Seagate Launches Flash-Cached Notebook Drives

Seagate has introduced the first in what it expects will be the future direction of hard disk technology, drives that use NAND Flash memory as an extra-large cache.

The launch comes as vendors are experimenting with integrating solid-state, all-Flash drives into their PC disk storage offerings. SanDisk, for instance, recently announced plans for a solid-state drive in 32GB and 64GB capacities.

Such drives offer the potential for “disk” storage that’s far quieter, faster and energy-efficient than conventional hard drives. But these benefits are mitigated by their low capacity and staggering cost. To put this in perspective, a 64GB drive is around $900, while 1TB 3.5-inch internal SATA drives are priced at just over $300.

So Seagate took the middle path, adding added 256MB of NAND Flash memory to its Momentus 5400.3 series of 2.5-inch laptop hard drives. The most frequently used data is stored in the drive’s Flash memory, thus reducing the amount of hard drive access required. This then cuts down on power consumption, noise, and wear and tear.

The drive, available in 80GB, 120GB and 160GB capacities, relies on Microsoft Windows Vista’s Superfetch and ReadyDrive technologies to learn what files a user accesses most often, storing those in its Flash memory. Keeping frequently used data available in its drive’s speedy Flash cache helps to boost performance.

The result is a hard drive that is 20 percent faster, uses 50 percent less power and offers a 30 percent longer lifespan than the standard, non-Flash drive, according to Joni Clark, product marketing manager for Seagate.

“For a first-generation integration, it’s a good start,” Clark said. “We would like to see more performance, so as memory gets cheaper and people tweak drivers should see better performance.”

Clark said she thinks hybrid drives will soon become a mass-market product, while solid-state Flash drives will never really get out of their niche, due to their high price-per-gigabyte.

“Paying more for less capacity is not a common end-user behavior,” she said. “The value a solid-state drive brings to the table is still not going to be the right value for the customer. If they could compete with us on price, they’d kick our tail. But they can’t compete on price.”

There are some other considerations when switching to hybrid media. The Momentus drive, for instance, is dependent on Windows Vista to support its Flash cache, since it relies on Superfetch and ReadyDrive. Windows XP simply lacks those technologies, without which, the hybrid drive would operate as a traditional, un-enhanced notebook hard drive.

Clark said she would love to see a desktop version of the hybrid drive, but “right now it’s not on our roadmap.” Still, she said there’s no reason why a customer could not buy a new Momentus and put it in a desktop PC at all.

However, John Monroe, research vice president in the storage group at Gartner, thinks not only is there a future for hybrid drives in desktops, he even believes servers could use the technology — eventually.

“This is going to be an evolution,” he said. “The initial capacity of the cache is not real exciting. When we get more cost-effective one, two, four and eight gigabyte hybrid drives, that’s when it will get much more exciting. And that’s coming in 2008-2009. So I think you will see relatively slow uptick in these drives this year and you will see greater demand in 2009.”

Monroe also said he believes there has to be more work done on both the drive makers’ and Microsoft’s parts, but ultimately, hybrid drives will deliver on their promise.

“All the features and benefits are not nailed down on the drive side and OS side, but there is a mutual commitment to make this happen and be a good solution for a variety of apps,” he said.

The Momentus hybrid drives are shipping now. Seagate’s Clark said the company expects the drives will be priced about 25 percent higher than a normal disk drive of the same capacity. A traditional 160GB Momentus 5400.3 retails for around $110.

Adapted from

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