Samsung goes commercial with hybrid hard drive

Last year, the company showed off a prototype of a drive that uses flash to cut power. Now the company will show off the finished product.

Michael Kanellos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.
Michael Kanellos
3 min read
Samsung Electronics says notebook users will get an extra half hour of battery life and be able to boot up their computers faster using its hybrid hard drive, which will come out in PCs in 2007.

A hybrid hard drive is a hard drive that contains a flash memory chip that stores data and applications. Because the processor can retrieve data from flash, the drive--which spins constantly in an ordinary computer--can stay asleep most of the time.

Spinning drives are one of the most power-hungry components in a computer, so allowing it to idle will lead to about an extra half-hour of battery life on a notebook, said Don Barnetson, director of flash memory at Samsung Semiconductor. "We can cut about 70 to 90 percent of the power consumption" of hard drives, he said.

The drive will also be less prone to break down, he added. Boot-up time is also decreased, because applications can be retrieved from much speedier flash memory, which takes only a few milliseconds. Although slower, the drives can store more data for less money.

The flash chips will perform a couple of different functions. When consumers write a word-processing document, the data will go straight to flash. When the flash chips are almost full, the drive will wake up and take the data. Some PC makers will also likely embed media or music players along with other commonly used applications to ensure that boot time will be somewhat rapid.

Intel is working on a similar concept called Robson that lets the processor pull data out of flash. Although the end result is the same, the interaction among flash, the processor and the drive in Robson are different, Barnetson said.

South Korean electronics giant Samsung showed off a prototype of its hybrid hard drive last year at WinHec. This year, the company will show off the commercial version of the drive at the show, which takes place next week.

Samsung's hybrid drives, which work with Microsoft's Vista, will come in a variety of capacities when they appear in computers next year. The drives, though, will contain either 128MB or 256MB of Samsung's OneNAND flash memory. OneNAND is much faster than typical NAND memory.

Samsung will make the drives themselves but also coach other drive makers on how to incorporate its flash into their drives. (Samsung is the world's largest NAND flash maker, and OneNAND is a proprietary twist available only from the company.)

Technically speaking, hard drives already come with flash inside them, said Barnetson, but not enough to store applications or data.

The hybrid drives will be marketed under the ReadyDrive moniker, which is a Microsoft brand name. Notebook specification sheets thus will likely say something like "100GB drive enhanced with Windows Ready Drive."

Samsung is also working with Microsoft on ReadyBoost. In ReadyBoost (also known as EMD), a flash memory key stuck into a computer can act as supplemental main memory. With this technology, it will be easier to load Windows Vista, the upcoming update of the operating system, onto current computers. Vista will require more memory than Windows XP. One problem that Microsoft has had in the past is that consumers don't upgrade the operating systems on their existing computers much, because a software upgrade would entail a hardware upgrade.