Ever booted up a PC with a solid state drive? It’s almost a religious experience. The speed is hard to believe until you’ve tried it.
An SSD is probably the single most noticeable upgrade for non-gamers. Most people don’t really notice if their CPU is slightly faster or they have a few gigabytes more RAM, but they do notice how much faster Windows starts — not to mention how much easier it is to launch memory intensive programs like Photoshop.
SSDs can be many times faster than traditional hard drives i.e. hard drives turning a physical disk beneath a read needle. In contrast, solid state drives are made out of arrays of tiny capacitors, which can store charge for long periods of time and are less prone to mechanical failure. Because there are no moving parts, the data can be read out at incredible speed.
Right now, the biggest reason to still own a hard drive is the cost. As of the publication of this article, you can get a new one terabyte hard drive for about $50. An SSD of the same capacity costs about $400, which isn’t practical for most users.
However, a new breakthrough from Toshiba might change all that.
For a long time, the path of progress in flash memory was building smaller and smaller gates that stored less and less charge. However, that process can only continue for so long, since small gates become increasingly error-prone. Recently, the trend has been towards layering memory in 3D more and more deeply, getting more storage out of the same amount of silicon.
Toshiba’s breakthrough, called BiCS (for Bit Cost Scalable) involves building stacks of storage gates that are 48 layers deep — other approaches allow only 36. The new technology allows for a three-fold improvement in storage capacity at no increase in price or size, which should allow for three terabyte thumb drives and 400 GB microSD cards, essentially eliminating the storage gap for mobile devices.
It would also make flash drive storage more cost competitive — if SSDs were only about three times as expensive as hard drives (with one TB costing about $140), OEMS might drop the hard-drive from entry level PCs in favor of pure SSD machines.
While Toshiba’s announcement came on the heels of the other announcements, this has all been in the works for a while. Toshiba first started talking about the idea back in 2007, and has been working on the tech since then. Not much is known about how the Toshiba memory is manufactured, but that’s par for the course — all companies developing 3D flash technology have been pretty tight-lipped about the details.
Right now, Toshiba has the upper hand technologically, and knows it. They’re building a custom manufacturing plant to produce the new flash chips, and plan to begin commercial production next year — an aggressive timescale for such a new technology. That makes sense: there are probably still more 3D memory projects operating in stealth mode. It’s only a matter of time before one of their competitors puts together something even more impressive. The next few years are going to be a period of extremely fierce competition in the flash memory space, and consumers will reap the benefits.
High-End Tech, Low-End Price Point
On a broader level, this is also an interesting part of a broader trend. NVIDIA’s new Maxwell GPU architecture, which powers the new GTX 900 line has improved power efficiency dramatically. Thanks to this, mid-range GPUs can be powered using a standard PCI-e slot, without needing an expensive modular power supply. That means we may start to see them included in off-the-shelf PCs.
The falling cost of SSDs contributes to this trend of high-end PC gaming technology becoming available to ordinary consumers. Just a few years ago, SSDs were an extravagance for PC hotrodders. Now, there’s a good chance that they’ll become the industry standard for off-the-shelf beige boxes. The gap between off-the-shelf PCs and high-end gaming rigs is closing rapidly.
If you’re a PC gamer, this trend should excite you. One of the strongest arguments for the existence of gaming consoles is that building a gaming PC is often an expensive and complex undertaking, especially for those new to it. In contrast, consoles offer a (relatively) cheap and straightforward way to get started with gaming.
However, if most off-the-shelf PCs start packing enough hardware to run modern AAA games at decent settings, the consumers would follow the path of least resistance and money would follow. The result would be fewer console exclusives, more money spent on PC game development, and larger communities around the hobby. If you’re a PC gamer, this new technology is excellent news.
I’m personally curious how far this trend can go. What’s the ceiling on flash memory technology? Will we see petabyte thumb drives some day? Will our appetites for data keep growing, pushing for denser and denser data storage solution?
What do you think? Excited for denser storage? Already have an SSD? Let us know in the comments!