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Look, Ma – No Hard Drive!

I’m writing this column on a computer that looks and acts pretty much like most other notebook PCs running Microsoft Windows. It has a typical screen and keyboard, it’s running Microsoft Office and other standard Windows applications and it’s equipped with an Intel processor.

But there is one thing missing. The machine I’m using doesn’t have a hard drive. Where the drive would normally be located, there is a 32 gigabyte solid state flash drive. The machine, from a non-disclosed PC vendor, is a prototype that isn’t yet on the market.

Samsung, which makes the memory but not the PC, says it will soon offer 64 gigabyte drives. Dell already offers a 32 gigabyte solid state drive as an option, albeit an expensive one, on some of its Latitude notebook PCs.

While even 64 GB is far below the capacity of the hard drives used in many of today’s notebook PCs, it’s an adequate amount of storage for Windows XP or Vista, numerous applications and typical storage requirements for many business users.

The 32 gigabyte PC I tested had enough room for Windows XP, Microsoft Office and several applications with 12 gigabytes left over for data storage. I wouldn’t recommend a drive like this for someone with a lot of video and audio files, but for a road warrior who’s interested in web surfing, email and a few gigabytes of data files, it’s more than enough capacity.

One of the advantages of solid state storage became evident as soon as I turned on the machine. It booted Windows much faster than a machine with a hard drive. Because memory has no moving parts, there’s no need to wait for a drive to spin up and for a mechanical read/write head to reach the right place on the disk.

The machine I tested was also faster in starting and quitting applications, loading data files and even shutting down, again because reading and writing from memory is faster than accessing a mechanical drive.

Even web surfing is faster because the flash drive doesn’t have to pull stored (cached) websites off a hard drive. Samsung says that its solid state drives have twice the data read speed as do typical hard drives.

Another advantage is that solid state drives are more energy-efficient than hard drives because there are no moving parts. Samsung estimates that they will yield up to 10% more battery life on mobile PCs.

Solid state drives are also more rugged. Hard drives are probably the least reliable component on a typical PC, especially a notebook PC which is subject to being dropped or at least jolted as it’s carried around or placed on a desk.

Shaking or jarring a hard drive while it’s writing to a disk can have devastating results. Although no storage technology is 100% reliable, with a solid state drive, you don’t have to worry about the read/write head crashing against the drive platters.

Other advantages are that they weigh less and take up less space, generate less heat and are silent. I can hear the hard drive spinning in my own notebook PC but the solid state unit I’m testing makes no sounds at all during normal operations. There is a fan that comes on only when necessary but most of the time it’s silent.

Samsung is competing with SanDisk, which also currently offers 32 gigabyte drives and has announced a 64 GB drive for shipment later this year. Right now, SanDisk is selling through Dell.

If you look at drive options on some of Dell’s Latitude notebook PCs, you’ll see a “32 GB Solid State Drive” for an extra $549. That’s $549 more than Dell charges for a basic 60 GB hard drive and $200 more than the cost of a 160 GB hard drive. Another way to look at it is that Dell charges than $17.15 a gigabyte for its solid state drive compared to $5.81 a GB for its largest capacity notebook hard drive.

SanDisk VP of Sales Scott Deutsch expects prices to come down as capacity increases. His company is already working on 128 and 256 GB solid state drives but they’ll be very expensive when they first hit the market. As a general rule, capacity of solid state memory increases about 40 to 50% a year.

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