"Flash is the future of computing," says Brian Beard, flash product marketing manager at Samsung, which is, according to Beard, the world's largest maker of these memory chips. By 2012, he says, solid-state drives (SSD) could account for as much as 30 percent of the mobile storage market, with sales of about 10 million flash drives.
The problem is that the first generation of SSD software for reading and writing data merely mimicked hard drives, speeding up notebooks only a little. Hard drives work best when data is kept close together; if data gets fragmented, it requires precious milliseconds to be located. SSDs, on other hand, are so fast that proximity of data doesn't matter. In fact, you want to spread the data out so that all memory cells get roughly equal use and don't wear out.
"The new flash drives will double the performance of older SSDs," explains Samsung's Beard. "It'll be like having the equivalent of a 15,000-rpm hard drive in your notebook."
But don't count out the venerable hard drive just yet -- drive makers are augmenting traditional drives with several gigabytes of flash memory. "Hybrid drives make the most of flash memory," says Joni Clark, product manager at Seagate Technology. "They're nearly as fast as pure flash but are much cheaper." While an SSD can cost five to 10 times as much as a traditional hard drive, a hybrid adds only about $10.
Rather than storing everything in expensive flash memory, these hybrid drives will keep the most-used data close at hand in flash and everything else on a traditional magnetic disk. Hybrids with up to 256MB of cache onboard are available today and can boost performance by about 30 percent, according to Clark. This will seem like small change in a year or two. Seagate plans to bring out a 4GB hybrid later this year, and 15GB hybrids are on the horizon.
Beyond that, a new technology could transform the way data is stored on hard drives, bringing on the terabyte era. It might be optimistic for the time frame of this story, but heat-assisted magnetic recording (HAMR) could breathe new life into hard drives. The idea is to use a powerful laser along with the drive's traditional magnetic read-write heads to raise a drive's data density and performance.
Either way, it looks like in 2010 we'll have terabyte notebook drives, but we'll have to decide between rotating media hybrids and pure solid-state flash drives.
The next two years hold a lot in store for lithium batteries, which power everything from music players and cell phones to notebooks and cameras. The first big step forward will happen later this year, with the advent of power cells that don't wear out after a couple years of use.
Every lithium battery is basically a small chemical factory that works by trading the chemical energy stored in lithium compounds for electrical energy that powers the system. When it runs out of power, you charge the battery to replenish its supply of chemical energy. This repeated charge-discharge cycle creates layers of oxyhydroxide on the all-important carbon anode where the battery's electricity is collected, choking the cells to death.