New hybrid drives promise faster Vista laptops, PCs, servers

Vista's support for flash-assisted hybrid hard drives sets the stage for faster, less power-hungry computers

Your next Windows laptop could run faster and last longer on a single battery charge thanks to a new generation of hybrid hard disk drives and a feature in the Windows Vista operating system that leverages NAND flash memory as a disk cache.

The feature, called ReadyDrive, could also reduce the incidence of hard disk crashes due to shocks – the most common hardware failure in notebooks – by decreasing the amount of time the disk needs to be spinning.

Notebooks will be the first systems to leverage the technology, but its potential is much broader, said Ruston Panabaker, an architect in Microsoft Corp.'s Windows hardware innovation group. “We fully expect to see it show up in desktops and perhaps even in specific server applications,” he said.

ReadyDrive has spawned a new category of flash-assisted hard drives. Both Samsung Semiconductor Inc. and Seagate Technology have announced hybrid drives that integrate a 1.5-in. magnetic hard disk with up to 256MB of onboard flash. Both are expected to be available early next year. A competing technology from Intel Corp., code-named Robson, places the cache on the motherboard, along with a controller chip. Robson will launch with Intel’s Santa Rosa notebook platforms in the first quarter of 2007.

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Big improvements in the performance of flash chips and plummeting prices have made the new hardware designs viable.

 “The interface to flash chips has been doubling in read and write performance every single year,” Panabaker said. This year market research company IDC predicted that flash prices would drop by 55%. Halfway through 2006 prices have already exceeded projections. Current prices have dropped into the $17.50 per GB range, and the trend is expected to continue.

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