I can't get enthusiastic about hybrid hard drives

Try as I might, I just can't work up any enthusiasm for Samsung's hybrid hard drives.

Yesterday Samsung announced their new MH80 series of hard drives which incorporate between 128 and 256MB of flash memory to complement the standard magnetic media.  These drives offer faster boot and wakeup times, increased battery life in notebooks and greater reliability.  Despite this, I just can't work up any enthusiasm for them.

I think that like most things, hybrid drives will get better with future releasesThere are a number of reasons why I'm not rushing out to buy a hybrid drive.  First off, the claims of improved performance and battery life are somewhat vague.  According to the literature, boot times are cut by 50 percent and power usage in notebooks is down by between 70 and 90 percent, which according to Samsung translates into 30 minutes more battery life.  But I can't seen any benchmarks or system information backing up any of these numbers.  I guess it's possible that you can stick a few megs of cache on a drive and cut boot times in half, but when Vista only takes, what, about 30 seconds to boot up on a normal system I can't see cutting that in half boosting my productivity all that much.

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What about the reliability claims.  Here's a snippet from the press release:

"As the drive's platters are idle 99 percent of the time, the MH80 eliminates the need for the hard disk to constantly spin whenever a computer is operating on battery power. As a result, the drive is much less susceptible to shock damage, resulting in less data loss and fewer needed repairs." [emphasis mine]

How much less?  Compared to what?  Other Samsung drives?  Again, the data is vague.

I also have concerns about the lifespan, speed and reliability of the flash memory cache.  It seems that the lifespan of NAND flash is about a million cycles before it's dead, so given how hard this cache is expected to work the lifespan of the cache might be a lot less than that of the drive itself.  Deterioration of the flash cache could lead to all sorts of nasty problems that could be really hard to track down, and unless the cache is replaceable, rectifying the issue will mean trashing the drive.

Speed also needs to be put into perspective.  Reading data in the cache will be super fast (about 100 Megabits per second) but writing speeds are a lot more subdued, only about a quarter of what the magnetic media on the drive can handle.  What you gain in terms of reading from the cache you lose in writing to it. 

I think that like most things, hybrid drives will get better with future releases.  I'd like to see what the reliability of these drives is like in the real world, outside of Samsung's labs.  I'd also like to see drives that have larger-sized caches and diagnostic tools to check integrity of the cache.  Also, given that I'm somewhat skeptical of the benefits that this technology currently offers, it'll probably be a good a good idea to wait until the price come down a few dollars too. 

Oh, and pretty soon Seagate will release its own hybrid drives, before the end of Q1.

Interested in hybrid drives or will you wait for the technology to mature?


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