Flash Based Laptops, Sooner Than You Think

by James R. Stoup Sep 16, 2005

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  I mention tape drives because even though they are an outdated system, and better alternatives exist, they are still around. 50 years of progress in data storage systems and they are still around.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.


  • >Flash memory will NOT replace hard drives in computers.

    Just like the statement Bill Gates made about computers a few years ago.  512 kilobyte of RAM is the max any computer will need. 

    Don’t count Flash out yet.  Once you’ve seen what happens on a computer with more RAM than hard disk space, you’ll want Flash to become cheap enough to be the primary source of memory.  One day, someone wanders into our usergroup clinic with a IIci with something no one ever did before.  The IIci had a 20 MB hard drive and 32 MB of RAM!  That’s right, more RAM than hard disk, and it had System 6.  It booted in one second flat.  I kid you not.    It is only a matter of time before memory can be made cheap enough to make flash memory the primary memory for computers.  And demand will drive the market.  Once people see what having more physical memory than hard disk space does, they will want flash memory based computers.

    gopher had this to say on Sep 16, 2005 Posts: 9
  • klktrk,
    You need to define “constant use”. Constant use of a Palm is not the same as constant use of a laptop.  Do you use your Palm for hours every day?  Do you send all of your email, do all your web browsing, all of your basic computing tasks all day on your Palm?  I’m guessing no. Your anecdotal example isn’t really a good one and here’s why.

    Read cycles cost the flash memory essentially nothing (I’ve read that there actually is a read limit, but it’s so high that it would likely last years upon years).  So, as long as you’re not constantly writing new data to the flash card, it’ll go for a long time. 

    So… let’s say that on a typical day, you put 5 new entries (calendar, contacts, etc) into your Palm… even if you do that every day of the year that’s still only about 1500 write cycles per year.  Assuming the worst case that you have a flash card that only lasts around 10,000 cycles, that’s still 7 years of “heavy” usage (and that’s not really a good example anyway, because you’re only performing and erase-write on a small portion of the total memory… but let’s run with it for the moment).

    Now think about how a computer accesses the hard drive.  When browsing, every cached html page and image is written to the drive. On this one page alone, there are 27 items (html, images, ads, etc) Browse 5 pages of Apple Matters and you’ve got about 100 items written to the cache (let’s estimate that about 50 of the items only need to be loaded the first time and are read from the cache after that). Now multiply that by the number of sites you visit during the day adjusting for the number of pages you actually browse (5 is actually too low for this example). Suddenly, you’re up to about 1000 - 2000 file writes per day just for web browsing alone.

    Try this out. Clear your cache out (in something other than Safari which doesn’t allow it) and then browse for a day. Look to see how many files are in the cache folder and how much space they take up (Make sure your cache size is set artificially high so the computer doesn’t erase old files as it goes). That will give you an idea of how much of the flash ram will need erase-writes performed.

    Now add all you email, including spam and other stuff you have to delete. Word docs, text, other files you write on a typical day.

    Add to that the fact that flash ram must perform its erase-writes on an entire block (even if you only need to write a word or byte), and you end up with a really large number of erase-write cycles.

    ... and this doesn’t take virtual memory into account. Swapping pages would absolutely murder flash ram.

    To make a long story short, the usage patters of memory in a Palm versus the usage of a hard drive in a laptop are very, very different… and the article proposed that something like flash ram could replace a drive in a small laptop or as someone else suggested, a tablet PC.

    Again, the way an iPod, digital camera, or Palm utilizes memory is very different than the way a computer does. I don’t disagree that as flash memory becomes cheaper and smaller, Apple will take advantage of it for devices like the iPod, and we may see the end of hard drives in MP3 players sooner than later, but for generalized computing tasks, we will need a better form of non-volatile ram… which is still years off.

    You can read more about other issues with flash memory at Wikipedia:

    Performance degrades but over time, not in an eye blink.

    Unless a lost block is an important one. If you lose file pointers to your user directory, you’re screwed.  The directory tree is one of those pieces in the file system that will need to be rewritten relatively often. It only takes one small bit (pun unintended) of bad data to totally hose your machine.

    vb_baysider had this to say on Sep 16, 2005 Posts: 243
  • gopher,
    I’m talking about a physical technical limitation of flash ram… not a consumer’s desire for a device that utilizes non-volatile ram.

    We’d all love to have a device that could stand up to more abuse than current hard drives. No moving parts means no head crashes, and a dropped iPod might crack a screen, but there will be no hard drive to cheese… and that’s all good.

    But flash ram just can’t be used for generalized computing because of the erase-write limit.  Hopefully, we’ll see a replacement technology come down the road in not too long (like using carbon nanotubes or some other cutting edge nanotech), but for the time being, we’re stuck with hard drives.

    vb_baysider had this to say on Sep 16, 2005 Posts: 243
  • I don’t know about this, guys. Flash memory is really slow compared to today’s 7200 rpm high-cache hard disk drives. And to the guy who blamed flash memory’s slowness on USB is mistaken on two counts.

    For one, high-speed USB is about 480 megabits per second, not “21 or 20”, as post #11 states. Secondly, USB flash drives are not the only form of slow flash memory. Flash memory that’s built into cameras is slow. Flash memory cards are slow (even the “ultra speed” ones are slow compared to a hard disk drive). Flash memory that’s built into MP3 players whether it be the new iPod nano, the iPod Shuffle, or some non-apple flash-based player, is quite slow compared to fast hard disk drives.

    By the way, this technology already exists. I found a 2.5” equivalent form factor flash-based IDE hard “disk” drive at http://www.cdw.com a few months ago which was for sale to be used as a boot disk in industrial computers which are in dusty and high-vibration envirionments and benefit from a solid-state medium. The drives were really low capacity (about 512MB tops, I think) and were rated as being really slow. Something like 8 megabytes per second. I can’t find them again or I’d post a link.

    amethystjw had this to say on Sep 16, 2005 Posts: 1
  • Flash RAM MAY indeed find it’s way into a hard disk replacement, but only in conjunction with a healthy dash of battery backed SRAM or DRAM.  Flash is too slow and won’t last.  However, if a controller is developed that uses the flash to store the stuff that isn’t changing (the vast majority of the data on your disk), then it might work.

    This whole thing could work something like disk does for your regular RAM in the ordinary implementation of a virtual memory scheme.  The flash holds the static stuff, a cache holds the dynamic stuff.

    Small details would have to be worked out so that when unforseen events happen, like a system crash, the dynamic data would be written out.  Shutdown would also require a write out.

    Hard disks will be hard to beat.  The cost is diving and will dive more.  But for some power sensitive applications, flash may indeed find a home.

    gwschreyer had this to say on Sep 16, 2005 Posts: 23
  • I think I remember a time when Unisys used to use a 1 GB memory drive back in the mid 80’s to enhance their speed with mainframes. Alas, once the drive was shutdown, all the data was lost. I think once the speed of the flash memory is increased, it would be a valuble product. What about the gaming issue with flash drives?

    Bigeasytoo had this to say on Sep 17, 2005 Posts: 1
  • I don’t really see Flash replacing rotating media in the near future because of the lifetime (write cycle) issues, the fact that it doesn’t save that much physical space.  It is pretty hard to beat having a 120 GB harddrive!  Fujitsu has a 160 GB laptop harddrive on the way.

    Flash could be used in a clever way to extend the battery life of a laptop.  For example, you could imagine putting the OS and other key applications into flash.  This would allow you to keep the drive powered down more frequently.

    You could also implement a zero power sleep mode using a large flash device.

    Ray Fix had this to say on Sep 17, 2005 Posts: 21
  • In Fall of 2000, the median entry level PC had a hard drive roughly 20GB in size, give or take.  In the Mac world, the iMacs at the time had about half that, again give or take.  Today, just in the desktop world, this same price point comes bundled with 120GB drives, sometimes more, and over time the software and media we use and consume has grown substantially as well.  For laptops there has always been this trade off that portability leaves you with less room, and in the case of the low-end iBook probably too little (I had to upgrade mine anyway).  So by the time any of this is really available wouldn’t it stand to reason that the applications we use, the OS we run, etc. just be that much larger?

    In terms of the laptop, I really see very little usefulness in terms of form factor anyway seeing that a near full size keyboard is a must. Dropping another lb. for claims of being ‘lightest’, well, that’s already been done - Sony does it what seems like every 6 months.

    And in regard to power consumption…  I’m scratching my head over this one by the way:  If Flash uses less power than a hard drive, how is it that the nano has poorer battery life than the iPod mini that it replaced?

    dickrichards2000 had this to say on Sep 17, 2005 Posts: 112
  • dickrichards2000,

    The Nano has worse battery life than the Mini because even though it consumes less power, it has a much smaller battery.

    James R. Stoup had this to say on Sep 17, 2005 Posts: 122
  • diskrichards2000

    that one is pretty easy, the battery has been downsized to make it smaller and still just meet a usuable battery life.

    disks eat a fair amount of power all the time that they spin.  Flash eats even more while it is being written.  However a disk spins nearly constantly, the flash write cycle is short so the net power advantage is to flash.

    gwschreyer had this to say on Sep 17, 2005 Posts: 23
  • You are only speaking in terms of one.
    With the flash drive being so small
    You certainly and easily fit more than one drive
    in a new ibook

    dharr had this to say on Sep 17, 2005 Posts: 1
  • The fact that flash memory has limited read write cycles is a common thread among buyers of used memory. The sellers often state that the sticks were not used in routers or other such devices that get frequent r/w cycles.

    Anyone have any thoughts as to how these are destroyed? Are the gates themselves disintegrating? Is it too much current? Poor manufacturing? Or, is it simply use?

    TimMaroney had this to say on Sep 17, 2005 Posts: 1
  • I happen to like the idea of a flash-based portable IF the memory is fast.  ‘Instant on’ would be preferable to the boot-cycle I currently sit through (granted, booting up is much faster now that it was a few years ago…).

    Anyone know how ‘instant on’ one of these flash laptops would be?


    counsel had this to say on Sep 17, 2005 Posts: 2
  • hmmm… smaller battery, duh… that makes sense.

    Anyway, the speed of the boot cycle of a flash-based laptop would be relative to how fast the memory itself is.  I have a mini PC that boots from a CF card fairly fast, though hardly what I would call “instant on”.  I attribute some of that to the relatively painstaking process that WinXP goes through with various drivers, etc. everytime it boots, the rest I just attribute to the bandwidth limitations of the CF format.  It’s not as fast as regular old RAM obviously.  I haven’t timed it in awhile, it’s about a year old now and hasn’t seen a lot of action since I got into Macs, but it booted about 50% faster than my regular desktop PC off a SATA RAID-0.

    dickrichards2000 had this to say on Sep 18, 2005 Posts: 112
  • i think apple’s course is outlined very clearly in the form of the ipod nano. after all, why would apple scrap its best selling ipod for a new model that, because of its solid-state memory, has a lower profit margin and smaller capacity than the model it is replacing?
      because it wants to gain traction in the design and sale of flash-based consumer products. it’s partnering with samsung and buying a large percentage of their total memory allocation. why? for just the nano? i don’t think so. those same components could be used to create a whole line of new products. imagine a video ipod as thin as a nano, but with a very familiar clickwheel interface. imagine a wireless webpad running a slimmed down version of OSX in a wafer-thin formfactor that will shame every other “tablet” on the market.  the possible uses are endless. eventually, when cost and size permit, i think we will see the end of the traditional laptop hard drive…but not anytime soon. the first applications will be devices…and i’d bet we’ll be seeing them in the very near future.

    david randall had this to say on Sep 18, 2005 Posts: 10
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