Evolving Ultrabooks to Help Counter PC Struggles in Driving Growth of Solid-State Drives

16 July 2013

Despite the generally weak state of the PC industry, ultrathins will still form the main market for solid-state drives (SSD), in a business that retains significant long-term upside, according to a Storage Space brief from information and analytics provider IHS.

Global shipments in 2013 of SSDs will reach a projected 64.6 million units, up a notable 87 percent from 2012. SSD growth ahead will also be substantial, exceeding 30 percent each year for the next three years, before moderating to the high teens in 2017. By 2017, SSD shipments will amount to some 224.1 million units.

The rosy prospects for SSDs are forecast notwithstanding the current troubles of the PC market, which has deflated considerably as consumers flock to other devices like smartphones and media tablets. The solid SSD numbers persist in part because of expectations that SSD price erosion will drive increased PC penetration; and also because high hopes are being lavished on the new ultrathin and Ultrabook PCs.

Given reduced pricing and newly improved specs including a more powerful processor and less power consumption on a single charge, Ultrabooks are being given another  chance to whet the appetites of consumers roughly two years after their initial launch. Bets are being made this time around that Ultrabooks will succeed. And as a major driver in the use of SSDs-Ultrabooks and other ultrathins will make up almost 70 percent of SSD shipments in 2013-the machines could take the SSD market to new revenue heights and vistas of profitability.

How SSDs in PCs fare will also depend on forces beyond simple astute marketing on the part of Intel, which has struggled  as the foremost backer of the Ultrabook initiative to sell the concept to consumers. Instead, movement forward will come from other market forces-such as the willingness of PC brands to even consider high-cost SSDs as a storage device in volume-priced systems; or how much flash pricing can come down.

SSD use in PCs was thought to be most promising initially in Ultrabooks-largely because the new machines were viewed as the devices most likely to stir interest among consumers hoping to replace old and outdated computers. In these new notebooks, NAND flash can be deployed as traditional SSDs, in the form of a so-called cache SSD integrated alongside a hard disk drive, or combined with the hard disk within the same enclosure to yield what is known as a hybrid HDD. Owing to the similarity of the latter two options, IHS classifies them together as a "PC cache."

SSDs adapt and evolve

Even with the ultrathin and Ultrabook PCs not having taken off as expected, solid-state drives were also branching out in various technological directions through moves that can now  be seen as strengthening the market .

Memory producer SanDisk from California, for instance, joined the PC cache market by supplying its BGA iSSD product to hybrid HDDs from Western Digital. Standardized as µSSD, this small form factor has strong potential for integration in a computer's printed circuit board (PCB)-much like dynamic random access memory (DRAM). Mainstream µSSD proliferation will occur first in desktops and then notebooks because of the larger PCBs and power envelopes of desktops, but the use of the drives in eventually both PC segments is encouraging.

There are also longer-term variables in play for SSDs that could help fortify their standing, driven by evolving hardware architectures. The 8- to 16-gigabit-per-second performance of the upcoming SATA Express interface for SSDs makes it an ideal successor to the currently much slower 6 gigabit-per-second SATA interface, even though broad adoption won't happen until compatible chipsets like Intel's upcoming high-end Broadwell proliferate to the mainstream.

One danger to SSDs is the managed flash storage used by most mobile handsets and media tablets. The memory type known as embedded multimedia card (eMMC)-which stacks a controller in a NAND flash package-plays the role of storage in both mobile devices and in computers based on the ARM chipset, like the Chromebook laptop from Samsung Electronics.

The strength of the eMMC road map poses a threat to future market expansion for SSDs. As eMMC performance improves and its successor in Universal Flash Storage nears availability, even BGA-sized SSDs will struggle to compete in terms of pricing and ARM architecture integration.

This why the Ultrabooks in the PC segment, as well as market forces benevolent to solid-state drives, are so crucial to SSD volume growth.

Read more >> Persistent Ultrabook Struggles Forcing SSD Adaptation

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