Drives that spin are dumb ideas these days.
Al Fasoldt's reviews and commentaries, continuously available online since 1983

T e c h n o f i l e
Diskless laptop is a sign of things to come

Dec. 14, 2008

By Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 2008, Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 2008, The Post-Standard

   The Byrds said it best in "Turn, Turn, Turn" -- there's a season for everything, including hard drives. The spinning thing inside your laptop has just about reached the winter of its discontent.
   And it's about time. Drives that spin are dumb ideas these days. They get goofed up when you knock them around and they wear out when they've turned a few times too many. It's time for the invasion of the SSDs.
   They're already here, but only in small numbers. If you lubricate your credit card just right, Apple will put one in your new MacBook Air, and some Windows laptop makers are doing the same thing -- putting solid-state drives into small laptop computers for buyers looking for the ultimate in reliability and speed.
   Samsung, a pioneer in chip-based storage, arranged to have one of its new solid-state drives installed in a Dell XPS laptop for me to try out. Samsung says its new SSD replacement drives can be tossed off a three-story building without skipping a byte. (I didn't think the Dell laptop itself would appreciate such a drop, so I didn't carry out Samsung's challenge.)
   The Samsung drive doesn't look different from a regular laptop hard drive. But inside the drive's shiny casing are memory chips instead of moving parts. The one I tested had a capacity of 64 gigabytes, about half the size of a typical laptop drive.
   The drive was very fast in all normal operations -- so fast, in fact, that all three disk-testing programs I used when trying to measure disk speed failed to measure the speed at all. It was almost as if the Samsung SSD had finished each drive test before the testing software was ready to measure the data.
   I loved the speed. File operations always seemed snappy. And I have no doubt that the SSD would last longer in typical use than a hard drive; laptops suffer more slings and arrows than desktop models ever would.
   But the cost differential probably will take your breath away. A Samsung 64 GB 2.5-inch SSD drive costs about $600. You could buy 10 2.5-inch 64 GB standard hard drives for the same cost -- and have enough cash left over to fly to Bermuda.
   So why would Samsung enter the SSD market when the drives are so expensive? Patience. That's what Samsung has. As the company waits while its drives catch the attention of well-to-do buyers, its production costs will go down. Within a year, I expect a 64 GB SSD drive will cost half what it sells for now. Within three years, much larger SSD drives will be selling for $100.
   In the meantime, I've got to get Steve Jobs to send me one of those MacBook Air laptops with an SSD installed. The Dell's Windows experience wasn't fun -- spyware was hitting the little laptop constantly -- and a Mac so slim it could fit under the door would be a good antidote.