Toshiba To Enter The Market For Notebook Solid-State Drives - InformationWeek

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Toshiba To Enter The Market For Notebook Solid-State Drives

The company said its multi-level cell technology drives will deliver twice the memory at about the same price.

Toshiba said Tuesday that it plans to enter the market for solid-state drives for notebooks next year, selling by May three lower-priced products that could up the pressure on competitors.

When Toshiba launches the SSDs, the company will join rival STEC as the only two manufacturers delivering flash memory notebook drives based on multi-level cell (MLC) technology. That's significant because MLC drives hold more data than single-cell drives that are more commonly used in notebooks, and are less expensive, which means they could become attractive to more consumers and businesses.

MLC technology enables the storage of 2 bits of data per memory cell, versus 1 bit with single-level cell technology. As a result, manufacturers can deliver twice the memory at about the same price. The trade off, however, is that MLC drives are not as fast as SLC devices and do not retain data as long. But the drop in quality is expected to be acceptable to most buyers.

"Multi-level cell drives are very popular because consumers care about price first and performance second," Joe Unsworth, analyst for Gartner told InformationWeek. MLC flash memory chips are used today mostly in portable music players, such as the iPod, and other handheld devices.

Toshiba on Tuesday said it would ship by May three types of 32Gbyte, 64Gbyte and 128Gbyte drives. The new products would be available to notebook manufacturers as an embedded module, or as a 1.8-inch or 2.5-inch drive. Pricing was not disclosed, but Unsworth said a consumer could spend as much as $800 to get the 128Gbyte drive in a notebook.

Toshiba won't have samples of the drives available to manufacturers until early next year, but STEC said last week it has already started offering samples of its 64Gbyte, 128Gbyte, 256Gbyte and 512Gbyte drives. The first two are 1.8-inch devices, and the latter two 2.5 inches.

The high-capacity STEC drives are "incredibly high end," Unsworth said, and are more likely to be used by companies willing to pay several thousand dollars. STEC sells SSDs for $5 a gigabyte today, but said it expects to reduce the price to $2 a gigabyte in a couple of years.

Even though MLC technology lowers the price of SSDs, they remain multiples more expensive than high-capacity hard disk drives. With an increasing number of people storing music, photos and video on computers, HDDs are expected to remain the favorite storage device. "SSDs are in no way bringing an end to hard drives," Unsworth said.

SSDs, however, do have advantages that are important enough for some people to spend more. Because the drives have no moving parts, they're faster, more reliable, quieter and use less power than hard drives. SSDs are also tougher to break, which means they are a perfect fit for notebooks used outside by service workers or by the military.

In trying to drive lower-priced MLC drives into a broader market, Toshiba and STEC are also improving on the devices' performance. Toshiba's drives have a maximum writing speed of 40Mbits per second and a maximum reading speed of 100Mbits per second. STEC's drives have a writing speed of 60Mbits/s and a reading speed of 90Mbits/s. Toshiba estimates its products have a lifespan of 1 million hours.

Because Toshiba is also a major hard drive supplier, it's expected to leverage its channel in selling SSDs, which could give the devices a boost in the general notebook market, Unsworth said. The company's entry in the market could also force other SSD makers, such as SanDisk, Samsung and Seagate, to drop prices. "They could become a leading supplier of SSDs," Unsworth said of Toshiba. "The company will be a formidable opponent."

Nevertheless, all the vendors will have to work hard to sell more drives. Only about 7 million notebooks are expected to ship worldwide with SSDs as the main storage device next year, Unsworth said. In the consumer market, most of the notebooks will be in low-end products that ship to poorer countries where there's more of a need for a rugged notebook than high storage capacity.

Computer makers are expected to ship 264 million PCs worldwide this year, with nearly 40% notebooks, according to industry analyst group iSuppli.

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