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Tech firms go head-to-head on SSDs

Posted: 29 Aug 2008 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:SSD market shakeout? solid-state drive? ultramobile PC?

The solid-state drive (SSD) battle is brewing as an endless stream of companies are expanding or entering the market, leaving many to predict a shakeout in the arena.

Intel Corp., Micron Technology Inc., SanDisk Corp., Stec, Toshiba Corp. and countless others have recently rolled out new SSDs.

Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd said Aug. 27 that it has begun sampling a new line of low-cost SSDs, said to be only 30 percent of the size of 2.5-inch products.

Samsung's new, lower-density SSDs are going after the emerging ultramobile PC (UMPC) market. By unit sales, the low-density SSD market is expected to increase annually by 57 percent until 2011, according to the Korean chip giant.

Looming shakeout?
Based on NAND flash memory, SSDs are supposed to replace hard drives in select applications, such a mobile PCs, notebooks and enterprise servers. But SSDs are still more expensive than hard drives and the price delta between the two technologies remains wide.

Besides the cost issues, the SSD market is due for a shakeout. Some 50 companies are competing in the overcrowded SSD market, said Jim Handy, an analyst with Objective Analysis.

And there is still a lot of hype in the arena. Low-capacity SSDs are being used in some ultra mobile PCs. SSDs are also being used in notebook PCs, but those systems are expensive and generally carry $2,000 price points, said Jim Cantore, president of consulting firm JLC Associates.

The "sweet spot" in the notebook PC market is generally considered systems that sell from $800-to-$1,000, Cantore said. Those systems use cheaper hard drives, it was noted.

The missing piece in mainstream notebook PCs are higher-capacity, lower-priced SSDs, he said. Many SSDs in the market are expensive 120Gbyte units. A low-priced, 256Gbyte SSD is required for today's notebooks, he added.

Quest for SSD king
Another question looms: Which company will surviveand take the leadership rolein the SSD market?

It's up for grabs, but Samsung appears to be a long-term threat. NAND flash suppliers Micron, SanDisk and Toshiba are viable, but they all face challenges. Disk-drive giant Seagate could be a dark horse.

Non-flash memory suppliers could be in for a rough spell; they do not have NAND fabs and cannot control their component supply.

Many wonder about the fortunes of Intel, which recently expanded its efforts in the SSD arena. "The entrance of Intel into client and enterprise SSDs will expand the market in the near term, as another credible SSD supplier joins the ranks of Samsung, Stec, Toshiba and potential challengers SanDisk and Micron," said Joseph Unsworth, an analyst with Gartner Inc.

"However, longer term, Intel poses a serious competitive threat as a stand-alone supplier or as a possible partner (for example, Seagate has publicly stated that it is interested in pursuing enterprise-grade SSD)," Unsworth said in a report.

"SanDisk also would be challenged by Intel's presence because SanDisk has been slow to get its next-generation SSD to market and does not have the enterprise relationships necessary to quickly penetrate the enterprise segment," he said. "This is especially true because SanDisk's strength is in retail, and there will be limited traction of SSDs in retail for at least the next three years."

Samsung's advantage
Meanwhile, Samsung claims to have the magic formula in SSDs. It has expanded its SSD market offerings since it introduced its first SSD in 2006 in 16- and 32Gbyte capacities targeted at the UMPC market. This was followed by the announcement of the 64Gbyte SSD in 2007, a 128Gbyte SSD in 2008 and sampling of a 256Gbyte SSD in 2H 08.

Samsung is also reportedly the SSD supplier in Apple Computer Inc.'s notebook system, it was noted.

With the introduction of its new SSDs, Samsung claims to offer an attractive replacement for existing HDDs used in low-cost PCs. Available in densities of 8-, 16- and 32Gbyte, the new multi-level-cell SSDs will be mass produced beginning next month.

"We've refined our manufacturing techniques and redesigned our low-density SSDs to get what the low-priced PC market is looking for in the way of improved cost, performance and availability," said Jim Elliott, VP of memory marketing at Samsung Semiconductor Inc., in a statement.

The SSDs use the same SATA II controller technology as that being used on Samsung's just-introduced MLC-based 128Gbyte SSD. Its new MLC-based SSD at 32Gbyte capacity will read data at 90MBps and write it at 70MBps. The 16Gbyte unit reads at 90MBps and writes at 45MBps, while the 8Gbyte product reads at 90MBps and writes at 25MBps.

Samsung incorporates four individual 16Gbit MLC NAND chips in its 8Gbyte SSD, as well as four dual-die packages and four quad-die packages of 16Gbit NAND for its 16- and 32Gbyte SSDs, respectively.

- Mark LaPedus
EE Times

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