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  I mention tape drives because even though they are an outdated system, and better alternatives exist, they are still around. 50 years of progress in data storage systems and they are still around.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


  • There’s one thing I don’t understand, if Samsung’s new chip is 16 Gb—> 2 GB, then what difference is there between those and the 2 GB (and 4, 8 GB) CompactFlash cards that have been around for some time now?

    martunibo had this to say on Sep 18, 2005 Posts: 37
  • Even if Apple corners the market with Samsung and flash memory, the flash-memory video iPod is a LONG way off.  A comparable device from Creative or Samsung themselves with 20+GB is barely capable of presenting a quality image on a 3.5” screen, let alone connected to a television, and this functionality is a MUST for a device like this to succeed - I have two iPods now and have not once used the headphones, I simply like the ability of having all of my music in one easy-to-use place, connected to speakers.  The Video iPod would have to work much the same way, I don’t see a lot of joggers using it, and with 2005 being the year of HDTV (supposedly) a lot of storage is required than what flash currently comes close to offering for a reasonable value.

    The flash-memory powered Mac tablet though, well, I’d be first in line for that.

    dickrichards2000 had this to say on Sep 19, 2005 Posts: 112
  • The thing is, the hard disk is still the best solution for huge storage capacities at a decent enough speed. Heck we’ll be seeing 1TB drives next year, and we don’t even have a realistic backup method for them other than buying a second drive.

    A big problem is size of what’s being run. I used to cram 40 odd application on my Newton’s 1MB card hehe. But then again the applications were very simple.

    As mentioned about the handheld video players. Would be great to plug into a TV and play back anywhere…sheesh even better if TV’s got wifi (yeah yeah fantasy time).

    My personal belief on how things are moving is more office centric style. Have a server at home, some big (ish) machine with a shed load of hard disks in it stick in the basement or attic. And then it throwing music and video out to the TVs, hifi’s, portable stations etc around the house. And the actually desktop machines end up as very much simplified systems like a very much smaller Mini Mac with no storage at all…maybe just the OS on a locked flash (like used in a thin client terminal), and a load of RAM on it so it can cope with web cache etc through a RAM drive.

    Laptop wise, I am kind of thinking more on the idea of probably a much smaller machine like the Hitachi with no hard disk (think its Japan only at the moment though). The entire things very much simplified down to a VPN access machine going back to your office. You could quite easily modify something like that with a lot of flash to hold a proper OS and applications, but keeping the web cache on a RAM drive, and all storage online. Would work fine, as long as you are in an area with wifi access.

    Nyadach had this to say on Sep 20, 2005 Posts: 29
  • Hello,
    The problem is not with the flash and the read/write issue, the problem is with this page swapping and ‘cache’ mentality. If all of your applications are tightly written and compiled, they would be smaller, change less often, and would be ‘static’. As would the OS also.

    So if the software and os are more like firmware, instead of an update every day, read/right would be dropped. Keep ‘cache’ in RAM, as Nyadach says, and with enough RAM, why have a swap or page file?
    People are blaiming the technology not being adequate, instead I think it is the way we are using it.

    ldj00 had this to say on Sep 20, 2005 Posts: 1
  • It’s all possible, its just a process of really deciding what you want the machine to do. I’ve recently done some work on some machines which have 512MB RAM, and are using a 512MB flash drive (write protected) for the OS and applications which is why I know this whole thing works. Even in 512MB its been possible to put WinXP, IE6, Java, Acrobat, Office, and a few other odds’n'ends and leaving the machine with (ok not much) 35MB free space for users to play around with. Users messing up the systems no longer an issue, restart, new copy of all programs and OS. Virus protections not needed, or spyware, restart its clean. I’ve done this also with Linux, to a lesser extent due to the applications. In theory I don’t really see an issue why the MacOS couldn’t do it also if you really go at it on a killing spree to remove the bloat (heck, if you can get XP down to under 100MB, its got to be possible).

    Its all fine on a LAN as you have somewhere else to store too. Laptop wise until we have wifi everywhere, its going to be a bit of a problem. Although thinking about it, having the machine not really go into full shutdown (not like it needs to since no HDD to protect), you could really keep a RAM drive for files etc, which is auto synced when it finds a connection again…eek, am starting to dream up new projects to play with hehe raspberry

    Nyadach had this to say on Sep 20, 2005 Posts: 29
  • Samsung announced a 16 Gigabyte Solid State Drive (SSD) based on 8 Gigabit NAND chips last May http://www.tmcnet.com/usubmit/2005/May/1146781.htm due to ship last month. So a 32GB SSD based on the new 16 gigabit chip is not that far out there. Initial form factor is no different from disk based drives to ease market acceptance, but obviously, other, thinner form factors are possible and likely if ordered in quantity.

    xiffix had this to say on Sep 21, 2005 Posts: 1
  • My counter argument to this speculation is outlined here:
    Noah Dylan Goldblatt’s defense for a new Apple Tablet - the iNote

    dylapoo had this to say on Sep 21, 2005 Posts: 3
  • dylapoo,

    Thank you for that link, it was very interesting.  Do you agree with the author of that link or were you just posting that to contrast with my article?

    James R. Stoup had this to say on Sep 21, 2005 Posts: 122
  • Thanks for reading it.  I am the author.

    dylapoo had this to say on Sep 26, 2005 Posts: 3
  • October 2007- How much of this has changed? Phil Steen: do you still think
    “Flash memory will NOT replace hard drives in computers.  Flash memory only has a life of a couple million write cycles. While this is plenty for an MP3 player or digital camera which doesn’t access flash memory constantly, flash ram as a hard drive replacement would die a quick and painful death and your laptop would be a very expensive paperweight in under 6 months. Even if you moved the swap partition into regular RAM, the flash drive would still rack up reads and writes quickly enough that it would hit its failure limit in a little over a year.  How would you like to turn on your 1 year old Powerbook only to find that it not only doesn’t boot, but all your data has died a painful and unrecoverable death?
    So… don’t expect hard drives to go away anytime soon.  Does that mean we’ll never see a lower power solid state replacement for the hard drive?  No… it will happen eventually. There are a few promising technologies in development, but it will be years and years before we see them in an Apple computer (or Dell or IBM or….) “?

    I am trying to decide if I should wait until Apple switches to flash RAM to get an iPod. Will that ever happen? If so, how soon do you think?

    RChesak had this to say on Oct 05, 2007 Posts: 3
  • I believe the laptops with RAID system will be the best alternative to hard drives. RAID systems are mostly used in the web server by uk web hosting providers. If the RAID systems are integrated in laptops, it surely gonna boost the sales as the data safety will increase more.

    macwilson had this to say on Jul 06, 2011 Posts: 1
  • 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.  Blu Ray Ripper for Mac Mac OS X//| Blu Ray Ripper

    tinnas had this to say on Oct 28, 2011 Posts: 1
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