According to Hitachi Global Storage director Larry Swezey, the future is bright for hard disk drives (HDDs) - despite the growing popularity of flash-based solid-state storage.

Consumer and Commercial HDD director Swezey sees the extra capacity that HDDs can offer as a major selling point, not least because, in his words: "people always want a bigger house". Or, to put it another way, we all suffer from specification envy. As a consequence, the major push for more storage is coming from consumers.

These days we all have genuine reasons for requiring more hard drive space than flash can currently deliver, according to Swezey. As anybody who has ever edited video can confirm, digital media eats storage. And like it or not, Vista is here to stay: and that means we are all going to need the best specs money can buy.

But does that mean spinning hard disks are here to stay? Certainly Swezey thinks so. And he cites as an example the Travelstar 5K500 - a 12.5mm thick, 2.5in 500GB notebook drive. Hitachi showed this drive at CES and then, according to Swezey at least, was blown away by the interest it generated.

Hitachi certainly isn't resting on these laurels. Swezey says the company is currently increasing capacities at a rate of 40 percent a year. And it expects to be increasing storage at a rate of 60 percent year-on-year by the end of 2008. So as long as the drives keep getting faster, and the demand keeps growing, the future's bright for HDDs, right?

Well, perhaps. But (pun alert) there's never been less space in the storage market.

The online option

Online storage, for instance, is an increasing threat to the traditional hard disk drive. Indeed, earlier this year IDC research suggested that global online backup services are poised for major growth.

The research estimated that revenue for this emerging market would reach $715m by 2011, representing a 33.3 percent compound annual growth between 2006 and 2011.

"Consumers and small businesses especially are interested in alternative methods of protecting their data, as traditional backup methods fall short regarding efficiency, reliability, and ease-of-use," said Doug Chandler, research director for storage services at IDC.

"Online backup has become an attractive approach for many customers, with the advent of cheaper broadband access, users' greater comfort level with web-based services, and the growing business need for a second site for remote data protection purposes."

Swezey disagrees. He acknowledges that online storage is a rival to spinning hard disks, but - citing problems with bandwidth, performance and security - believes the industry has yet to mature.

NEXT PAGE: flash - will it save every one of us?

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According to Hitachi Global Storage director Larry Swezey, the future is bright for hard disk drives (HDDs) - despite the growing popularity of flash-based solid-state storage.

So Hitachi remains bullish about the future of HDDs. As Swezey sees it, hard disks have seen off the challenge of optical and bubble storage, and current rivals such as flash will be beaten down too.

We shall see.

Flash in the pan?

Flash memory is getting cheaper, and increasing numbers of products are coming online. As well as greatly expanded storage capacity in SD (secure digital) cards, USB (universal serial bus) flash sticks and internal storage, expect this year to see lower-cost SSDs (solid-state disks) in notebook computers.

The price of mainstream 4Gb SLC (single-level cell) NAND flash memory chips fell 73 percent between mid-August 2007 and early January 2008, according to DRAMeXchange Technology. The price of 4Gb MLC (multi-level cell) NAND flash chips was down 75 percent over the same period.

Toshiba and Samsung have both recently developed 128GBs SSDs based in MLC NAND to expand their use in notebook PCs. The new SSDs are less expensive, giving laptop PC designers more choices in storage.

"At 128GB, you're giving consumers the kind of storage space they expect in a notebook," says Jim Elliott, director of flash marketing at Samsung.

Hitachi director Larry Swezey sees flash as "a rival only at lower capacities", citing the positive example of flash-based Apple iPods. And when it comes to another Apple product, the much-vaunted Apple MacBook Air, Swezey is baffled by what he sees as the effects of slick PR.

With the MacBook Air, of course, purchasers can choose to 'upgrade' to a 64GB solid-state hard disk. That's upgrade to 64GB from an 80GB PATA hard drive.

As far as Swezey is concerned, this makes little sense. Although Swezey accepts that flash has its place, and that SSDs broaden the choice for consumers and manufacturers, he says the technology is not a panacea. In his view, flash drives cannot hold their own agains HDDs in terms of price and performance. Flash, he says, "gets away with a lot... the performance isn't there".

NEXT PAGE: flash vs HDD: put to the test > >

According to Hitachi Global Storage director Larry Swezey, the future is bright for hard disk drives (HDDs) - despite the growing popularity of flash-based solid-state storage.

Not everyone agrees, of course. But in spite of the price drops, SSDs still tend to cost more than ordinary hard drives of the same capacity. To justify the price difference, then, SSD laptops must demonstrate significant performance benefits over notebooks equipped with standard hard drives.

To find out whether they do, last year we tested three pairs of ultraportable notebooks. Each pair comprised one laptop with an SSD, and one with an HDD.

Results were mixed. In several cases, our tests bore out the advantages of SSD, in other cases, hard-disk-based models led the way.

Our benchmark suite for testing system performance, WorldBench 6, Beta 2, showed no definite pattern in overall results between SSD systems and hard-disk-drive laptops. Indeed, the SSDs achieved superior performance in all three pairings on only two types of applications: drive-intensive tests such as our Nero 7.0 Ultra Edition disc burning and WinZip 10.0 file compression tests.

Intense ability

And we did see decisive performance wins by the SSD models on the file read and write tests that we use for our hard-drive testing. (The read and write tests consist of reading and writing folders of files, and searching for files on a drive.)

In most cases, during drive-intensive tests the SSD models were dramatically faster. SSDs are generally consider to be more robust, too (although there is a question over how long they last).

Is this enough to offset the price differential? Not according to Swezey. He says that contrary to their delicate reputation, HDDs are pretty tough. He says that the failure rate on Hitachi laptop hard disk drives is fewer than 0.5 percent - and of those, a proportion are caused by software failure, malware or the PC being mistreated.

Indeed, Swezey says that Hitachi is focused on further improving its 2.5in and 3.5in drives. He stresses that recent months have "risen the bar" in hard disk quality.

According to Swezey, HDDs are more reliable than they have ever been. And that, he says, is "good news for customers, better for OEMs".

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NEXT PAGE: the green dream >>

According to Hitachi Global Storage director Larry Swezey, the future is bright for hard disk drives (HDDs) - despite the growing popularity of flash-based solid-state storage.

But there is one other area that may prove a compelling reason to go for flash. Swezey says that Windows Vista puts a burden upon storage, reading and writing much more than XP, for instance.

Hitachi is confident it can compensate, and Vista represents an opportunity for 7200rpm hard disk drives. Nevertheless this is, Swezey concedes, "sad, from an energy conservation point of view".

And although it may be slight, our tests last year showed that SSDs demand less of laptop batteries. The faster a disk spins, the more power is required to spin it and, with 7200rpm set to become prevalent, Vista's battery burden (and therefore carbon footprint) will only grow.

So going for an SSD may equate to going green - in a small way, at least.

The bottom line is this: with an SSD in your laptop, you'll see slightly better system responsiveness, and a positive change in the way the system handles drive-intensive tasks such as reading data from and writing data to the drive, coming out of standby mode, and booting up from scratch.

If you're a mobile worker who tends to bump your laptop around a little and who would benefit from performance boosts in those areas, the extra cost might just be worth it. But it is by no means clear cut. And as far as Hitachi is concerned, it's going to take a lot more than that to sound the death knell for the faithful HDD.

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Manek Dubash, Dan Nystedt and Melissa J Perenson contributed to this report.