Flash Based Laptops, Sooner Than You Think
Over the last 50 years many companies have found it necessary to give thought to the long term storage of digital information. And so, for a good portion of the computer age, and before harddrives had reached their current useful sizes, there were tape drives. In fact, tape drives are still in use today in many places, though most people have forgotten they still exist. They are like that crazy uncle everyone has, but no one ever talks about. He is still out there even if you don’t invite him to Thanksgiving.
Tape drives continue to be popular among certain companies but that is mainly because they have already invested considerable amounts of capital in tape drive technology. Coupled with the hassle of converting all of their tape archives into new media and you have a company that is a prime candidate for continuing the use of old technology. Thus even though a harddrive based RAID system might provide better performance with lower cost these companies still don’t want to make the change. I mention tape drives because even though they are an outdated system, and better alternatives exist, they are still around. 50 years of progress in data storage systems and they are still around. So, what will replace harddrives eventually?
Well, if the iPod nano is any indication then it just might be flash drives. It really is remarkable when you think that a stick of flash memory replaced the harddrive that was in the iPod mini. And then you have Samsung’s recent announcement of 16GB flash drives that can be combined to form one larger 32GB drive and that should raise some eyebrows.
Let us assume that Samsung is able to make a 32GB flash drive in a year or two, what would be the implications? Well, the 12” iBook has a harddrive of 40GB so, to me, it looks like a prime candidate for a ‘mini to nano’-like switch. And if the entry level iBook was to trade its harddrive for a flash drive there would be several very noticeable results. First, off would have to be form factor. Flash is considerably smaller than disk based storage so that means the 12” iBook now becomes an untra-portable laptop. It becomes both thinner and lighter, perfect for those on the go. And we can’t forget about battery life. Since there is no disk that has to constantly be spinning considerable power savings can be reached. And the access time for data increases meaning a faster computing experience all around. So, as far as the iBook line goes, it seems to make sense all around to go with flash.
But now look at the Mac mini. It too has a 40GB harddrive, how could it benefit from an infusion of flash memory? Well, for starters it could be made even smaller, but then it would start to look like a large coaster. How about this instead, Apple shifts the mini off of harddrives and onto flash drives, and as a result the mini gets bigger.
No, you didn’t misread that last sentence. I think Apple might switch the mini over to flash but ultimately make the dimensions bigger, or, at the very least, keep them the same. What makes me think that? Why, the power supply of course. With more room inside the case Apple could move that little box inside of the casing. You might be wondering why that would matter all that much, well, here is why. What if Apple really did want the mini to be the center of its future home entertainment center? Maybe I should rephrase that to read, what if Apple wants consumers to treat the mini as more of an appliance and less of a computer? What if Apple wants the mini to really be a white box with one cable that plugs into the wall and another that plugs into your TV, and that’s it. I wonder if Apple has any remote controls in the works for the mini? But I digress.
Back to the harddrive vs flash debate. I fully expect the low end of Apple’s products to become flash based in the near future. I also expect Intel’s new, low power mobile chips (code named Yonah I believe) to arrive in the same time frame. And in two years I have a feeling that Jobs will announce an Intel-flash iBook that will be the thinest laptop ever made boasting the best battery life of any current machine. And when that happens expect the industry to scramble just like it is doing now after the release of the nano.