Solid state disk lackluster for laptops, PCs

Laptops, desktops won't see a cost/benefit advantage in SSD for about two years

Most observers agree that solid-state disk (SSD) will eventually overtake magnetic disk drives as the storage medium of choice. SSD is lighter than traditional hard disk drives, is faster, is more durable and consumes less power. Still, SSD doesn't measure up to the hype, particularly when using it in a desktop or laptop PC.

"There are a host of problems with SSD," says Avi Cohen, head of research at Avian Securities. "There's no reason to pay the extra $600 to $800 -- or a 40 percent to 80 percent premium -- for a solid-state drive."

Cohen is not alone in his assessment of consumer-grade SSD. Consumer-grade SSD generally uses multilevel cell (MLC) NAND flash memory, which has greater capacity and a lower-price point but suffers from slower I/O and as much as 10 times fewer read/writes over its life span. Corporate-grade SSD uses single-level cell (SLC) NAND memory and multiple channels to increase data throughput and wear-leveling software to ensure data is distributed evenly in the drive rather than wearing out one group of cells over another. And, while some consumer-grade SSD is just now beginning to incorporate the latter features to increase its performance, there will still be a cost/capacity disparity for years to come.

Other analysts agree, and even disk drive makers, including Fujitsu, do not see themselves producing SSD for at least another two years. That's how long it will take before the cost-vs.-benefit ratio makes sense for SSD to be a viable alternative to hard disk drives in laptops and PCs.

"I think you need to get to 128GB for around $200, and that's going to happen around 2010. Also, the industry needs to effectively communicate why consumers or enterprise users should pay more for less storage," says Joseph Unsworth, an analyst at Gartner, referring to the fact that a 1TB hard disk drive today can cost under US$200. A 1TB SSD would cost tens of thousands of dollars, he says.

Today, consumer-grade SSD costs from US$2 to $3.45 per gigabyte, hard drives about $0.38 per gigabyte, according to Gartner and iSuppli. Just two years ago, SSD cost US$17.50 per gigabyte, so it's obvious that consumer NAND flash memory will soon be a true contender to hard disk drives -- it's just not there yet.

"As a percentage of the whole solid-state drive industry, it'll remain pretty light for now," says Joel Hagberg, Fujitsu's vice president of business development. "Pricing needs to get better."

Intel's and Micron Technology's upcoming SSDs will be based on 32Gbit chip technology. Each NAND flash chip will cost just shy of US$4.00, which works out to about US$0.99 a gigabyte. The companies will be the first to break the US$1.00 a gigabyte barrier with their upcoming consumer SSD products, according to Jim Handy, an analyst at Objective Analysis.

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