Storage devices push tech envelope

Bill Healy, the senior vice president of Hitachi Global Storage Technologies Inc, whipped out a tiny hard drive about the size of a Wheat Thin cracker.

A .85-inch hard disk drive developed by Japan's Toshiba
A .85-inch hard disk drive developed by Japan's Toshiba

The drive’s label claimed a capacity of 1,000 gigabytes (GB) – more than 100 times greater than today’s models that can hold 8,000 photos or 2,000 songs.

It was not real. But at the rate storage technology is now moving, it is only a matter of time before Healy’s mock 1-terabyte disk drive becomes a reality.

With pioneering products like TiVo Inc’s digital video recorders and Apple Computer Inc’s iPod music players, the unsung storage components of hard disk drives and flash memory are taking on more visible roles.

These are the keepers of precious personal cargo – from photos and household finances to music collections and favourite TV shows.

Top suppliers – like Seagate, Western Digital Inc and Hitachi for hard drives, and Samsung Electronics Co and Toshiba Corp for both flash memory and hard drives – are consistently pushing the technological envelope to feed device makers with ever beefier and more reliable technology.

Consider Apple’s original iPod, which started in 2001 with a 5GB hard drive. Today, Apple has models ranging from the pencil-thin iPod Nano that holds up to 4GB using flash memory, to a video-capable iPod holding up to 60GB on a hard drive.

Flash memory makers have been doubling capacities about every nine months, says Celeste Crystal, an analyst at market researcher IDC. They are squeezing more bits of data onto cells in their silicon chips as well as developing new ways to stack layers of cells in the same amount of space.

The capacities of hard drives, which use spinning magnetised disks, have been doubling nearly each year.

Perpendicular recording

After decades of cramming more and more bits of data closer together, physical limitations are kicking in, so now the industry is switching to so-called perpendicular recording. By flipping the bits of information to stand vertically rather than horizontally, hard drive capacities are again on track to keep expanding.

As a result, consumers are closer than they have ever been to seeing a terabyte of storage in the 3.5-inch hard-disk drives found in mainstream home computers.

Later this year, consumers will see PCs and backup-storage devices with 750GB hard drives – a 50% increase from the previous industry maximum of 500GB and many more times greater than the megabyte drives of the 1980s.

Three-quarters of a terabyte will let consumers store roughly 375 hours of standard TV programming, about 75 hours of high-definition video, more than a half million photos, or more than 10,000 music CDs converted into the MP3 digital audio format.

And by the end of 2007, PCs will have 1-terabyte drives while notebook computers will sport 200GB drives, suppliers said.

Flash memory

The competing storage medium, flash memory, holds data in tinier packages than hard drives, though at smaller capacities. Flash chips, unlike hard drives, have no moving parts, making them particularly rugged and versatile.

It is why people can now tote around reams of documents on USB keychains or work out to their favourite tunes on gizmos as light as a stick of Chapstick.

Continued advances will mean portable gadgets will be able to carry 32GB of data on fingernail-sized flash memory cards within five years, predicts Eli Harari, chief executive of SanDisk Corp, the world’s largest supplier of flash memory storage cards.

Both industries are on a tear.

The hard drive industry hit a record $27.9 billion in worldwide sales in 2005, and IDC predicts record shipments will continue annually, ballooning to $41.5 billion in 2010.

Flash industry sales are expected to jump to $18.7 billion in 2010, up from a record $10.6 billion in 2005, IDC forecasts.

Though flash memory and hard drives will compete for business in some overlapping product segments – cell phones, portable media players and ultracompact laptops – analysts say both are poised to dominate their respective markets.

Hard drives, with their monster capacities, are expected to become increasingly vital components in all kinds of consumer gear – not just computers. They’re also expanding into game consoles, car navigation systems, digital video recorders and camcorders.

Source : AFP

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