Pretty soon, you’ll be much less worried about dropping your laptop. This is because if the hard drive inside of it uses flash memory, it probably won’t break. Flash memory, the type of computer memory in digital cameras and other small electronics, is finding its way into bigger, more powerful devices.
Sony has launched an “ultramobile” laptop, the Vaio UX Premium, which uses a flash drive instead of a hard drive. Samsung sells two flash laptops in South Korea, the Q1 and Q30. Intel just introduced a flash storage component for PCs and servers. And tech analysts predict more flash products soon – from popular device maker Apple Inc., perhaps.
Electronics makers are embracing flash memory because it has no moving parts. In comparison, a hard drive – the traditional computer storage component – records data on a spinning disc that resembles a record player. Flash memory is a computer chip that uses electrons to store bits of data. That means that flash is thinner, lighter and less vulnerable to bumps. It also uses less power, which leads to longer battery life.
“When you have (electronic devices) that are thrown around in your bag – flash is just so much more suitable for that,” says Steve Weinger, a marketing manager for Samsung’s flash division.
Apple hopes to launch a flash laptop in the second half of this year, American Technology Research equity analyst Shaw Wu said in a recent research note. Future large-capacity iPod music players may use flash, too, says UBS equity analyst Benjamin Reitzes. (Smaller music players, such as Apple’s Shuffle, already use flash.)
Flash memory is standard in cameras, cellphones and small storage devices (sometimes called USB drives) used to transfer information from PC to PC. It had been too expensive to use in devices that need a lot of memory. But manufacturing advances are causing prices to fall 40% to 50% a year, Weinger says.
Electronics-makers now can put 10 GB of flash memory into a device for about the same amount they would pay for a hard drive, he says. A typical 4-GB chip costs about $4 wholesale, says memory website DRAMeXchange.
Prices aren’t low enough for flash to totally replace hard drives. Sony’s flash version of its UX laptop costs $2,500 – $500 more than a similar model with a hard drive. But it does allow flash to move into more products, Weinger says.
Samsung hopes to bridge the gap with a line of hybrid hard drives, released this month. They store most data on a hard drive, but keep recently accessed information on an attached flash chip. That allows for quicker response times and lower power usage, the company says. Weinger expects flash usage to ramp up beginning in late 2008.