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Thursday, May 03, 2007, 08:00 am PT (11:00 am ET)

Nearly 60% of new notebooks to employ flash by late 2009

Solid-state flash memory, which is already playing an integral role in the advancement of digital media players and mobile handsets, will claim a seat in more than 50 percent of new notebook designs by the end of 2009, says one market research firm.

Tapping its "Technology Penetration Database," El Segundo, Calif.-based iSuppli estimates that 24 million notebook PCs will be sold with some form of flash data storage by the fourth quarter of 2009, compared to a mere 143,600 that shipped with such technology during the first quarter of this year.

That means nearly 60 percent of the 40.1 million notebook shipments will have flash data storage in the fourth quarter of 2009, up from 0.7 percent in the first quarter of 2007.

Helping to spur the proliferation of flash within portable PCs is the dramatic decline in prices for NAND-type memory parts, said iSuppli. In a report released earlier this week, the firm noted that 1Gbyte of NAND flash memory was nearly 100 times as expensive as an equivalent quantity of hard disk drive (HDD) storage in 2003, but by 2009 that price gap will dwindle to a factor of slightly less than 14.

While flash is expected to remain far more expensive than HDDs for some time, other factors besides cost are compelling PC manufacturers to adopt the technology within their product designs.

"Flash-based data storage provides significant performance improvements compared to traditional rotating magnetic storage now used in notebook PCs," said analyst Matthew Wilkins. "Increased performance is achieved due to the fast read times of flash memory compared to HDDs, which reduce loading times for operating systems and applications. Flash also offers improved reliability, better shock resistance and lower power consumption compared to HDDs."

There are presently three different approaches being offered for flash data storage in PCs, each of which delivers performance improvements compared to conventional HDDs: Intel’s "Robson" technology, hybrid hard disk drives (HHDs), and solid state drives (SSDs).

According to iSuppli, ultraportable sub-notebooks and mainstream models will show similar penetration of flash data storage throughout the next two years. The firm estimates that more than half, or 54 percent, of the ultraportable PCs shipped in the fourth quarter of 2009 will use HHDs, while 28 percent will employ SSDs. Similarly, it expects 58 percent of mainstream notebooks will use HHDs, and 25 percent will use SSDs.

For its part, Apple is believed to employing a variant of Robson into an ultra-thin sub-notebook design due later this year or early next, effectively pairing a small amount of on-board NAND flash with a traditional HDD. In time, the company's MacBook lines should also gain the technology.

While it's unclear when the cost feasibility of NAND flash will allow Apple to ship a notebook employing only a SSD — essentially data storage consisting solely of flash without the aid of a magnetic HDD — the Mac maker appears as if it will forgo the hybrid hard disk drive approach in favor of Robson.

According to a published report last December, Apple turned down an offer to incorporate hybrid hard drives from Samsung into its systems, instead proceeding with plans to use the Intel technology.