Over the past two years, solid-state drives (SSD) have mainly been sold directly to laptop or portable device manufacturers or through specialty online consumer electronics retail sites that have only a few dozen brick-and-mortar outlets, like Fry's Home Electronics or CompUSA.
That changed last week when Intel Corp. announced that its flash drives will be the first to be sold traditional retail stores, in this case more than 800 Best Buy stores. Other companies, such as SanDisk Corp., said they will soon follow suit and sell their SSDs in brick-and-mortar stores.
The move to selling SSDs in brick-and-mortar stores is likely an indication that consumers are warming up to flash memory storage technology as the drives become affordable enough to either replace or supplement their computers' hard disk drives.
"The move to brick-and-mortar retail stores broadens the target consumer profile," said Gregory Wong, an analyst at market research firm Forward Insights. "Gaming and technically sophisticated users will continue to be the main consumers for SSDs, but retail will enable SSD vendors to reach mainstream consumers. Offering SSDs in mainstream retail outlets is a necessary step toward broadening the appeal of SSDs and enabling further adoption of SSDs as prices come down."
Jason Bonfig, Best Buy's vice president of computing, said last week that SSDs will become increasingly popular "as people realize how much faster they can boot up and run their favorite software or work-intensive applications."
"Our customers are looking for the latest and greatest in technology and entertainment experiences," Bonfig said in a statement. "Now they can purchase an Intel SSD and add it to a new or existing computer for a makeover that will improve their computing or gaming experience."
SSDs are still up to 10 times more expensive than hard disk drives, and they have increased in cost over the past year or so. The per-unit price of flash memory chips, which are stacked inside hard drive casings to create SSDs, rose to $4.10 in the second quarter of last year, representing a $1.80, or 127%, increase from the final quarter of 2008.
Hard disk drives sell for about 30 cents per gigabyte. Wong believes that for PC, notebook and netbook manufacturers, SSD prices will drop from about $1.90 per gigabyte today to about $1.70. Online shoppers shouldn't see any marked decrease in pricing and can expect to continue to pay $3.00 to $3.30 per gigabyte for SSDs on sites like Newegg.com.
Intel is offering its consumer-class SSD, the 80GB X25-M, in Best Buy stores for $229.
The typical SSD, with anywhere from 80GB to 120GB of capacity, costs from $215 to $400 on e-retail sites such as Pricegrabber.com or Newegg.com.
In comparison, a hard drive with up to 1TB of capacity can be had for as little as $90.
For mainstream consumers, SSDs beat out hard disk drives when it comes to performance, particularly for computer boot-up or application load times. In many cases, they offer more than twice the I/Os per second. In Computerworld's own benchmark tests, SSDs handily beat out hard disk drives in a cold boot contest -- 20 seconds for the SSD versus 40 seconds for the hard drive.
The SSD also beat the hard drive in the restart competition, taking 26 seconds to the hard drive's 37 seconds.
And because SSDs have no moving parts -- such as actuator arms or motors -- they are more durable than hard drives and therefore may be better choices for use in mobile devices.
While SSDs still cost 10 times more than hard disk drives, there is a crossover point where the base cost of a hard drive -- about $40 -- would buy an SSD with about 16GB of capacity.
Users could combine the technologies. For example, lower-capacity SSDs could be used to run a PC's operating system and key applications, while a secondary internal or external hard disk drive could be used to store files. SSD manufacturers have recognized that crossover point and have begun selling lower-capacity SSDs aimed at supplementing hard drives as boot drives.
For example, Intel is positioning its 40GB X25-V Value SSD as a boot drive. That drive will sell for $129 in Best Buy stores.
"When you upgrade to an Intel solid-state drive, you see a dramatic improvement in your computing experience," said Pete Hazen, director of marketing at Intel's NAND solutions group. "We've already shipped more than a million SSDs, and consumers are realizing that SSDs aren't just an alternate means of storage, but a performance enhancement that brings a new level of responsiveness to their computer."
Wong said one of the main obstacles to faster SSD adoption is that many consumers don't yet understand the benefits of solid-state drive technology. The decision to sell SSDs in brick-and-mortar stores should boost consumer awareness and understanding of the devices, because sales personnel will be able to help educate shoppers about the technology, he added.
In addition, Best Buy's Geek Squad user support operation "provides a broad service network that can help consumers and small businesses migrate their PCs to SSD solutions," Wong said.
Lucas Mearian covers storage, disaster recovery and business continuity, financial services infrastructure and health care IT for Computerworld. Follow Lucas on Twitter at @lucasmearian, or subscribe to Lucas's RSS feed . His e-mail address is email@example.com.