Scotts Valley (CA) - Perpendicular recording will be a key technology to keep the capacity of hard disks growing in coming years. Seagate isn't wasting time upgrading its products: The company will be shipping a massive 12 GB 1" drive later this year and increase the storage space gap to mainstream flash memory.
2005 was an important year for smaller form factor hard disks as 1.8", 1" and 0.85" devices quickly gained popularity as portable storage products and mass storage solutions in hand held products. But especially the 1" form factor also had to deal with increased competition from flash memory manufacturers: Not only grew the capacity of flash, but also prices dropped by an estimated 50% - which was reason enough for Apple to switch from a hard drive to a flash memory chip in its latest iPod model.
While hard drive manufacturers will not be able to match the speed and the durability of flash memory devices, the strategy has to be a quickly increasing capacity and an evolutionary improvement in all other storage device characteristics. Seagate, the world's largest hard drive manufacturer believes that perpendicular recording technology is the foundation that allows the company to outpace flash. A 160 GB 2.5" perpendicular drive was announced in January and is shipping now; by the third quarter of this year, the technology will come to the firm's smallest hard drive - the ST1 series. The third generation of the drive (ST1.3) increases the current maximum capacity from 8 GB to 12 GB, while decreasing the overall size of the drive by 23% at the same time: The footprint of the drive shrinks from a footprint of 43 mm x 36 mm to 40mm x 30 mm.
According to Rob Pait, Seagate's director for global consumer electronics marketing, the 12 GB drive just indicates what perpendicular recording may be able to do for the industry. "It's just a start where we see the technology going. Storage capacity will be growing quickly, which will be a key differentiator to flash," he told TG Daily. While he was not able to talk about Seagate's business relationship with Apple, he mentioned that the company "certainly would love to have Apple back as a customer." Apple dropped in 2005 the iPod mini, which was equipped with Seagate's 1.8" drives, and replaced it with the iPod nano, which comes with 2 GB and 4 GB flash memory devices.
But there are other features than capacity, in which flash is superior to hard drives - especially their low power consumption and the fact that the absence of moving parts makes flash memory virtually indestructible. According to Pait, the ST1.3 will be improving in both characteristics and try to narrow the gap. For example, increased shock resistance means, that the drive can survive a drop on concrete from about five feet of height. Also, the ST1.3 will consume 30% less power than "other 1" drives on the market," he said.
The ST1.3 will make its way into MP3 players, likely into devices built by Philips and iRiver, and appear during this year's holiday season. Cellphones typically require more time to adapt such technologies and we do not expect 12 GB multimedia phones to surface in 2006, but more likely in 2007.
If Seagate is able to quickly increase the capacity of its 1" hard drives it certainly will also draw attention from Apple. Considering the fact that the company appears to have entered long term contracts with Flash suppliers such as Samsung, Elpida and Intel/Micron, it is unlikely the segment created by the iPod nano will switch to hard drives anytime soon. But Apple's iPod sales keep growing - the company sold 14 million iPods during the 2005 holiday season - and we wouldn't be too surprised if more iPod products surfaced in coming months.