Switched On: Hard drives face hard truths

Ross Rubin
R. Rubin|07.07.13

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Switched On: Hard drives face hard truths

Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about consumer technology.

The PlayStation 4's is upgradeable; the Xbox One's is not. For at least the second consecutive generation (the third for the Xbox), hard drives will be offered as part of the gaming experience for two of the home video game powerhouses: Microsoft and Sony. For the Xbox line, which offered a model without a hard drive in the last generation, the inclusion of an internal HDD represents, along with its x86 processor, a return to the approach Microsoft took with the original Xbox.

Indeed, the Xbox One will load disc-based games onto the hard drive automatically. Both Sony and Microsoft will also offer access via the cloud. In fact, following up on its purchase of Gaikai, Sony plans to offer a range of gaming from the cloud to multiple platforms. This may include older titles that it cannot support on the PlayStation 4 due to a lack of native backward compatibility. If such capability is expected to work, why bother to have hard drives in these consoles at all? Indeed, hardware makers of many stripes are starting to ask that question.

Left and right, we see ultraportable computers seeking to match the light weight, long battery life and slim profile of their tablet competitors, in part by ditching the hard drive. Acer, for example, sought to achieve a low price point on its $199 C7 Chromebook by opting for a hard drive in place of flash memory. But it eventually moved to put flash memory back in and it's that configuration that will now be carried by Walmart.

What about DVRs? Not only have hard drives been key to the ability to pause and record shows, but the bigger the drive, the better it's been perceived. High-definition programming in particular was a boon for bigger hard drives, with the latest from Dish Network, the Hopper, packing two terabytes.

But even here -- and after a bit of legal wrangling -- we're seeing a shift to the cloud by a host of products and services. Aereo and NimbleTV include DVR capability as part of their over-the-top subscription services. Boxee has created a cloud-based DVR for broadcast. And pay-TV providers have the most to gain by not putting vulnerable hard drives into often poorly ventilated home theater setups. At the National Cable Show, Comcast recently showed off its X2 set-top box that features cloud-based DVR capability. And, of course, that's still relevant for those with the forethought to record rather than stream on-demand from Netflix, Hulu, broadcaster apps and other sources.

Of course, all this cloud video has to live somewhere, and servers will continue to represent a great opportunity for hard drives, where there is no viable competition for their price-capacity ratios. In-vehicle servers may be another opportunity; Seagate's wireless shared-storage drive (formerly the GoFlex Satellite) can be used in this way. And manufacturers continue to shave a millimeter or two in size and also power consumption off their products to improve their energy efficiency. But as broadband speeds continue to improve alongside flash memory price-capacity ratios, hard drives are going to face hard fights to remain inside more and more consumer devices.

Ross Rubin is principal analyst at Reticle Research, a research and advisory firm focusing on consumer technology adoption. He shares commentary at Techspressive and on Twitter at @rossrubin.
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