‘Solid-state’ technology the wave of the future

Having discussed a very abstract concept last week, I think I’ll return to something a good deal more technical. That something is the transition in the consumer-electronics industry toward “solid-state” storage in the place of conventional rotating “platter” and “head” technology. Most people know their hard drives as the first thing to die on their laptops. This trend is unfortunate because, to many people, at least psychologically, their data — e-mails, phone numbers, schedules, music and movies — is far more important than the hardware itself. However, anyone with an iPhone or an iPod touch will notice not only how slim their device is, but also that they are paying a lot more for a much smaller storage capacity.

The iPhone and iPod touch use “solid-state” disk technology. In a sense, they employ a type of memory similar to the Compact Flash (CF) and Secure Digital (SD) cards their digital cameras use. It contains no moving parts and, unlike the high-speed memory or RAM in computers, it does not need a constant power source to prevent its data from metaphorically disappearing.

Previously, using hard drives for storage was the only feasible option. Hard drives rely on miniature armatures that hold magnetic heads, which read and write magnetic signals onto discs or platters that rotate between 5,400 and 10,000 times per minute. Given the fact that the read-write apparatus is separate from the data itself, very high data densities can be achieved. So your iPod classic might have 160 gigabytes of storage, compared to the latest iPhone’s paltry 16.

Still, the 16 gigabytes of solid-state memory are virtually indestructible by drops, and can much more easily resist magnetism and water damage. Odds are you won’t lose your data, even if you drop the thing out your fifth-floor window into the courtyard below as you throw your ID down to let a friend into your entryway. The additional advantage to solid-state media is more recent — it is speed. Previously, the thousands of RPMs at which your hard drive spun were the fastest way of recording and retrieving your files. However, in terms of non-sequential speed, or accessing random bits of data from all over the disc at once, solid state has recently taken the lead. The only disadvantage the user faces in return is cost.

Consequently, iPhone and iPod touch users pay staggering prices for not very much storage capacity. The same concept holds true for competing products, although I will note that Apple does have unconventionally high profit margins — close to 50 percent on many of their products — which is excusable once you realize they make next to nothing from the iTunes Store because their revenue goes to the recording and film industries.

Apple introduced solid-state memory into its MacBook Air but, in this regard, was a little late to the game. Dell and IBM had already begun offering their notebooks with solid-state hard drives. However, the upgrade from an 80-gigabyte conventional hard drive to a 64-gigabyte solid-state drive in a MacBook Air will literally cost you a grand. On a Dell Latitude D430, an upgrade from the same base package as the Mac will cost you $400, while the 64-gigabyte option is an additional $700. You pay a lot for peace of mind, lower power consumption and speed, but you don’t even get capacity in return.

That is precisely why, in the budget sector I discussed two weeks ago, Everex chose the old-school 30-gigabyte mechanical drive, while Asus could only afford to put 2, 4, or 8 gigabytes of storage space in its EEEPC and still use solid-state memory to save on space. Still, the future looks bright as the industry is quickly being commoditized, and that means prices will come down. Hopefully, losing all your data because your laptop fell off your bed and onto the floor will then be a thing of the past.

Barrett Williams is a sophomore in Trumbull College. His column appears on Wednesdays.