The age of the SSD is upon usThe age of the SSD is upon us
One of the most fascinating features of the new MacBook Air ï¿¼ Appleï¿¼s ultra-portable notebook computer, introduced at Macworld, and now shipping ï¿¼ is that itï¿¼s one of the first on the market to have a solid state disk (SSD).
February 21, 2008
One of the most fascinating features of the new MacBook Air ï¿¼ Appleï¿¼s ultra-portable notebook computer, introduced at Macworld, and now shipping ï¿¼ is that itï¿¼s one of the first on the market to have a solid state disk (SSD).A SSD is like a hard drive, in that it holds gigabytes of data. Itï¿¼s like a hard drive, in that itï¿¼s persistent ï¿¼ that is, it remembers what it stores, without electrical power being applied to it, until you tell it to forget. However, unlike a hard drive, an SSD contains no moving parts. Instead, it has banks of special ï¿¼flashï¿¼ memory chips that can be programmed to act just like a hard drive.
Think of a SSD as being like one of those ubiquitous thumb drives, or the memory chip in your digital camera. Thatï¿¼s a perfect analogy: If you crack open a thumb drive or an SSD, youï¿¼ll find the same flash memory chips inside. A 64GB SSD, like the one in the MacBook Air, is really little more than a high-performance, high-reliability, 64GB thumb drive. The main benefit of SSD today is that that theyï¿¼re physically more durable than hard drives. Because there are no moving parts, theyï¿¼re fairly indestructible. Dropping a thumb drive doesnï¿¼t hurt it at all. Because SSDs donï¿¼t use electromagnetic heads to read or write information, theyï¿¼re unaffected by rogue magnetic fields (like, say, a big magnet). A notebook with an SSD can be knocked around more than one using a standard rotating hard drive. So, if youï¿¼re traveling, youï¿¼re less likely to see a hard drive failureï¿¼ one of the biggest problems with notebooks. SSD technology ï¿¼ or specifically, flash memory technology ï¿¼ is making tremendous strides. The new 32GB iPod Touch, for example, uses flash chips. Just a year ago, that would have required a standard hard drive Sure, standard hard drives are bigger (the iPod Classic sports a 160GB 1.8-inch rotating hard drive), but flash is catching up. So, yes, the age of the SSD is nearly upon us. Within a few years, flash-based SSDs will likely supplant standard rotating hard drives for many applications. But that eraï¿¼s not here yet, for most of us, for several reasons: ï¿¼ Flash memory chips, like those inside the big 64GB SSD, draw too much power. Youï¿¼d think that without moving parts, an SSD would be less electricity-hungry than a hard drive. So far, thatï¿¼s not the case the circuits draw a lot of juice. However, large flash chips are rapidly becoming more energy-efficient. So, thereï¿¼s no battery-life benefit yet. ï¿¼ Flash memory is too slow. Depending on whose benchmarks you believe, a MacBook Air with an SSD is either slightly faster or slightly slower than the a MacBook Air with a standard hard drive. So, thereï¿¼s no performance benefit yet. ï¿¼ Flash memory is too small. Right now, 64GB is the biggest youï¿¼re going to find in a notebook SSD, though I expect that 128GB models arenï¿¼t too far away. By contrast, you can buy a standard notebook hard drive in sizes up to 320GB today. So, SSDs give you less storage than hard drives. ï¿¼ Flash memory is too expensive. Compare the prices of the MacBook Air. The base model, with a 1.6GHz processor and an 80GB hard drive, costs $1,799. Swapping the standard hard dirve to a 64GB SSD adds a cool $999 to the price tag. Thatï¿¼s a heck of a premium. Part of that is economy of scale, to be sure. However, that making large-capacity flash chips is very expensive. So, flash memory is going to cost a bundle. Within two years, we can expect to see a 4x shift in SSD technology: four times the size, four times the speed, maybe a quarter of the electrical power draw, and maybe a quarter of the price. Of course, in the mean time plain old hard drives wonï¿¼t be sitting still: theyï¿¼re still evolving. But SSD is evolving faster. So, your next laptop will likely still use a rotating hard drive, unless you have a special need for the more physically robust SSD technology. But the one after thatï¿¼ you'll get a SSD, for sure.
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