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Low cost flash spurs innovation

Price drops generate new uses for flash memory

NAND flash memory, which stores photos in digital cameras and music in iPods, has considerably decreased in price and is likely to be used in gadgets more and more in the coming year. Devices that will benefit from the cheaper memory include SD cards, which will boast greatly expanded storage capacity, USB flash sticks, internal storage and new, lower-cost SSDs for notebook computers.

The price of mainstream 4GB single-level cell (SLC) NAND flash memory chips has fallen 73 percent since mid-August to $4.96 (£2.50). According to DRAMeXchange Technology, which runs an online clearinghouse for the chips, the chips hit an all-time high of $18.50 (£9.25) on August 14. The price of 4GB multi-level cell (MLC) NAND flash chips has also fallen. They are down by 75 percent down to $2.23 (£1.12) compared to its summer high of $8.85 (£4.43) per chip.

The difference between SLC and MLC is cost and life span. SLC costs about three times more than MLC but has a lifetime of 100,000 write cycles whereas MLC has a lifetime of only 10,000 write cycles.

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

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

To work around the lifespan issue, Toshiba and Samsung use controller chips to spread writes across the drive to avoid wearing out any one portion too quickly.

The new MLC-based drives are an important step forward for SSDs in the battle against hard disk drives (HDD). At 128GB, an SSD could replace a HDD in laptop computers because they're lighter, more rugged, consume less power, make no noise and enable a computer to start up and load software faster than HDDs. But SSDs are a lot more expensive than HDDs, which is why they're mainly used in the business laptop market, where users are willing to pay more for performance and reliability.

Elliott believes SSDs for PCs will account for 27 percent of NAND consumption by 2011, particularly in business laptops and mobile devices.

SanDisk has taken a slightly different route in SSDs than Toshiba and Samsung. The company made a 72GB SSD, which is thinner than its counterparts and is aimed at mobile devices. According to Iri Trashanski, director of strategic business development at SanDisk as the drive takes up less space, it could be used in a range of mobile devices. He doesn't believe there will be a market for 128GB SSDs for a while.

NEXT PAGE: The effect flash memory will have on mobile phones


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