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Hybrid hard drives: Why they are failing

Performance has been somewhat disappointing, but that could change if drive makers put in more flash, executives said.

SANTA CLARA, Calif.--Back in 2005, Samsung and Microsoft announced something that got the storage fans in the world excited: they had designed a hard drive with a bit of flash memory in it that would serve as a data cache.

The hybrid hard drive would cut down power consumption, increase battery life, and, most importantly, whack boot-up time, the companies said.

But so far, you don't see a lot of them on store shelves and the benefits are somewhat disappointing, said hard drive executives at Diskcon 2007, taking place in Santa Clara this week.

"The initial versions haven't delivered the performance consumers expected," said Dr. Richard New, director of research for Hitachi Global Storage Technologies.

The problem, said New, might be correctable if drive makers put in more flash. Right now, hybrid drives have about 256MB of memory. If you put in 4GB or so, the flash could hold a lot more storage, which in turn would reduce power consumption and help boot-up time. That would raise prices, though.

The small amount of flash also means that boot-up time isn't that much shorter, noted Joel Hagberg, vice president of marketing at Fujitsu Computing Products of America. From a cold start, boot-up time might drop from 28 seconds with a standard drive to 21 seconds with a hybrid, according to Hagberg.

"I don't see anyone paying for that," Hagberg said.

The sleep function on Vista also indirectly chips into the desirability of hybrids, added Richard Rutledge, senior vice president of marketing at Western Digital, the number two maker of drives. The company, which doesn't market a hybrid, conducted a bunch of tests comparing boot-up times of different versions of Vista from a cold start with boot-up times with computers resting in Vista's sleep state. Boot-up from a cold start with Vista PCs ranged all the way up to 70 seconds, depending on the version of Vista (Vista Home Premium is the slow one, by the way.)

Vista PCs, however, would come out of the sleep state to being operational in four seconds. Western Digital tried seven variants for Vista and it always came to around four seconds. Thus, with the sleep state working as it does, you don't need a hybrid, he said.