SSDs, The Death Knell Of Hard Drives?

It's far too early to declare the computer hard drive obsolete. But thanks to the tech industry's ability to trim the size of flash memory chips, it is now possible to make full-feature laptops that store their data and programs on "solid-state drives," or SSDs.

Traditional hard drives record data on magnetically encoded platters that spin around thousands of revolutions per minute. Data is retrieved via a head that floats over the platters.

A solid-state drive uses non-volatile flash memory with no moving parts, which makes it shock resistant. There is no risk of data being destroyed by a head crashing onto a platter. SSDs are also faster and more energy efficient.

At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Lenovo announced its new IdeaPad notebook series that includes a very small and lightweight model with a 64-gigabyte SSD. The IdeaPad U110, which will be available in March, weighs as little as 2.3 pounds and features an 11-inch-wide screen display.

These are Lenovo's first laptops aimed at the consumer market. Its ThinkPad laptops are very popular among business people, including road warriors who appreciate its rugged and lightweight X series. I'm writing this column on a 3.5-pound ThinkPad X60.

Lenovo is offering two other IdeaPads - a 15.4-inch model, which weighs 6.4 pounds and starts at $749, and a 17-inch version that weighs 7.9 pounds and costs $1,090. Both models come only with standard hard drives as well as a CD/DVD writer and reader.

All three Lenovo laptops feature a 1.3 megapixel camera with unique face recognition software that can control who gets to use the computer. When you first get an IdeaPad you "enroll" authorized users by having them pose in front of the camera. From then on, you just look at the camera to gain access.

I wasn't able to test this feature, but a Lenovo spokesman said that it's highly accurate and can't be fooled by holding up a photo of the person. Even without the face recognition software, building a camera into a notebook PC is a great idea. Companies like Logitech do a brisk business with after-market Web cameras, but there is something about having one built-in to encourage its use. Besides, as Apple's ads have humorously pointed out (all Mac notebooks and iMacs have built-in cameras), attaching a camera to a notebook PC is a bit kludgey.

The yet-to-be-released little U110 is clearly the most interesting of the three IdeaPads because of its size, stylish design and optional use of an SSD memory.

Lenovo isn't the first to offer SSDs. Milpitas-based SanDisk makes SSD that are currently being used by Dell. And there is speculation that Apple Chief Executive Steve Jobs might announce an ultra portable notebook PC with a flash drive during his keynote at the MacWorld Expo on Tuesday.

SanDisk doesn't sell these drives to end-users and wouldn't disclose what they charge computer companies. But to get an idea, I priced a Dell Latitude D430 with and without an SSD. The model with a 64 GB SSD costs $2,508. By contrast, the same machine with a 60 GB hard drive costs $1,561 - nearly $1,000 less. I'm sure Dell marks up the cost of the drive, but the price difference between its hard drive models and SSD models is steep.

We can expect a similar price difference from Lenovo. But as we've seen over the years, early-adapter pricing doesn't reflect what an innovation will cost once manufacturers ramp up production.

I remember when a 16-megabyte compact flash card cost more than a 4 GB SD card does now. If Moore's law continues to apply, we can expect prices to fall as capacity doubles every 18 months or so. Indeed, SanDisk expects to ship a 128 GB version later this year. At CES, the company was showing a 72 GB version.

One of the nice things about these flash drives is that they can be put into cases that are the same size as traditional hard drives, making it easy for manufacturers to incorporate them into systems without having to do redesigns. But the casing adds size and weight, which is why SanDisk is also developing drives in a smaller case for companies that want to include them in ultra-mobile PCs, smart-phones, portable media players and other small devices.