But don't expect to pick up a hard drive based on Quinta's technology on the shelf of your local computer store any time soon. While the company is committed to turning its exotic system into products, it will be some time before those drives come preinstalled on the standard PC.
Quinta, a San Jose, Calif., company with 162 employees - and bought by Seagate Technology Inc. (SEG) last year -- calls its system Optically Assisted Winchester (OAW) technology. It combines Winchester-type magnetic storage technology -- the kind used in standard hard drives -- with higher-capacity, lower-cost optical storage.
"It tries to take the best aspects of optical recording and magnetic recording," said Wolfgang Schlichting, research manager with International Data Corp., who follows OAW.
Quinta has been talking about OAW since last summer, and Tuesday disclosed the first details of how the system works.
The use of optical recording should allow OAW drives to surpass a limitation the industry believes puts a ceiling on the capacity of magnetic drives. The superparamagnetic limit, as it's called, says that due to the laws of physics, magnetic drives can't hold more than about 40Gb -- or the equivalent of 45 copies of the Encyclopedia Brittanica -- per square inch. OAW can surpass that because of its use of optical technology.
The result -- drives that could carry far more capacity than magnetic Winchester drives, in the same space, and at a lower price per gigabyte. Quinta says its drives would begin to surpass the superparamagnetic limit early in the next decade -- around the time that magnetic drives, at their current rate of progress, would hit the capacity ceiling. "The technology itself is designed to break through the barrier, where current technologies will stall," promised Quinta spokesman Phil Montero.
Analysts say OAW has great promise, especially for large corporations, for whom price-per-gigabyte is of prime importance.
"The beauty of Optically Assisted Winchester is that once you get to a Winchester type of architecture you can arrange multiple disks in a single drive, and get very high capacity," said analyst Schlichting.
But its use in standard home PCs could face some hurdles, mainly in performance.
"I don't see it in the near term being used as primary storage, replacing the hard drive in a PC," said Schlichting. "The performance won't be as good as hard drives. It will be able to get close, but from what we see comparing the drives of even a few years ago to those of today, that can be very important. Even a slight performance disadvantage could disqualify it."
He added that OAW could be cheap enough to replace tape storage, while still delivering near-hard-disk speeds.
Still, Quinta, which aims to announce its first products by the end of the year, is aiming for the whole pie. "We've become spoiled from a consumer standpoint, expecting a 6GB drive for $250. That was unheard of five years ago," said Montero. "This technology promises to ensure that we'll be getting higher and higher storage capacity going into the next millennium."