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Samsung hybrid hard drive works while it sleeps

The typical hard drive spins constantly. But by buffering a drive with flash memory, it can sleep most of the time.

SEATTLE--Microsoft and Samsung showed off a prototype hard drive Monday that can record data while idling, a twist that has the potential to significantly cut power consumption in notebooks.

The trick is that the hard drive contains a 1Gb flash memory chip from Samsung's OneNAND family. Incoming data is directly recorded to the chip. When the chip is about full, the hard drive wakes up, takes the data, records it and goes back into idle.

Typically, hard drives rotate. Hard drive motors, along with LCD screens, are two of the largest consumers of power inside a laptop.

In the hybrid, the drive rarely spins. In the prototype hybrid being shown off Monday at the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference, the drive spins only about 30 to 45 seconds every half hour, said Ivan Greenberg, director of strategic marketing for Samsung Semiconductor. The goal is to get it to 30 to 45 seconds for an hour.

"The traditional hard drive takes up about 10 to 15 percent of the battery power of your notebook," Greenberg said. Thus, in a notebook with a four hour battery, the hybrid drive could extend battery life by about 36 minutes.

The companies also said the drive could help accelerate boot-up time.

The product in many ways reflects Samsung's design strategies. (Samsung was working on a hybrid drive in Korea when subsequently Microsoft began to participate in the project, according to Greenberg.) The company often tries to get different divisions to cooperate to help reduce costs, improve performance and, ideally, increase profitability. Samsung's rise in cell phones has come in part because of increased cooperation between industrial designers and component groups at the company.

Samsung is the world's largest flash memory maker but it plays a somewhat smaller role in hard drives. Right now, both the broader flash memory and hard-drive markets are suffering through a decline in pricing.

OneNAND is a relatively new line of chips from Samsung that share some of the characteristics of NAND flash memory, such as a high density and a rapid recording rate, and NOR flash memory, which historically has sported a fast data retrieval rate. Samsung primarily produces NAND while Intel and Spansion produce NOR. Similarly, Intel and Spansion are concocting hybrid products.

Notebooks containing these drives should hit the market in late 2006.