How long will it take before all of the significant components inside the average PC are solid state?
That's a question that I began pondering when the six-month marker of my extended test drive of Intel's X25-M SSD passed recently. It's a pretty important question if you care about PC performance.
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Over the past decade or so, processor performance has exploded by a factor of at least 100. Choose the right benchmark and the difference is really nearer 200 times.
Meanwhile, hard drive throughput has probably improved by well under a factor of 10. I therefore put it to you that the installation of a quick solid state drive (SSD) would do more to improve the performance of the average punter's PC than any other upgrade.
My own subjective experience backs this hypothesis up. For a fellow in my position, one of the perks of the job is access to the latest and greatest hardware. Consequently, even the fanciest $1,000 superchip eventually becomes rather routine.
In any case, there's no circumnavigating the fact that a carefully chosen processor costing around the £150 mark delivers a virtually indistinguishable end user experience to that $1,000 superchip.
Solid state drives
Life with a fast solid state drive is very different. Having conferred with several colleagues, I can confirm that it's widely viewed as a seamless, lag-free computing experience that impresses even the most spoiled and jaded technology journalist.
Certainly, of all the bleeding-edge kit in my own desktop machine, it's the SSD that I personally would be most loath to give up. So it's no wonder that Intel decided to jump into the SSD game. I suspect that it wasn't just tempted in by the delicious slice of money pie that it could snatch from the hands of established SSD players like Samsung and Toshiba. I reckon that it also didn't fancy being excluded from a sector that promises to have such a big impact on overall PC performance.
But back to the question at hand. How long will it be before your average supermarket-bought PC is powered by an SSD drive? The first part of the equation involves the raw capacities of SSDs. This in turn depends upon two factors: silicon processor technology and flash cell densities.
I think it's fair to say that Moore's Law is pretty well proven nowadays, and on that basis we should reasonably expect to see a doubling of capacity every 18 months, courtesy of shrinking circuitry.
Cell density refers to the fact that a single flash memory cell can hold more than one binary store or bit of data. Currently, two bits per cell is the norm for budget flash memory, with three-bit cells increasingly used for premium high-density memory.
While it's safe to say that cell densities probably won't keep on increasing ad infinitum, they'll certainly make a significant contribution to the overall capacities of SSDs over the next few years. I'm therefore going to wing it with the prediction that you can expect a doubling of SSD capacity at any price point over the next five years or so.
Currently, the largest vaguely affordable SSD drive weighs in at around the 256GB mark. So that means that we're looking at 512GB next year, 1TB in 2011 and 2TB in 2012. For really affordable drives in those capacities, add on no more than a year for each. Of course, during that same time frame, the performance of SSDs is only going to increase.
Do we need more storage?
Today's drives will seem positively antediluvian compared to the speed machines available three or four years from now. The next piece of the puzzle involves the actual storage requirements of end users. Currently, my gut feeling is that the increase in size and reduction in cost per GB of mass storage is actually outstripping demand, at least in terms of client PCs.
Certainly we're at the point where the likes of music, pictures and general text- and image-based documents pose no real threat to drive capacities. It's really only high-definition video that requires truly epic, multi-terabyte capacities to store. However, all of the evidence suggests that the mainstream delivery method for HD content will soon be on-demand streaming. At most, your PC might require a local cache for a few movies.
So I'm not sure there's really all that much demand for more storage than the sort of capacities that are already commonplace today. In other words, 2TB for a really high-end system, 1TB in the mid-range and around 500GB for a decent budget box. With all that in mind, I predict 2011 will be the year when SSDs become really commonplace. No more grinding hard disks and an end to stuttering, disk-bound multitasking. It'll be lag-free computing for the masses and it's only two years away. I, for one, cannot wait.
First published in PC Plus, issue 280