I have seen the future, and it's SSD

David Winograd
D. Winograd|03.03.10

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I have seen the future, and it's SSD

On the Macworld show floor, I didn't really see one specific product that blew me away. What I did see, however, is the next big concept that's going to not only blow all of us away, but it will change the way we relate to our computers. It's the SSD (solid state drive) and it's almost ready for prime time. As we've mentioned before, an SSD is a high performance storage device that has no moving parts. These drives can contain DRAM or EEPROM memory, a CPU, a memory board and a battery card (more details here). Having no moving parts, they can move data much quicker than an HDD (hard disk drive) which uses quickly spinning platters with magnetic surfaces.

I got to play with what's being sold as the quickest SSD on the market, courtesy of Other World Computing. Their new Mercury Extreme Enterprise SSD drives start at US $229 for 50 GB and top out at 200 GB for $779.95. You can see our own Steve Sande in a video interview showing the boot time of this SSD vs. a stock 5400 rpm Apple drive. Watch for it at about 2:20 into the video. OWC set up a test of two Macbook Pros; I saw this demo myself and my jaw dropped as the SSD equipped laptop booted up and started running applications in 32 seconds. The HDD equipped Macbook Pro took at least three times as long to accomplish the same thing.

The computing experience is one of perception. How fast or slow your computer seems is based on more than the CPU speed alone. It's a composite of I/O speed, CPU speed and dozens of other factors. If you have a screamingly fast CPU with a poky drive, you have a poky computer as the chain is only as good as its weakest link. I've found, on my i7 iMac, that no matter what I do, I usually can't use up all the CPU speed, so the slowness may be due to the HDD not being able to keep up.

The current and future classes of SSDs are going to change all that. I can imagine sitting down, booting up and before I can lift my coffee cup, the computer has come up and is running startup programs. This will take some getting used to, since it will change my and everyone's work flow somewhat. Instead of all the little interruptions you get from waiting for something to happen, the response will be nearly instantaneous. This will tend to keep me more focused since I'm a procrastinator by nature, and get distracted quickly, like whenever I see a spinning beach ball. If a computer works as quickly as I feel it should work, I will be more engaged.

Previous releases of SSDs got a lot of bad press for running down your battery, losing speed over their lifetime, having low capacity, and being incredibly expensive. I haven't seen any battery tests for the OWC SSD drive, but the company advertises that the drive uses Advanced Wear Management, so that performance will not degrade over time, and they guarantee it over the five year life of the drive.

The other factor is price. The 200 GB version at $779 is very expensive when compared to under $100 for a 250 GB HDD. Until there is some sort of price parity, even at a slight premium, SSDs will sell to a niche market.

The last concern is capacity. Not long ago, the largest SSD you could buy was a 32 GB drive. Now Apple is selling them as stock items on the higher-end MacBook Air, and as a build to order option on the MBP (a 256 GB SSD adds $800 to the cost). I wonder how many of the $800 SSDs have been sold? I'm guessing it's a pretty small number.

So when will the stars align to the point that capacity, reliability, and price converge at a level that consumers will buy in a big way? I spent some time with people from both OWC and Drivesavers and separately asked reps exactly the same question: How long do you think it will take before large capacity (500 GB) SSD drives will be available at a price point that would be attractive to the average computer user? I got exactly the same response from both company reps: under two years. I expected much longer. If that pans out, I can see HDDs being slowly phased out in three to four years; eventually the HDD will go the way of the Betamax, Laserdisc, floppy disk, and sooner than you think, the DVD. I've bought and retired all of those technologies. I've seen this before.

I started with an Apple ][+ and a tape drive in the late 70s. A bit later the Disk ][ was introduced by Apple, giving me 143 KB of storage for $595, more capacity than I thought I'd ever need in my life or the life of my children. It added a massive speed increase to my computing experience. Some years later, I went for the big bucks and spent $1395 on a First Class Peripherals D9, which was a 90 MB HDD with streaming tape backup built in. Even being the slowest drive on the planet, at least in today's terms, my computing speed at least tripled. As HDDs got quicker and cheaper (and I did buy a hard-drive equipped Mac SE/30 somewhere in there) the perception of speed tripled again. Nothing that dramatic has happened in at least a decade, but the next big change is nearly upon us. In fact, it's here for the well heeled and the MacBook Air buyer, but about two years away for the rest of us.

This is going to be big.
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