January 12, 2005 4:00 AM PST

Disk drives to stop shrinking

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For hard-drive makers, getting small is becoming a passing fad.

While consumers have gone bonkers for music players and other sleek devices sporting tiny hard drives, disk drive companies say there's little room, and even less desire, for further reducing the size of the drive platters--the silver disks that spin around and hold data.

Since the platters constitute a substantial portion of the overall volume of the drive, this means a ceiling looms for shrinking drive sizes and potential increased competition from flash memory.

News.context

What's new:
Gear such as MP3 players with tiny drives are all the rage, but drive makers say their platters can only get so small.

Bottom line:
Because drive platters take up lots of room, drives cannot be shrunk much more without losing data storage. This does, however, leave more room for competition from flash memory.

More stories on this topic

"The disk drive is not going to get much smaller," said Jim Porter, an analyst at Disk/Trend.

The problem goes back to Archimedes and some basic science. Reducing the diameter of a drive platter greatly reduces the surface area for storing data. And less available storage space makes it more difficult for drives to distinguish themselves against flash memory. Typically, flash memory accesses data faster, but drives can provide far greater storage capacity for the same amount of money.

"The trade-off in size is not as important as the trade-off in capacity," said Bill Healy, senior vice president of product strategy and marketing for Hitachi Global Storage Technologies.

Hitachi, which makes the drive found in the iPod Mini, has no plans to further shrink the 1-inch-diameter platter found in those drives. The company will, however, shrink the overall size of its mini drives by developing smaller motors and reducing packaging, Healy said.

Similarly, Maciek Brzeski, vice president of marketing for the storage division of Toshiba, says the Japanese giant is not interested in shrinking the 0.85-inch-diameter platters in its mini drive, which is featured in a video camera coming soon.

This doesn't mean that mini drives won't continue to improve. Design innovations such as perpendicular recording will allow drive makers to increase current capacities on small drives from the 4GB and 5GB range to 8GB to 10GB within a year. Brzeski, Healy and several analysts predict that drive makers will be able to maintain an advantage over flash when it comes to large-capacity devices. When 10GB mini drives hit the market next year, 10GB of flash memory might cost 10 times as much, Porter speculated.

Better packaging will also enable drive makers to reduce their size and volume. "Mikey," the code name for a Hitachi drive that comes out

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Fantastic!
This is absolutely WONDERFUL -- and no, I am not in jest.

I would LOVE to see present-day 3.5" hard disks return to the 5.25" form factor. Hard disk failure rates and stability have been the #1 problem since the absurd volume growth of hard disks. What used to work almost flawlessly in a 3.5" form factor (~400-800MByte) now fails regularly because we're pushing 400-500GB per drive.

I'd much rather see solid-state mass storage make an appearance in this day and age (such as holographic storage, or alternate technology IBM was working on), since the 2nd common failure point for hard disks are the mechanics -- i.e. moving parts.

In the meantime, manufacturers, PLEASE help restore stability of your own products by bringing back 5.25" form factor drives. Besides, 90% of the PCs out there have 3 or 4 5.25" drive bays which remain empty and do nothing -- I'd rather have hard disks there, with proper cooling, along with the cables being kept up away from the mainboard components (therefore inducing CPU and RAM thermal issues).

As for laptop users -- you're out of luck. Hope for silicon-based storage mediums in the gigabyte range, such as 20-40GB USB pen drives...
Posted by katamari (310 comments )
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