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10 trends for 2007: 3.- Storage: Flash Memory

Solid state storage

Flash memory stores data on solid-state transistors instead of on the magnetic platters of a hard drive. Unlike the RAM memory in your Mac, flash memory (also called NAND memory) is non-volatile, which means that its contents do not disappear when you turn off the computer.

As a storage medium, flash memory has some advantages over standard hard drives. First, since flash memory has no moving parts, it is more robust and consumes less power. Second, flash memory is also capable of delivering data faster under certain circumstances. Historically, the main disadvantage of flash memory has been price; but these have dropped dramatically over the last year.

For all the above reasons, storage and computer manufacturers have been working on how to incorporate flash memory into their products. It is just now, when it seems that the fruits of this task are beginning to be seen in two different ways.

Among other manufacturers, Samsung and Seagate are planning to launch hybrid hard drives in early 2007. These drives will replace current platter-based drives with small flash memory-based devices. This initiative is likely to be followed by other manufacturers as well.

Intel is developing an alternative system, codenamed Robson. The chipmaking giant plans to incorporate flash memory into chipsets it sells to computer makers; therefore, memory could be built into the motherboard instead of the hard drive.

In either case, flash memory could help your system in two different ways. In one scenario, some of the potions on the system might be stored in flash memory, so they would load faster than they would if they were stored on a hard drive. As a result we would have faster startup times.

In another scenario, the computer could store the application code and program data in flash memory. You would save energy, as the hard drive platters wouldn’t have to spin as often, and the system could run faster, as flash memory offers higher transfer rates than a hard drive.

System question

But to take advantage of the benefits of flash memory, the operating system must be aware of its existence and how to use it. Apple, as usual, does not comment on this but surely there is a high probability that Macs will incorporate this type of storage in 2007.

On the one hand, in 2005 Apple signed a long-term NAND memory supply agreement with several of the leading vendors. Most of this memory is used in iPod nano and shuffle, but some of it could also be redirected to hard drive manufacturers. Apple could use hybrid hard drives from a manufacturer that adopts such technology. Somewhat less plausible is that Apple adopts the Robson chipsets from Intel, and there is no reason why Apple cannot add flash memory support in OS X.

Another possibility is that Apple could create a Mac (similar to a laptop) in which only flash storage is used. Combine flash storage with an Intel processor and you can build an ultrathin, power efficient laptop. And that’s just the beginning of all kinds of speculation. A Mac tablet? A handheld Mac? Flash memory makes all of this possible.

Buying advice

Until OS X adds support for flash-based storage there is no reason for you to consider it. When support comes to such technology, and you want to take advantage of it, you will not have much decision-making power about it either. Apple will offer hybrid drives on its Macs (or maybe Macs with Robson chipsets). You may also be able to add these hybrid discs as upgrades.

You can comment on this trend in the Macworld Forum