Evolving storage market behind MacBook Air price cut

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The market for solid-state drives—those storage devices with no moving parts that stash data in solid-state memory—continues to evolve, as manufacturers figure out ways to store more for less. And that figures to benefit consumers who keep a close eye on the ever-changing market.

Case in point: last week's MacBook Air price cut for the solid-state drive-equipped version of Apple's ultra-thin notebook.

The MacBook Air comes in two versions—the standard $1,799 1.6GHz model with an 80GB hard disk drive, and a optional configuration featuring a faster 1.8GHz chip and a 64GB solid-state drive. That drive stores data on silicon rather than on a rotating hard disk platter you'd find in conventional drives.

When the MacBook Air debuted in January, Apple offered the optional version with the solid-state drive for an eye-popping $3,098. But last week, the company cut that price to $2,598. (MacBook Air customers can also add the 64GB SSD to the 1.6GHz model for an extra $599.)

This 16-percent price cut came about because Apple is using a first-generation SSD mechanism in the Air, according to Jeff Janukowicz, research manager for solid state drives and HDD Components at IDC.

“With the advent of Multi Level Cell (MLC) technology, SSD manufacturers are now able to produce SSDs that store twice the capacity for the same price as before,” Janukowicz explained. That’s caused the price of older mechanisms to fall dramatically, and Apple has adjusted the price of the SSD-equipped MacBook Air accordingly.

Janukowicz expects the SSD market to continue offering less-expensive and higher-capacity mechanisms in the coming 12 to 18 months as the technology sees more widespread adoption in the consumer space—at least for consumers who are looking for the benefits SSDs impart.

Krishna Chander, senior analyst, Storage Systems at market-research firm iSuppli, says that while MLC technology is increasing storage capacity, SSDs are still a long way off from being found in a large percentage of laptops. iSuppli predicts that mass adoption of SSD drives in notebooks is still 3 to 4 years off.

Chander suggests that Apple’s price drop on the SSD-equipped MacBook Air is being motivated both by a lower component cost and by slow consumer adoption. Chander said that iSuppli estimates only about 1 percent of laptop users now have systems that use SSD drives, with that number likely to rise gradually to about 35 percent by 2012.

Proponents of SSD drives say the devices work faster and have greater durability, as they don’t require the same amount of time to access data and don’t suffer mechanical failures because there’s no rotating drive mechanism.

“The PC is a system, so the co-existence of memory, processor speed, video capabilities and other factors all affect performance,” Janukowicz said. “But the reality is that SSDs do provide increased performance because they don’t have the latency or need the time to access data that hard drives do, and power consumption is lower.”

According to Chander, buyers considers SSDs because of the power savings, improved boot time, and drop shock recovery “If you drop a laptop equipped with an SSD drive, it won’t destroy the data,” he said.

But SSD technology is still in its infancy, at least in the PC market, according to Janukowicz, so the drives will remain priced dramatically higher than hard drives for the time being. Which means that customers looking for the benefits SSDs may offer will still be paying dearly for them, compared to hard drives.

Hard disk drives are a very mature technology at this point, noted Janukowicz. As SSDs mature there will be rapid advances, for sure, but price and storage capacity parity between the two mediums is still a long way off.

“Hard drives still give you a great bang for your buck,” said Janukowicz.

IDC and Macworld publisher Mac Publishing are both business units of International Data Group (IDG).

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