May 10, 2004 4:00 AM PDT

Minidrives to make big splash

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By the end of the year, tiny hard drives are going to start to become downright common.

Sony and Philips plan to release minidrive-based music players toward the middle of the year in the United States to capitalize on the growing interest in small electronics devices, said Kevin Magenis, CEO of Cornice, which makes the hard-drive element in the players.

Toward the end of the year, other manufacturers are expected to come out with video cameras containing minidrives, while at least one manufacturer is planning to release a device that can function as a portable personal video recorder (PVR) and a handheld.

"They (manufacturers) are all getting ready for the second half of the year," Magenis said. "I don't know what is going to take off, but I know they (consumers) need to have their stuff with them."

The tiny hard drives from Cornice and others hold far less than standard hard drives, with capacity ranging from just 1.5GB to 4GB. But they are also far smaller, measuring an inch across. (Toshiba is coming out with its own type of minidrive next year that measures less an inch in diameter.)

IBM invented the minidrive in the mid-1990s, but sales never took off. Music players with the small drives emerged in late summer 2003 with models from RCA and Rio.

Apple Computer then brought far more attention to the category with the iPod and the subsequent iPod Mini. "The iPod helped legitimize the market," Magenis said.

The models that Sony and Philips plan to release in the United States are already on sale in, respectively, Japan and Europe. The Sony device, which is marketed under its Aiwa brand, is about the same size as a business card holder, comes with 1.5GB of storage and can be expanded to 2GB.

Sony's device currently sells for $229, while the Philips player goes for $199. It is not certain what the devices will sell for in the United States.

The iPod Mini sells for $249 and comes with 4GB of storage.

The capacity and reliability of the new breed of minidrives is expected to increase over time. Currently, Cornice's drive tops out at 2GB and can survive a drop (inside a device) of about a meter. A 3GB version that can be dropped 1.5 meters will come out toward the beginning of 2005.

Magenis would not identify other manufacturers working on the devices, but said that one is a maker of portable PVRs that is a household name and that the company has worked with Samsung on hard-drive-based video cameras.

Other products due out later this year include minidrive-based USB storage devices for PCs.

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doesn't compete with large capacity players
There are two markets here, the digital media center, and the personal audio player. Larger players such as the iRiver H series, iPod players and the Napster and Dell knock-offs are one camp, which Sony's Net MD walkman, iPod mini, and smaller iRiver models are another. I personally believe the first category will do better in the future. As hard drive space becomes cheaper and more compact, folks with growing music collections will turn here. Not to mention the growing trend towards mobile digital video, with DVRs becoming more and more common. Also, who wants to keep track of multiple tiny hard drives? I used to have an iOmega hipzip player which beyond offering scant space (40MB per disk), had a terrible interface, was loud, slow, and the price of the zip discs not worth investing in for the trouble it took to use them. I vote for a streamlined technology that is fast and requires as few moving parts as possible, and it would seem having an embedded large drive in a device is the best way to solve that problem.

My two cents...
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Philips is a non player in this market
Philips is not a player in this market and should stay out unless they want to invest resources and enhance support for their player. I made the mistake of buying their HDD120 for my son because he like the styling. Unlike most of the IPod competition, it doesn't work with any music service, it won't allow synching with Windows Media Player or Real Player and it imposes digital rights management on everything that is loaded to it. Their music manamement software is pathetic too.
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