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What's New in Technology for January 2007

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Technology: Hard Drive Versus Flash Memory
Hard drives are the standard means for computer users to store data, offering large storage capacity at an affordable price. Hard drives have been doing their job for many decades and will continue to do so, but new storage technology has already made its presence felt. Traditional hard drives may continue to be the storage solution for desktop computers and game consoles, but non-volatile flash memory chips and cards are ideal for hand-held devices - including mobile phones. Tech experts are exploring whether the new flash memory technology can be adapted to handle the larger data storage needs of PCs and notebooks.

It seems unlikely that we'll see major changes in data storage functions in PCs for a few years yet, but flash memory is attracting interest for use in notebooks, and perhaps as a "side kick" to traditional hard drives. Here's a little background on both technologies:

Hard drives store data magnetically on spinning disks. Data is read by heads that move over the spinning disk. Fast and well suited to handling smaller data transmissions, flash memory is used in cell phones and other small portable electronic devices. It uses memory chips or cards which power down to recall data.

Both technologies have good points and drawbacks. Conventional hard drives are proven and reliable, and they offer much more storage (measured in gigabytes or GBs) than flash memory - at prices that equate to less than half those of the newer technology. Flash memory needs less power and smaller batteries, but with a maximum capacity of 64GB even the larger capacity products, like Samsung's Flash SSDs, have limited capacity to handle Windows, Microsoft Office and a few other applications. (The notebooks that are currently available with hard drives top out at 200GB.) Notebook users who like to tote around photo files, video and their music collection will have to wait until notebooks with more flash memory are available (and they'll most likely be on the market before too long).

As those of us who have had a cell phone fail abruptly can attest, flash memory can fail without warning, unlike hard drives which usually give enough distress signals in advance to allow PC users to back-up and save their data. Hard drives reign supreme when it comes to transferring large files quickly. Flash memory is speedier when it comes to smaller files.

Obviously, flash memory has a few hurdles to surmount before it poses a major competitive threat to hard drive technology, but experts do expect to see non-volatile flash memory making a competitive bid for the notebook segment in the next couple of years.

Over the next few years, computer users are likely to encounter flash memory on their desktop PCs in the form of some new type of hybrid hard drive or flash-driven feature. It's already happening. Microsoft's new Vista system has a feature that uses flash to provide storage for data that is requested frequently. Meanwhile, Samsung and Seagate have gone a step further and have developed a new storage solution - a hybrid hard drive - that uses both technologies to gain battery efficiency and speed for notebooks. Both companies aim to release their respective new hybrid hard drives in the first half of 2007.

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