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The Week In Storage: Is There An SSD In That Shiny New Desktop PC? No, There Is Not

The week in storage began with a bang, as news that Samsung's SM961 is available for order hit the net. The retail products, which if history is any indication Samsung will brand as the 960 PRO and 960 EVO (surprise!), are sure to follow. For now, greedy SSD speed freaks can snatch up the world's fastest client storage through boutique OEM suppliers that sell into the retail channel, such as Ram City.

Speaking of the afflictions of speed junkies, Micron and Intel have their absolutely sick 3D XPoint memory (1000x faster than NAND, etc., etc.) working its way to market, but no one knows when. We also don't know just exactly what it is, either, but I digress. Micron spoke at the Nasdaq investor conference and confirmed the doubled density of its next generation of 3D NAND, but its muted non-projections for 3D XPoint seem to indicate that it may be a while before we see 3D XPoint (in all of its undefined glory) on the market. 

Drobo stepped up to the plate with a new series of 5Dt DAS (Direct-Attached Storage) units. Drobo swings for the fences with Thunderbolt 2 and USB 3.0, but the record books will need an asterisk to denote that the 5Dt is on the juice; Drobo injected a performance-enhancing caching SSD in the 5Dt's bottom. Thunderbolt 3 is on the market, but uptake in general seems sluggish, so Drobo likely stuck with Thunderbolt 2 to ensure a broad customer base while also assuring reasonable pricing.

WD expanded its NAS Pro Series with its own first rounders, including the pinch-hitting My Passport Wireless Pro that steps in while users are on the go. The slim mobile-centric device proves that HDDs may just yet have a spot in the mobile world, while the My Cloud Pro Series NAS steps in as the beefy homebound solution that provides up to 32 TB of storage. WD made the switch to Intel to leverage its all-star Quick Sync technology, which should significantly boost its transcoding capabilities. 

Chris put the TLC-powered Corsair Force LE SSD under the Tom's Hardware steamroller to see what squeezed out, and he came away impressed with its blend of pricing, features and value. The Force is with the LE; the 960 GB model retails for $210, need I say more? 

Well, of course I have to say more. I'm sorry weary readers, but that was just the preamble. Let's move on to other interesting stuff. 

Q: May I Have That Shiny New Desktop PC With An SSD?

A: No, Sir, You May Not.

In my humble (and biased) opinion, SSDs are the best thing to happen to computers since the CPU.  However, for all of the SSD pontification (and accompanying cold hard facts) we just cannot convince the PC vendors that a system without an SSD is an aberration. HDDs still have a place for bulk storage, of course, but the economics and performance of a small 240 GB SSD boot volume are just too much of a game-changer to ignore--or at least so one would think. 

One would think wrong. The latest information, which is the result of IDC, Garnter and Barclays research, estimates that the overall combined percentage of SSDs used in notebooks and desktop PCs will reach 30 percent in 2016 and increase to 36 percent in 2017. Although these numbers seem somewhat encouraging, a closer look at the two segments paints a depressing picture.

It seems that SSD penetration into notebooks is skewing the final tally; approximately 44 percent of notebooks will ship with SSDs this year, and the magical "crossover point" will come next year as it reaches 52 percent.

The desktop PC side of the market is dismal. In 2016, a mere 10 percent of desktop PCs will ship with an SSD, and to make matters worse, the rate of penetration is horribly slow. It's projected to rise to just 13 percent in 2017.

The desktop PC market has been in the throes of a continued decline for several years, and it is easy to see why, with the apparent unwillingness to integrate SSDs into the newest desktop PCs.

Mainstream users have become accustomed to the speed and responsiveness of flash due to its dominance of the mobile phone and tablet sectors. When a potential PC customer walks into a big box store and experiments with an HDD-powered showfloor PC, it feels slower, less responsive and outdated in comparison to a device that can fit in their pocket (and the pocket rocket usually costs much less).

It is easy to understand that the additional cost of an SSD may be the limiting factor, but it surely doesn't seem to be reducing the number of SSDs moving into the notebook space. Low-cost TLC-based 240 GB SSDs, which many mainstream users could use as a boot volume, continue to experience a sharp price decline. As more 3D NAND comes to market, we expect prices to drop even further, but apparently, it isn't enough to sway the PC vendor calculus in the near term.

This Week's Storage Tidbit (That Is Longer Than A Tidbit)

Brian Krzanich, CEO of Intel, was interviewed at the Sanford C Bernstein Conference recently, and the discussion was quite enlightening. Krzanich indicated that the massive decline in the desktop PC market is primarily due to longer refresh cycles. A refresh cycle denotes the length of time it takes an average user to buy a newer, updated device, and Krzanich lamented the fact that it had increased from four years to "about five to six years."

There are several potential reasons the refresh cycle is lengthening, including lackluster generation-over-generation CPU performance increases and sluggish development of new applications that actually require more performance.

Perhaps SSDs are also part of the problem. One can read myriad product reviews from multiple sources (not just us), and the most common pieces of upgrade advice for mainstream users is an SSD (tack on a GPU for the enthusiasts). An SSD is the easiest and simplest upgrade to any existing computer, and it can even breathe new life into the old PC dinosaurs of yesteryear.

My mother is rocking my throwaway Intel Q6600 CPU (from 2007) with an SSD, and it will likely see her into 2020 with ease; nothing she does while surfing the internet requires a new PC. There are likely many more users that are simply upgrading to an SSD in lieu of purchasing a new desktop, and although it would be a jump to say that SSD upgrades are killing the desktop PC market, the numbers indicate it might be having a significant impact.

The total number of desktop and notebook PCs shipped with SSDs last year is estimated at 58.4 million. However, Trendfocus predicts that 90.53 million SSDs were sold into the market specifically for client usage (drive form factors) during 2015, which leaves approximately 32 million SSDs that were not destined for new PCs.

It is easy to foresee that many of these 32 million SSDs are making their way into the retail/upgrade market, which is likely lengthening the upgrade window for PC users (and murdering the PC market in the process). 

Perhaps now is the time for PC manufacturers to get with reality and begin to offer new desktops with SSDs, so at the very least, the showfloor models can compete with my mom's Q6600/SSD combo in terms of responsiveness and snappiness.

Krzanich also bragged, "The PC for Intel last year, the profitability actually grew and we actually raised profitability in a year of declining units." That is a bold statement for a company that is restructuring and firing 11,000 employees due to the declining PC market. Much of this is likely due to reduced operating expenses and other measures, but perhaps it is time for Intel to cut the PC vendors some pricing slack or provide incentives to vendors that include SSDs in shipping models, which might reinvigorate the space. 

In either case, it is incomprehensible that only 10 percent of desktop PCs are shipping with SSDs, and it raises a red flag that the vendors are blind to one of the most promising computing technology advances of the last decade.

Paul Alcorn is a Contributing Editor for Tom's Hardware, covering Storage. Follow him on Twitter and Google+.

Paul Alcorn is the Deputy Managing Editor for Tom's Hardware US. He writes news and reviews on CPUs, storage and enterprise hardware.