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How Flash Memory Will Change PCs

Later this year, most new PCs will probably use some kind of hybrid solution to help satiate Vista's hunger for processing power and memory. Pure SSD drives will take longer to hit the mainstream, mainly because of their cost. But they have great potential, especially because of the added flexibility they can give designers of small laptops.

For the first time in more years than I care to think about, I have been playing around with PCs that have no hard drives. Unlike the clunky floppy-disk-based computers of yore, these are speedy laptops equipped with a new hard-disk alternative called a solid-state drive (SSD), which someday may challenge the hard drive's long run as the storage king.

The SSD is based on the same flash-memory technology found in the widely used USB memory keys. Where a conventional hard drive stores data on a magnetic disk that spins at up to 7,200 RPM, the SSD is basically a handful of chips with no moving parts.

Flash has been around for years, but two considerations blocked its use for mass storage: cost and the fact that you could only rewrite your data a limited number of times. Even now, flash memory costs far more per megabyte than magnetic storage, but chip prices have been plunging.

As for the limits on rewrites, manufacturers have greatly improved the situation by spiffing up the semiconductors and adding software that makes sure the data in any one chip location aren't changed too often.

From a PC user's point of view, the benefits of moving to flash include greater reliability, lower power consumption, and faster performance, especially at startup. The shift to SSD could also enable the design of smaller laptops. And there would be side benefits: A ramp-up in flash memory across the tech sector would bring chip prices even lower, which would inevitably beef up the storage capacity of mobile phones, music players, and other handheld devices.

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