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Hitachi hones notebook drive performance

The company says that a decrease in the size of the slider, a key component, will help the hard drives conserve energy, run faster and better survive accidents.

Hitachi Global Storage Technologies has whittled down an already tiny hard-drive component to help improve the performance of notebook drives.

The decrease in the size of the slider, the device that holds the read/write head on a hard drive, will let the devices conserve energy, run faster and better survive accidents, such as sudden impact, according to the company.

Later this month, the San Jose, Calif.-based unit of the Japanese electronics giant plans release a 60GB 2.5-inch-diameter hard drive that uses the new "femto" slider. The drives will run at 7,200 revolutions per minute, faster than competing 2.5-inch notebook drives on the market, which generally run at 5,400 rpm, the company said. The increase in speed translates to a 15 percent improvement in data transfer and 20 percent reduction in average seek time.

Later in the summer, IBM will incorporate the 7K60 into notebooks, and several other major manufacturers should follow suit, Hitachi said.

The performance gain comes largely because the slider--which sits at the end of the hard-drive arm and functions like the cartridge for a needle on a turntable--is 30 percent smaller and contains about 60 percent less mass than sliders inside competing hard drives. Slider sizes shrink every five to six years.

Because the new slider is smaller and more aerodynamic, the hard-drive arm can move more rapidly and with less effort. The slider floats across a cushion of air.

"It's like holding a weight at arm's length. If the weight is smaller, I can hold it rock-solid," said Bill Healy, general manager of the mobile business unit at Hitachi. "If it is a 20-pound barbell, I'm shaking already."

Overall, the 7,200-rpm disk consumes about the same amount of energy as existing 5,400-rpm notebook drives. Current 7,200-rpm drives consume too much power to be used inside the average notebook, he said.

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The femto slider ("femto" refers to the dimensions of the device) will first appear on the 7K60 drive coming at the end of this month. Later in the year, it will be incorporated into a 4GB 1-inch microdrive. Eventually, the femto slider will displace the pico sliders used on other Hitachi drives.

Drives with the new slider, Healy said, "will represent 5 percent or so of the total opportunity in the first year."

Hitachi's efforts to improve system performance should meet with approval in the notebook market.

"They are going in the right direction," said Jim Porter, president of market research firm Disk/Trend. Porter says that for years he has spoken to business travelers on airplanes about the notebooks they're carrying. "They are unanimous in the two things they hate. One is the weight. The other is the battery life."

Hitachi, which absorbed IBM's hard-drive operations in 2002, tends to focus on the high end of the drive market. Although it manufactures 3.5-inch drives that get used in desktops and servers, it owns over half of the market for 2.5-inch notebook drives.

Later this year, the company will also begin to mass-manufacture 1.8-inch drives, similar in size to the drives inside Apple Computer's iPod music player. Toshiba makes the drive in the iPod and so far is the largest manufacturer in that market.

"As the holiday season approaches, you will see a whole host of products that will use the 1.8-inch drive" from Hitachi, said Healy.