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Crave Talk: It's too soon for flash-based video iPods

Rumour has it that a video iPod built with flash memory instead of a hard disk is coming soon. Time to quash the rumour -- but explain why flash will be the future

Today's super rumour is that Apple is aiming to replace all hard-disk-based iPods -- the 30GB and 80GB models -- with NAND flash storage, placing the hard disk in the box of toys that nobody wants to play with anymore. It should be noted this is a rumour, but a fairly well substantiated one.

Apple Insider cites Wall Street analyst Shaw Wu as saying, "...our sources indicate that while Apple plans to migrate the rest of its iPod product line to NAND flash from hard disks, fairly low price points and customer appetite for high storage capacities will likely prevent this from happening until late 2007-2008."

Flash memory has some strong advantages if used in products such as the video iPod, most notably that flash memory requires significantly less power from a battery, resulting in longer battery life -- something that's crucial for the success of any portable video device.

Flash memory is also much smaller than a hard drive, and weighs a lot less. This would allow Apple to make iPods almost as thin and light as the nano, without compromising storage capacity. There's also the advantage of no moving parts, meaning extended longevity and completely skip-free performance. Finally, songs and videos load immediately from flash memory -- seek and read times are the bottleneck of hard disk drives.

There is one brutally limiting factor to flash, though: cost. Flash is almost ten times more expensive than hard-disk memory. Although significant adoption of flash over the last 12 months has seen prices drop enormously, it's still too costly to buy in the quantity needed for video iPods. Apple has a good relationship with its flash manufacturers though, and may secure a helpful price reduction it can pass on to consumers. But will that be enough to justify vanquishing the hard disk completely?

We don't expect to see a flash-based video iPod any time soon. The development of NAND flash is advancing fast, but not quite enough to consider implementation in a video iPod yet -- chips have a limited capacity at the moment, but this is changing fast. We agree with Wu in as far as we may see a 30GB flash-based model towards the beginning of 2008.

But a true movie-playing widescreen iPod would have far, far greater consumer demand. To produce this, Apple would have to increase storage capacity past the 100GB mark, and that's not going to happen with flash memory for a long time, since hard disk prices are so low. Hard disks aren't dead yet. -Nate Lanxon