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Flash memory

Solid-state, flash-based storage—the kind used in the iPod nano and shuffle—is coming to the Mac. The result could be better battery life, quicker booting, and entirely new kinds of systems.

Solid-state storage

Flash memory stores data in solid-state transistors rather than on the magnetic platters of a hard drive. Unlike your Mac’s RAM, flash memory (also called NAND memory) is nonvolatile, meaning that its contents don’t disappear when you turn off the power.

As a storage medium, flash memory has some advantages over standard hard drives. First, because flash memory has no moving parts, it’s sturdier and it consumes less power. Second, in many circumstances, flash memory delivers data faster.

Historically, flash memory’s major disadvantage has been price: in 2002, it cost about $260 per gigabyte, compared with $150 per gigabyte for a comparable one-inch "microdrive" hard drive. But prices for both have dropped drastically since then.

For all of these reasons, computer and storage vendors have been working on ways to incorporate flash memory into their products. Right now, it looks as though the fruits of their labor will appear in two forms.

Samsung and Seagate, among others, plan to release hybrid hard drives in early 2007. These drives will supplement the usual magnetic platters with a small bit of built-in flash memory. You can expect most other hard-drive vendors to follow suit.

Illustration by Oliver Wolfson.

Intel is developing an alternative scheme, code-named Robson. The chip giant plans to incorporate flash memory into the chip sets it sells to computer makers; thus, the memory would be built into the motherboard rather than the hard drive.

In either case, flash memory could help your system in a couple of ways. In one scenario, bits of the operating system would be stored in flash memory; those bits could load more quickly from flash memory than they could from a hard drive. The result would be faster bootup times.

In another scenario, your computer would store application code and program data in flash memory. You’d save power, because the hard drive’s platters wouldn’t have to spin quite as much. And the system could run incrementally faster, because flash memory delivers data faster than a hard drive.

It’s up to the OS

But to realize the advantages of flash memory, the operating system has to know it’s there and know what to do with it. Apple, as usual, is silent on the subject. But the chances look good that the Mac will get flash storage in 2007.

For one thing, back in 2005, Apple signed long-term sourcing agreements for NAND memory with several of the world’s leading suppliers. Most of that memory is going into iPod nanos and shuffles, but some could be redirected to hard-drive makers. Apple could use hybrid drives from any vendor that adopts the technology. Less likely, Apple could adopt Intel’s Robson chip sets. And there’s no reason Apple couldn’t add flash-memory support to OS X.

One other intriguing possibility is that Apple could build a Mac—most likely a laptop—that uses flash storage alone. Combine flash storage with a relatively cool Intel chip, and you can build a radically thin, power-savvy laptop. And that’s just the beginning of all the speculation. Tablet Mac? Handheld Mac? Flash memory makes it all imaginable.

Buying advice

Until OS X adds support for flash storage, there’s no reason to contemplate it. If and when that support arrives, and if you want to take advantage of it, you probably won’t have much choice in the matter. Apple will offer hybrid drives in its Macs (or, maybe, Macs with Robson chip sets). It’s also possible that you’ll be able to add hybrid drives as upgrades.

[ Dan Miller is Macworld ’s executive editor. ]

( Dec. 21, 12:53 p.m.: Edited IDC data to make clear that average pricing statistics were for one-inch "microdrive" hard drives.)

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