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QLC Flash Wars Heating Up: QLC SSDs Headed To Desktop PCs This Year

The QLC flash wars are heating up as Intel announced via Twitter yesterday that it was producing its first QLC SSD for the data center. Toshiba and WD released their own QLC flash announcements shortly thereafter.

SSD pricing is already plunging due to the industry's transition to TLC flash. TLC flash stores three bits per cell, making the technology denser and cheaper than previous-gen flash. The move to QLC flash, which stores four bits per cell, promises to bring even lower prices and higher-capacity SSDs to the market soon.

But QLC flash comes with trade-offs. The extra 33% in storage density results in lower endurance and performance, but advances in 3D manufacturing technology have made the new NAND viable for light-use applications, which includes desktop PCs.

Micron started the QLC party a few months ago with the announcement of the industry's first shipping QLC SSD, so it was only natural that its flash-fabbing partner Intel would soon follow suit. Intel's tweet includes an image of its new drive, but from the exterior, it appears similar to all of Intel's previous-gen 2.5" U.2 SSDs.

Intel's tweet says that the company's latest drives will come outfitted with the high-speed PCIe interface, so naturally, that means the drives will support the now-ubiquitous NVMe protocol. Intel promises to share more details about the new SSDs, which will become a new "D5" product line, at next month's Flash Memory Summit. The tweet also claims that the drives are the world's first QLC SSDs for the data center.

In either case, Intel has historically produced consumer SSDs with the same technology that it uses for the data center. Recent unconfirmed leaks indicate Intel has a new consumer QLC SSD on the roadmap for this year, so it is likely only a matter of time before its QLC flash comes to the desktop PC.

Not to be upstaged, flash partners Toshiba and WD both announced their jointly-produced 3D QLC NAND yesterday in separate announcements. The announcements contained quite a bit more information, so we know that the new 96-layer BiCS4 flash has a density of 1.33 terabits2 per die.

SSDs come with up to 16 die per package, so that means Toshiba and WD will soon be able to pack in a whopping 2.66TB of storage into a single NAND package. The duo plans to begin sampling the BiCS4 QLC NAND in September and mass production is slated for early 2019. More importantly, WD's release clearly states that QLC SSDs will come to the consumer market under the SanDisk brand name. We expect Toshiba to follow suit with its own consumer SSDs.

SSDs have slowly chipped away at HDD market share over the last few years and WD even recently decided to shut down one of its primary HDD production plants due to reduced demand. SSD prices continue to plunge and many analyst firms predict even larger drops as the Chinese Yangtze River Storage Technology fabs begin to pump out 3D NAND. Samsung is also reportedly gearing up to increase its NAND production dramatically with a $2.6 billion increase in spending in 2019. Next year is shaping up to the year of QLC SSDs, which could be the final ingredient needed to push HDDs out of the primary storage role entirely.

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