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Price drops ahead for solid-state drives

With NAND prices predicted to drop significantly over the next year, a 64GB solid-state drive for close to $300 by the end of 2008 is in the realm of possibility.

Solid-state drives are still going to be somewhat hard to find and expensive in 2008, but mass production, cheaper flash, and tech advances will start to change that in 2009 and 2010.

Micron Technology, the Boise, Idaho-based maker of DRAM and flash memory, this week unveiled plans to come out with solid-state drives. The drives function like regular hard drives. But instead of storing data on spinning disks, solid-state drives store it on NAND memory chips--the kind found in cameras and MP3 players.

Micron will start mass-producing solid-state drives in the first quarter of 2008. The first drives will hold either 32GB or 64GB of memory. While that's less than half the capacity of the average notebook drive today, it's actually more storage than most business users need, said Dean Klein, vice president of memory system development at Micron. Plus, solid-state notebooks can come out of deep sleep or launch applications far more rapidly.

"60GB to 80GB is the sweet spot for the notebook market," he said.

Micron didn't talk pricing, but the drives will likely cost a few hundred dollars, a stumbling block. For example, swapping out a 160GB standard hard drive for a 64GB solid-state drive (from Samsung) on a Dell XPS 1330 notebook costs an additional $950. Considering that the notebook with the 160GB drive already costs $1,599, the solid-state drives aren't exactly economical.

Nonetheless, the magic of Moore's Law and the ability of memory makers to take it on the chin are going to make these drives more affordable. The first thing that will happen is that toward the end of 2008, solid-state drive makers will start to incorporate multilevel cell flash chips in the drives, Klein said. Manufacturers currently use single-level cell flash.

Multilevel cell chips hold two (and soon four) bits of data per cell. The chips aren't as reliable as single-level cell memory, but the error rates are small enough to make these types of drives more than adequate for the notebook market, he added.

In addition, multilevel cell chips will enable drive makers to increase the capacity of their drives, driving down the price. At equal capacities, multilevel cell chips could cut the price of making a drive by roughly 40 percent, estimated Frankie Roohparvar, vice president of NAND development at Micron.

Meanwhile, the world is swimming in NAND flash, leading to drastic price declines. NAND prices are set to drop 57 percent this year and 52 percent next year, said Joseph Unsworth, an analyst at Gartner.

Put those two factors together, and it could be possible to come out with a 64GB solid-state drive for close to $300 toward the end of 2008, Unsworth speculated. That's still high. He estimates that only 8 million solid-state drives will get shipped in all of '08.

But after that, the industry should begin to be able to show the benefits of these kinds of drives, the Micron executives predict. Think about it. Even if price declines begin to slow, 64GB drives will likely move toward the $200 range by late 2009 and then drop to sub-$100 about 18 months after that. Hard-drive makers will continue to increase the density of their products at the same time, of course, but competition between the two technologies will become tighter.

It happened in MP3 players, after all. Most upscale players came with 1.8-inch drives. The industry, however, at one point abruptly switched to flash.

Unsworth said the flash makers are going to have to tout the supposed benefits of having a flash drive with less capacity than a spinning disk (better battery life, can withstand a drop from a table better, you may not need all that storage, etc.).

He added that notebook makers will have to cooperate by making smaller laptops that showcase the features of flash. Flash takes up less space and, because it doesn't radiate as much heat, you can eliminate a fan. Currently, the notebooks that contain flash are basically the same size as the hard-drive models.

"With MP3 players, it was easy. You just turn it sideways and quote the battery life," Unsworth said.