Apple's iMac, MacBook Pro lines are SSD friendly

Latest all-in-one is based on Intel's Z68 chipset for Sandy Bridge

Apple's new iMac line-up, unveiled earlier this week, includes technology that better marries the popular all-in-one desktops to the speedy NAND flash storage that Apple is using in more and more of its computers.

The updated all-in-ones, which sport Intel's latest Core-series processors, are based on Intel's Z68 chipset for Sandy Bridge. That chipset allows the iMac to use a speedy solid-state drive (SSD) as a boot and application drive in tandem with a traditional hard disk drive, which is used for mass storage of files and data.

Once available only on the highest-end 27-in. model, the built-to-order SSD option is now available for all but the cheapest iMacs, including a 21.5-in. version that starts at $1,499. Instead of getting a single hard disk drive, you can order a 256GB SSD and either a 1TB or 2TB hard disk, for an extra $600 or $750, respectively.

The Z68 chipset supports Intel's Rapid Storage Technology SSD caching, which allows the SSD to speed up OS and application load times and access frequently used data faster. (The iMac on Thursday also got a firmware upgrade, enabling it to use its 6Gbit/sec throughput on the drives. That throughput matches the SATA 3.0 specification used in the latest SSDs, paving the way for the iMac to get the utmost from future SSDs.)

Users who opt for the SSD/HDD combo should notice a difference in performance compared to models with only a standard hard drive.

Apple's move toward flash memory storage began with the MacBook Air in 2008, which offered a 64GB SSD as an option. The second-generation Air, released last fall, uses NAND flash memory exclusively for storage -- it's actually part of the ultra-thin laptop's logic board. On-board flash is different from the SSDs or hybrid disk drives like the Momentus XT that you can install yourself. The latter uses a disk-drive form factor.

Apple isn't alone in opening the doors to flash encroachment on traditional hard drives. All-in-one hybrid models like the Momentus XT that combine NAND flash and spinning disks in the same drive are already on the market. To date, Seagate has been the main supplier of those drives, although Samsung dipped its toe in the market four years ago with the HDD-FlashON line. But it has done nothing with hybrids since. Recently, however, hard disk drive maker Seagate strengthened its ties with worldwide NAND flash producer Samsung -- a deal that industry analysts think will result in faster development of the kind of hybrid drives that could take advantage of the Z68 chipset in the new iMacs.

On top of that, Intel -- which worked closely with Apple on the new Thunderbolt connectivity technology -- is making noises about its own hybrid drives, which could spur drive development to move even faster.

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