that is a household name and that the company has worked with Samsung on hard-drive-based video cameras.

Other products due out later this year include minidrive-based USB storage devices for PCs.