The sorry state of solid state

Everyone wants solid-state disk drives — apart from those who have them

One of the most desirable items for any enthusiastic early adopter of IT is the solid-state disk drive, or SSD.

Rotating storage is a wonder of the age. With costs down to around 10 pence per gigabyte, you can buy half a terabyte for the equivalent price of a 1980s data cassette tape recorder. But it's still mechanical.

It's a shame, then, that the introduction of SSDs into mainstream usage appears to be going so badly. Solid state should mean faster and safer, yet reliable sources suggest that up to 30 percent of SSD-equipped laptops are being returned. Mostly, that's because they're broken. Sometimes, it's because they're too slow. The ghost of the datacorder has yet to be exorcised.

This is a poor showing for a premium option. It also casts doubt on Intel's very bullish predictions for its — as yet unrevealed and untested —160GB SSD devices, with which it proposes to leapfrog flash masterminds Samsung and Toshiba's — as yet unrevealed and untested — 128GB drives.

It's always wise to take a wait-and-see attitude whenever breakthrough technology is being offered. In this case, although flash memory isn't rocket science, it will be best to adopt Nasa levels of testing before trusting the platform for enterprise-level deployment. Intel may be happy predicting 60 percent year-on-year price-performance improvements, but we haven't seen the things working yet.

Some of these problems may be due to the switch to the cheaper but more problematical multi-level cell flash technology from the tested but uneconomic single-cell flash (for a look at what that means, see Dialogue Box 3.2). Others may be due to the fact that flash in general works best with a radically different access technique to any other media, leaving a huge legacy of badly fitting software. That's another reason to wait and see; it may take some time for OEMs and software writers to learn how to use SSDs properly.

Whatever the reason, at launch the technology is over-sold and underperforming. SSDs may be the future of storage but, in this respect at least, they're being spun just as fast as their forebears.