the disk drives of the future

USB flash drives

Nobody uses floppy disks for anything regular and important anymore. They’re slow, they’re physically huge yet hold so little, and they wear out and die too easily. CDs and DVDs have their place, but today people mostly use USB-attached flash drives to cart their files around.

This is my newest flash drive. It’s a 4 gigabyte OCZ ATV, and it goes like the clappers. HD Tune clocks it at just under 31MB/sec for sustained reading, which is about as fast as you’ll see any USB-connected drive go on a current PC. It’s the fastest flash drive I currently own, and has now replaced my Corsair Voyager GT as my everyday bit bucket.

It’s also a bit more practical than the Corsair; that dangly thing at the back fits snugly into the cap, so you don’t have to keep track of it when the drive’s plugged into a computer, meaning you’ll never lose that little bit of protection. I have absolutely no idea where my GT’s endcap is.

OCZ are a fairly new name in the business. Mostly they make gear targeted at heavy gamers, like thousand watt power supplies, but a few of their products should also be of keen interest to even casual users. The ATV flash drive is one; another is the humble solid state drive.

Solid state society

Basically, disk drives based on non-volatile memory with no moving parts trump traditional hard drives in several key areas. There’s no moving parts, so they’re difficult to overuse and wear out, and because nothing needs to physically move to access a different part of the disk, seek speeds drop to close to zero.

Seek speed is a boring concept, but it’s what makes 10,000 RPM server hard drives so important – the disks spin faster than in a typical desktop PC, so the read heads can physically get to the data quicker, reducing the time you have to wait for the information.

RAM-based disks have practically negligable seek speed, so would be attractive for uses where that’s important, but until recently flash RAM has been too slow to use for anything more than occasional file operations, like copying music between a PC and a digital camera, or an mp3 player. Now, though, we’re starting to see flash disks come in standard disk drive sizes, with standard disk drive plugs, and made with superfast memory chips – these are the solid state drives you’ve been hearing about.

This is the OCZ Core V2 SSD. It’s the size of a laptop hard drive, sports a Serial ATA connector on the back, can be had in up to 250GB capacities, and is frighteningly fast. OCZ say its read speed will peak at 170 megabytes per second, and Dan himself clocked it doing pretty close to that. The 1TB hard drive in my main PC only manages a lowly 80-90MB/sec, before you even start talking about seek speeds.

There are tons of SSDs already on the market; you don’t have to have an OCZ one. Intel’s own X25-M series caught my eye a while ago, and that might be the best option if you really hate owning money. I’m mentioning the Core V2 here specifically for a unique feature: that mini-USB connector next to the SATA plugs.

I honestly can’t think of how I’d make use of such a thing, and Dan wasn’t so sure either, but whoever thought of doing it first must be pretty pleased with himself, because it was a neat short step from there to the next shiny thing I want to show you.

Something freaky

This – OCZ’s oddly-named Throttle –  is my favourite Weird Thing of the year. It’s a thumbdrive, but not as we know it. Superfast SSDs are a bit wasted on USB2, so that funny-looking plug on the end is actually eSATA. At the other end is a mini-USB port, for those computers that don’t yet sport eSATA ports, which is what all the cool hard drive enclosures use to talk to their host PCs nowadays.

The Throttle feels very much like one of those creepy, to-tide-you-over-between-standards devices, kind of like all the weird port adapters you can get for old laptops on eBay. That USB port is also there in case you need more power than your eSATA port can provide, and plugging that in as well would be a pretty inelegant thing to behold.

I say it’s a bridge between current and future standards because while USB is the obvious choice right now for flash drives, USB version 3.0 is still a long way from appearing in most people’s homes – to give you some idea how long, Windows 7 will support it, but Vista might not.

The thumbdrive itself doesn’t appear to be available just yet either, but it’s still a thought-provoking concept. I can see a weird war happening between USB and SATA for external storage, once USB3 becomes standard on new PCs and eSATA becomes more than a niche for raging enthusiasts.

Conclusion

If you’re already itching to get out there and buy an SSD right now, I humbly suggest waiting another 6-12 months. A 60GB Core V2 installed in your PC as its primary hard drive will currently cost you no less than AU$274; 3.5″ hard drives with one terabyte of space can already be had for less than AU$200.

I’m going to wait a bit myself, probably until 250GB SSDs come down to about the same price as whatever the biggest old-fashioned spinning disk drives cost at the time. I won’t care about the faster speeds or lower seek times until I can afford an SSD that’ll fit my OS and every program I could possibly want, along with all my most frequently touched documents, so I couldn’t ever run out of space on a drive that’s so teasingly fast.

If you don’t want to know what a 250GB SSD would cost today, I don’t recommend clicking here. I honestly wish I hadn’t.

One Response to “the disk drives of the future”

  1. Jeremy says:

    I bought an Eee 901 at the beginning of the month, with a 4GB + 16GB SSD. Couldn’t be happier. Since I managed to get my hands on an OLPC XO-1 in April ’07 (1GB of flash, and fanless), I have absolutely fallen in love with solid state.

    Halfway through this year, I invested in an 8GB USB flash drive (SanDisk Cruzer). The flash drive has been my constant companion ever since. It has room for all my TAFE assignments, photos, music, the odd DVD rip to watch on the train, random downloads, and that extra Ubuntu ISO for giving out to people. Cost $75, but has been worth every cent.

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