Flash Based Laptops, Sooner Than You Think

by James R. Stoup Sep 16, 2005

Over the last 50 years many companies have found it necessary to give thought to the long term storage of digital information. And so, for a good portion of the computer age, and before harddrives had reached their current useful sizes, there were tape drives. In fact, tape drives are still in use today in many places, though most people have forgotten they still exist. They are like that crazy uncle everyone has, but no one ever talks about. He is still out there even if you don’t invite him to Thanksgiving. 

Tape drives continue to be popular among certain companies but that is mainly because they have already invested considerable amounts of capital in tape drive technology. Coupled with the hassle of converting all of their tape archives into new media and you have a company that is a prime candidate for continuing the use of old technology. Thus even though a harddrive based RAID system might provide better performance with lower cost these companies still don’t want to make the change.  I mention tape drives because even though they are an outdated system, and better alternatives exist, they are still around. 50 years of progress in data storage systems and they are still around.  So, what will replace harddrives eventually?

Well, if the iPod nano is any indication then it just might be flash drives. It really is remarkable when you think that a stick of flash memory replaced the harddrive that was in the iPod mini. And then you have Samsung’s recent announcement of 16GB flash drives that can be combined to form one larger 32GB drive and that should raise some eyebrows. 

Let us assume that Samsung is able to make a 32GB flash drive in a year or two, what would be the implications? Well, the 12” iBook has a harddrive of 40GB so, to me, it looks like a prime candidate for a ‘mini to nano’-like switch.  And if the entry level iBook was to trade its harddrive for a flash drive there would be several very noticeable results. First, off would have to be form factor. Flash is considerably smaller than disk based storage so that means the 12” iBook now becomes an untra-portable laptop. It becomes both thinner and lighter, perfect for those on the go. And we can’t forget about battery life. Since there is no disk that has to constantly be spinning considerable power savings can be reached. And the access time for data increases meaning a faster computing experience all around. So, as far as the iBook line goes, it seems to make sense all around to go with flash.

But now look at the Mac mini.  It too has a 40GB harddrive, how could it benefit from an infusion of flash memory? Well, for starters it could be made even smaller, but then it would start to look like a large coaster. How about this instead, Apple shifts the mini off of harddrives and onto flash drives, and as a result the mini gets bigger.

No, you didn’t misread that last sentence. I think Apple might switch the mini over to flash but ultimately make the dimensions bigger, or, at the very least, keep them the same.  What makes me think that?  Why, the power supply of course. With more room inside the case Apple could move that little box inside of the casing. You might be wondering why that would matter all that much, well, here is why. What if Apple really did want the mini to be the center of its future home entertainment center? Maybe I should rephrase that to read, what if Apple wants consumers to treat the mini as more of an appliance and less of a computer? What if Apple wants the mini to really be a white box with one cable that plugs into the wall and another that plugs into your TV, and that’s it. I wonder if Apple has any remote controls in the works for the mini?  But I digress.

Back to the harddrive vs flash debate. I fully expect the low end of Apple’s products to become flash based in the near future. I also expect Intel’s new, low power mobile chips (code named Yonah I believe) to arrive in the same time frame. And in two years I have a feeling that Jobs will announce an Intel-flash iBook that will be the thinest laptop ever made boasting the best battery life of any current machine. And when that happens expect the industry to scramble just like it is doing now after the release of the nano.


  • I would have to both agree and disagree.  Yes, flash-based storage is smaller than harddrives, but not /that/ much smaller.  The harddrive used in the Powerbook and iBook lines, as well as the Mac Mini is a 9.5mm drive.  Figure the flash drive will be around the size of a CF card (at least in the beginning).  A CF card is only around 1/4 of the size of one of these slim notebook harddrives.  Yes, power consumption will be reduced.  However, I do not see the iBook turning into a slim notebook simply due to the reduction in size of the storage device.  Perhaps if you take into consideration the reduction in required power and therefore make the battery smaller (keep the battery life the same) then perhaps the overall amount of space needed in the iBook would be reduced enough to make a noticeable difference.  I still do not believe, however, it would result in the thinnest laptop ever made.

    armoursin had this to say on Sep 16, 2005 Posts: 4
  • Bits vs. bytes… You’re talking about “Samsung’s recent announcement of 16GB flash drives”. Well, the announcement is about 16 gigabit flash drives, not 16 gigabyte flash drives, so you are a factor of eight wrong…

    Adwin had this to say on Sep 16, 2005 Posts: 1
  • Armoursin, how much of a CF is the default packaging? Also consider that hard-drives have a more restrictive set of dimensions than flash. That is, what’s to keep the designers from lining the back of the LCD with flash, or making a broad layer under the keyboard? (Those are probably not the choicest locations for various reasons, but you get the idea.)

    Metryq had this to say on Sep 16, 2005 Posts: 7
  • Fair enough, Metryq.  However, even if you remove the harddrive completely, I still do not feel there is enough space gained to make a noticeable difference.  This is based on my recent disassembling of my iBook to replace my hdd.  It just didn’t seem like very much space was taken by the hdd compared to the rest of the components.

    armoursin had this to say on Sep 16, 2005 Posts: 4
  • Adwin,

    Please forgive the mistake and thank you for catching that.  It appears I read throught their announcement too quickly.

    James R. Stoup had this to say on Sep 16, 2005 Posts: 122
  • amoursin,

    It isn’t just about the volume the hard drive takes up.  First, like Metryq said, flash can be arranged to make the most of the space it is given.  Second, like you said, it requires less power thus the battery can be made smaller.  Third, it produces less heat (as will the new mobile processors from Intel) meaning that your cooling system can become smaller as well.  Individually these things won’t save much space, together however I think they can be used to make laptops thinner and lighter.

    James R. Stoup had this to say on Sep 16, 2005 Posts: 122
  • I too think Flash memory will skyrocket in production following its increased use. There are too many advantages to moving to flash based technology.

    I look forward to the day I can boot the OS from Flash memory and access my hard drives over networked RAID. All I need for the OS is say 10-20GB of flash memory. I imagine the virtual memory speed could improve by a factor of 3 in many cases.

    If Intel is indeed working feverishly to reduce the wattage of computers then ridding ourselves of hd would help.

    hmurchison had this to say on Sep 16, 2005 Posts: 145
  • Indeed, that would be awesome, but aren’t there some limitations to flash memory? For one, if I remember correctly, early types of flash memory lost their data if they lost all power, is this correct or am I confused? Also, what is the read/write on the newest available flash memory? The flash memory that I am familiar with (thumbdrive type) is very slow.

    If we could get the flash memory up to speed however, I would definately be on board, as it means more longevity for your computer. The only problem, however is the upgrade issue - can this be upgraded for more size? How about heat? Which creates more?

    Phil Steen had this to say on Sep 16, 2005 Posts: 1
  • Sorry, James, but you have it way wrong again.

    Flash memory will NOT replace hard drives in computers.  Flash memory only has a life of a couple million write cycles. While this is plenty for an MP3 player or digital camera which doesn’t access flash memory constantly, flash ram as a hard drive replacement would die a quick and painful death and your laptop would be a very expensive paperweight in under 6 months. Even if you moved the swap partition into regular RAM, the flash drive would still rack up reads and writes quickly enough that it would hit its failure limit in a little over a year.  How would you like to turn on your 1 year old Powerbook only to find that it not only doesn’t boot, but all your data has died a painful and unrecoverable death?

    So… don’t expect hard drives to go away anytime soon.  Does that mean we’ll never see a lower power solid state replacement for the hard drive?  No… it will happen eventually. There are a few promising technologies in development, but it will be years and years before we see them in an Apple computer (or Dell or IBM or….)

    vb_baysider had this to say on Sep 16, 2005 Posts: 243
  • Hm, Read/Write-cycle limits meet the swap…

    Bad Beaver had this to say on Sep 16, 2005 Posts: 371
  • Phil,

    You are correct the new USB Flash drives tend to be very slow, however that is because they are using the USB interface - which limits the data throughput to 21(or20?) megabits per second - thats only 2.5 megabytes per second - not too good.

    You’re right, the upgradability would be an issue, but for heat I think that the Flash would win hands down. 3 things that cause the most heat in your computer are your power supply, cpu and hard drive, so these new “projected” laptops could greatly reduce heat using the new Intel laptop chips and Flash storage.

    Grandpa Simpson had this to say on Sep 16, 2005 Posts: 3
  • vb, it would depend on what you really do with your storage. It might also last for ages (-> see all those Newtons still going strong). But swap, swap is a problem. Remember those guys frying their iPaqs running Linux on it?

    Bad Beaver had this to say on Sep 16, 2005 Posts: 371
  • vb_baysider,

    At no point did I say that flash drives would replace hard drives in all computers.  I did mention the idea that in very small, portable computers (small laptops specifically) it could be a possibility.

    Also, yes, flash drives won’t last forever.  However, once a drive reaches its “peak” number of reads/writes it doesn’t just shut down in a puff of smoke.  Performance degrades but over time, not in an eye blink.

    James R. Stoup had this to say on Sep 16, 2005 Posts: 122
  • James,

    1. Tape drives do not continue to be used because of institutional inertia, but because tape storage is MUCH more accurate in storing and retrieving data than a hard drive. Also, tape storage archives much much better than hard drives do. If you have mission critical data, and you need to have it 25 years from now, you better be using tape, not hard drives.

    2. The power supply is not outside the Mini only for space reasons, but also for heat generation reasons. You put the power supply transformer in the Mac Mini and you’re going to need a fan.

    I have to take issue with this statement of yours: “Flash memory only has a life of a couple million write cycles. While this is plenty for an MP3 player or digital camera which doesn’t access flash memory constantly, flash ram as a hard drive replacement would die a quick and painful death and your laptop would be a very expensive paperweight in under 6 months.”

    If this is the case, why is my Palm Vx (8mb of flash memory) still reading and writing data continuously and perfectly after five years of constant use?

    klktrk had this to say on Sep 16, 2005 Posts: 3
  • 32GB flash drives only require 16 of 16Gb NAND FLASH chips which Samsung has announced. That can fit on a DIMM.


    Bad blocks can be remapped, much as they are in current drive technology, and highly volatile blocks can be frequently remapped to reduce physical writes against any particular block or placed into a smaller store of battery backed RAM.

    frellnick had this to say on Sep 16, 2005 Posts: 1
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