Toshiba unveils hard drive for mobile phones

The company is entering a crowded market with its 0.85-inch hard drive, but its small size might take it into devices others can't reach.

The company is entering a crowded market with its 0.85-inch hard drive, but its small size might take it into devices others can't reach.

The long-rumoured 0.85-inch drive, which Toshiba claims is the smallest in the world, is on show at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Toshiba and others hope mini drives will replace flash memory in handheld computers and mobile phones. While mini-drive technology has existed since the 1990s, the success of Apple's iPod has only now created a significant market for devices incorporating the drives.

Toshiba's 0.85-inch drive is slightly smaller than the one-inch drives produced by Hitachi, Cornice and China-based Magicstor, and will initially hold 2GB to 4GB, the company said. Toshiba will begin sampling the drive in the summer of 2004, with mass production beginning in the autumn. Toshiba has said it hopes to sell 300,000 units by the end of this year.

The drive is the first to bring multi-gigabyte capacity to a sub-one-inch form factor, Toshiba said. It is expected to launch at around US$280 (£154), with mass production eventually lowering the price to around US$90.

"Our new miniature drive is a significant technological breakthrough. It is set to bring explosive growth in smaller and more mobile digital devices," said Nick Spittle, senior manager with Toshiba Storage Device Division Europe, in a statement.

Interest in small drives was low until Apple scored a success with the iPod, unveiled in the autumn of 2001. The original iPod was based on a Toshiba 1.8-inch hard drive, and Toshiba has now shipped more than three million of the devices.

The company wasn't in time to team up with Apple on the iPod's successor, the iPod Mini (read preview here), which is about the size of a business card and uses a 4GB one-inch drive from Hitachi.

The smaller size of Toshiba's device may make it suitable for mobile phones, and Nokia is rumoured to be interested in incorporating the unit as a replacement for flash memory. Hard drives cost less than flash on a per-gigabyte basis, but use more power.

So far Hitachi is the only manufacturer to have shipped a one-inch drive with a 4GB capacity, although others are on the way. The one-inch drive was developed by IBM in the 1990s, and is still used in some products such as Fuji digital cameras. Hitachi bought IBM's hard-drive business in 2002.

Research firm IDC expects the number of hard drives shipped in portable MP3 players to hit 1.8 million this year, up from 900,000 last year. In 2004, it expects the number to climb to 2.4 million.

Although the music player market for hard drives is growing rapidly, it is a small fraction of the overall hard drive industry. IDC expects a total of more than 250 million hard drives to be shipped this year.

CNET's Ed Frauenheim contributed to this report.

ZDNet U.K.'s Matthew Broersma reported from London.