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Can a new hard drive meet the flash challenge?

One-inch drives are being munched by flash memory. 1.8-inchers seem too big. Could 1.3-inchers be just right?

Hard-drive manufacturers are contemplating a new-size hard drive to counter the challenge presented by flash memory.

Drives with platters measuring 1.3 inches in diameter are being discussed, according to Bill Healy, a Hitachi senior vice president of corporate strategy and marketing.

The hard drive inside
Hitachi's CinemaStar DVR.

These drives would hold far more data than the smaller 1-inch and 0.85-inch diameter microdrives now on the market, yet take less space and consume less energy than the 1.8-inch drives found in standard-size iPods and mini-notebooks.

"It gives you more competition with flash and doubles the capacity over 1-inch," Healy said.

Discussions are only preliminary, but such a move could help manufacturers of hard drives--a technology that celebrates its --expand their position in the consumer electronics market.

Consumer electronics have served as a lifeline for drivemakers, which tend to bounce in and out of profitability. Hard-drive shipments for consumer electronics will grow by about 35 percent this year, expanding from about 60 million units to over 80 million units, said John Donovan, an analyst at research firm TrendFocus.

Overall, the hard-drive market will increase 18 percent, from 380 million in 2005 to 450 million drives in 2006. Most will still go to the PC industry.

Many of these drives measure 3.5-inches across and go into digital video recorders and TVs. Hitachi, for instance, has released a TV in Japan that has a built-in digital video recorder (DVR) with 1 terabyte of video storage.

Hitachi is rolling out a new line of drives this week for DVRs. The CinemaStar hard drives have been tweaked to run more quietly than their desktop counterparts, the company said.

The drive industry, however, has lost some of its luster for music players. Hardware makers began inserting microdrives into music players in 2003, and their popularity zoomed after Apple Computer put one inside its iPod Mini in 2004. It was a watershed application--drivemakers have been looking for a high-volume application for microdrives since IBM (which sold its drive division to Hitachi in 2002) invented them in 1999.

The honeymoon was short-lived. Apple released the iPod Nano in 2005. It relies on flash memory, which is more expensive but faster than microdrives. Microdrives have landed inside some phones and video cameras, but mostly only in high-end models.

"The microdrive is tough right now," Healy said. "Flash has certainly come in and affected that business."

Increasing the diameter size would expand storage so that the 1.3-inch drives could be used in video players. Currently, one-inch microdrives max out at 8GB (too small for conveniently storing lots of video), while 1.8-inch drives can pack in 80GB. A 1.3-inch drive would provide storage somewhere in between and conceivably provide it as a far lower cost than flash memory.

"You'd have more space on the platter, but it all depends on what the customer base says," said Rob Plait, the director of global consumer electronics marketing at Seagate Technology. "The disk drive industry has been talking about the technology for a few months."

Donovan at TrendFocus warned, however, that getting the cellular companies to accept these drives could be an uphill battle. The 1.3-inch drives could easily fit inside a cell phone, but a phonemaker may not believe that their customers want that much storage.

Drivemakers have ruled out shrinking the size of drives. That would raise the cost and reduce storage size, making it even harder to compete against flash.

Hard-drive capacity, Donovan added, continues to grow about 40 percent annually, thus doubling hard-drive capacity every two years. In the late '90s, drive capacity had doubled annually.

CinemaStar turn
When it comes to its new line of drives, Hitachi says slower is better.

The CinemaStar drives are essentially DeskStar drives--Hitachi's PC line--tweaked to run more quietly, Healy said. The seek function, when the drive is looking for data, runs slower than on desktop drives. This allows the platters to spin at a lower rate and reduce noise; consumers, however, don't experience a drop in performance--or video-flicker--because it is easier for the drive to find the next scene in a movie than it is for it to find other types of data.

"You are reading long block lines, so you can slow down," Healy said. "We've developed algorithms so you can run the drive differently."

The drive head also moves off the surface of the drive platters as much as possible to reduce aerodynamic resistance on the head. That resistance is generated by the spinning platters, another source of noise.

In the future, Hitachi may try to take out some of the air inside the drive chassis and replace it with a different gas to further reduce aerodynamic resistance, Healy added.

The CinemaStar drives, which sport a 3.5-inch diameter platter, range in capacity from 80GB to 500GB. They will be sold to consumer electronics manufacturers and PC makers.