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SanDisk rolls out flash hard drives for laptops

Unlike traditional hard drives, flash memory drives do not contain moving parts, making them less prone to breaking down.

SanDisk wants to replace the hard drive in notebooks with flash memory, a swap that it says will make thin laptops faster and more reliable.

The switch, however, will cost you a few hundred dollars more.

SanDisk on Thursday released a 32GB drive for commercial notebooks that stores information on flash memory chips rather than the magnetic platters that make up a traditional hard drive. The drive is available only to manufacturers, and the company declined to give out pricing or identify any notebook makers that will adopt it, but SanDisk said notebooks sporting the drive could come out in the first half of 2007.

For the past year or so, flash memory makers have promised to come out with products that will challenge hard drives in notebooks.

The debate between flash makers and hard drive manufacturers will be one of the big topics at the Consumer Electronics Show and Storage Visions, which both take place next week in Las Vegas. While SanDisk shows off its flash drive there, drive makers will be touting hybrid hard drives.

Unlike traditional hard drives, flash memory drives do not contain moving parts. As a result, flash devices are less prone to breaking down--flash cards can survive drops from great heights--and consume less energy. SanDisk's flash drive can increase battery life by about 10 percent, said Doreet Oren, director of product marketing for SanDisk.

Flash also can retrieve data faster. In its own tests, Sandisk says its flash drive can boot-up Windows Vista--the next version of the Windows operating system--in 35 seconds, a half-minute faster than the 55-second boot-up time required with a conventional drive.

Military and aerospace customers have been buying so-called solid-state flash drives for about a decade. Some of the drives have capacities of 256GB and are quite sophisticated.

"They are in data recorders in airplanes," Oren said. "Breakage sometimes happens with military targets."

SanDisk got the bulk of its expertise in these drives when it acquired Msystems, an Israeli outfit that was an early pioneer in USB flash keys.

"A few years ago, some of the people at Msystems told me their most expensive drives cost $70,000," said Jim Handy, chief analyst at Objective Analysis. "They are very tightly connected to the military in Israel."

The commercial drive from SanDisk contains a controller and other electronics that reduce power consumption and the overall cost of the drive that make it possible to slip it into high-end corporate notebooks, Oren said.

SanDisk packaged the drive into a 1.8-inch package, mostly to make it easier for notebook makers to adopt it. The package can be shrunk (to reduce the overall size of the notebook) or increased so that a flash drive could fit into a notebook with a 2.5-inch drive chassis.

"We can and will do other form factors," Oren said.

The flash drive isn't for everyone. At 32GB, it is far smaller than the conventional drives found in current notebooks, desktops or even MP3 players. Many business users, however, never max out the capacity on their drives.

The drive will also add about $600 to the cost of a notebook. Those prices will crimp sales, Handy said.

"There are certain applications where it can be used, but I just don't see it for business where the most violent thing they (users) will encounter is a cab ride in New York," said Handy.

Still, the capacity and price gaps will begin to erode over time, Oren said. NAND flash memory makers (NAND is the kind SanDisk makes) have managed to double the storage capacity of its chips nearly every year for the past few years.

The NAND flash in the SanDisk drive, in fact, contains one only bit of data per memory cell. SanDisk makes NAND flash that can hold two bits of data per cell and, through Msystems, has technology for expanding that to 4 bits of memory in a cell. Increasing the capacity can thus be accomplished without massive technological breakthroughs.

NAND pricing has also been dropping rapidly.

Meanwhile, drive makers point out that hard drives also continue to increase in data density and are far less expensive. Hitachi executives have said drives that can hold a terabyte of data are on the horizon.

Internet video will choke flash. An hour of standard video gobbles up about 1GB, while an hour of high-definition video will take up 4GB, according to various estimates.

"Right now, the average notebook shipment drive we're shipping is 80GB, and it's growing about 7 or 8GB a quarter," Seagate Technology CEO Bill Watkins said in an interview in November. "If you talk to an Apple or Dell or HP or someone like that, they're going to tell you in 2010, 2011 they're looking for the average notebook to be more like 250GB, because there is going to be a lot of content. How is flash going to get there?"