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Taking bets on the future standard for hard drives

Patterned media may come before heat assisted, says expert.

Patterned media and heat assisted. Those are fightin' words in the hard drive industry.

Patterned media technology, actively promoted by Hitachi Global Storage Technologies, stores data in tiny bits laid down in a platter in an intricate pattern. The bits are separated by each other to prevent data corruption. By contrast, in heat assist drives, championed by Seagate Technologies, a bit gets heated to a few hundred degrees Celsius, gets imprinted with data, and then cools down. (We wrote an early story on the debate here.)

Both technologies will allow hard drives to store more data than they do now, and both will ultimately be incorporated into drives fifteen or so years from now.

But which one will hit first? Patterned media, speculated Joel Weiss, president of the International Disk Drive, Equipment and Materials Association (IDEMA), the disk drive industry association during a meeting this week. The patterns on patterned media drives will be made with lithography systems. The chip industry buys lithography systems too. Thus, there should be a market for equipment for making patterned media drives.

By contrast, not a lot of other companies or industries need tiny lasers to heat microscopic pinpricks to hundreds of degrees. As a result, equipment makers aren't exactly going to be rushing into to produce machines to help out hard drive makers, which are chronically strapped for cash. The heating/cooling process is also a really tough engineering challenge. IBM had a prototype memory called millipede that worked in a similar way. You don't hear a lot about it these days.

Interestingly, before Weiss headed up IDEMA, he worked at Seagate. Others have said otherwise. Jim Porter, an analyst with Disk/Trends and a fixture in the industry, has said heat assisted might come first.

Drives with either pattered media or heat assisted technology will likely hit the market around 2012 or 2015. By then, conventional drives will hold about 500 megabits to 1 terabit of data per square inch.

"We will know by 2011 which way it will go," Weiss said.

Weiss further added that moving to either patterned media or heat assisted technology will be a bear. Seagate started working on perpendicular recording drives in 1999 and it took six years for them to finally to come out. "That was easy compared to what is coming next," he said.

Weiss further added that the oft-heralded battle between flash and hard drives in notebooks is still far in the future. Dell sells a flash hard drive as an option on notebooks. It costs $549 extra and only holds 32GB. That wouldn't even hold Microsoft Vista.