MacBook Air could spell the end for traditional hard disks

Apple's decision to use SSD technology rather than a hard drive in the new Macbook Air -- and Steve Jobs' pronouncement that it represents the future of notebooks -- could hasten the replacement of traditional drives with NAND flash technology.


When Apple CEO Steve Jobs this week introduced a slimmer version of the Macbook Air, an ultra-portable laptop without a traditional hard disk drive, he said it represents "the future of notebooks." Several industry observers agree.

Beginning with MP3 players, NAND flash technology in the form of solid state drives (SSD) has been devouring the consumer hard drive market from the bottom up as prices go down. And, while hard disk drives will still populate servers and storage systems in corporate data centers for years to come, there will be fewer of them as solid state drives cannibalise the top tiers of data storage there.

Meanwhile, analysts say that NAND flash will eventually be embedded on the motherboards of consumer electronic products, reducing the bottleneck between the computer's processor and its mass storage device.

For Apple, the new MacBook Air represents a new price point for systems with SSDs, which will mean some cannibalisation of its existing MacBook laptops sales.

The MacBook Air tapers from just over half an inch to a tenth of an inch in thickness (.68-in to .11 inches) and it weighs just 2.9 lbs. At the heart of its slimness, lightweight, low power consumption and durability is a solid state drive, which ranges in capacity from 64GB to 256GB depending on the model. By comparison, Apple's MacBook, which has a 250GB tradional hard drive, weights 4.7-pounds. After Apple cut the Air's price this week, it matches the MacBook's $999 price tag.

"Flash had to get to the point where it is cost effective,"said Jim McGregor, chief technology strategist at market research firm In-Stat. "Now we're down to that point." While solid state drives are still an order of magnitude more expensive than consumer hard disk drives, lower capacity 64GB SSDs can be had for an affordable $100 or so, and 64GB is plenty of capacity for most users, according to McGregor.

While hard disk drives have increased in density and capacity with staggering speed over the past few years due to emerging technologies like perpendicular recording and larger drive sectors, consumers have started sharing more and more data through the Internet and storing it in the cloud rather than on mobile devices. Thus most users don't need any type of multi-terabyte drive on a laptops.

"Even though we hear content is expanding exponentially... a lot of it's not stored on the hard drive," said McGregor. "You can get to a point where SSDs just make sense, especially on mobile PCs."

McGregor added, "Even digital home products like Apple's new Apple TV switched from having a hard drive to just using a streaming model. All the other home devices we're seeing coming out are going the same way. You don't have to store that information, you just have to be able to access it and buffer it. That's a significant change over the past few years in the use of the cloud."

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