Sub-1-inch hard disk drives on the horizon

Sub-1-inch hard disk drives on the horizon

The growing demand for low-cost, high-capacity and compact storage for mobile devices is pushing development of small form-factor hard-disk drives and the first of a new generation of sub-1-inch (2.5 centimeters) drives should hit the market in 2004.

One of the first companies to show a sub-1-inch hard disk drive is expected to be Japan's Toshiba Corp. The company plans to show a sample drive product at the CES show that takes place in Las Vegas in January 2004, it said Monday.

Toshiba wouldn't provide any further details of the drive although industry sources say that Toshiba and several other companies, including Matsushita Kotobuki Electronics Industries Ltd., are working on development of drives with 0.8-inch or 0.7-inch diameter platters. That's smaller than the CompactFlash form-factor Microdrive produced by Hitachi Ltd., which is based on a 1-inch platter, and less than half the size of the 1.8-inch drive used in Apple Computer Inc.'s iPod portable music player.

"Disk drives are going into more and more applications," said Thomas M. Coughlin, president of storage market analysis company Coughlin Associates Inc., during a storage industry conference in Tokyo in November. "Companies are looking at 1.8-inch, 1-inch and possibly 0.8-inch or 0.7-inch drives."

His predictions for the hard-disk drive market have 1.8-inch and smaller drive shipments reaching 3.3 million drives this year and climbing to 23.7 million drives in 2008 or, as a percentage of the overall disk drive market, from 1.4 percent this year to 5.3 percent in 2008.

The drives are expected to appear in products which require high-capacity data storage in a small form factor such as MP3 players, handheld digital video players and other portable consumer electronics and even some cellular telephones.

Such is the demand already that Toshiba recently announced it is doubling production of its PC Card-size 1.8-inch hard disk drive to 600,000 units per month by March 2004. The drives can be found in Apple Computer Inc.'s iPod, Toshiba's own Gigabeat digital music player and some ultra-portable notebook PCs and are available in capacities from 5G bytes to 40G bytes.

Flash memory storage is the medium of choice for many portable consumer electronics products at present, although small form-factor hard-disk drives offer advantages in several areas over solid-state memory.

One of its prime advantages is high storage capacity at a low cost. Prices for a 1G-byte Microdrive begin at around US$159 and the cheapest 1G-byte CompactFlash memory card costs US$205, according to PC World's Product Finder service. The price gap widens as capacity increases with a 4G-byte Microdrive costing US$500, or less than half that of a CompactFlash memory card of the same capacity.

At present the market for 1.8-inch and smaller class hard-disk drives is dominated by two Japanese companies --Toshiba in the 1.8-inch space and Hitachi in the 1-inch space -- but competitors are beginning to grab for a piece of the action.

Several companies are expected to launch 1.8-inch drives during 2004 and Hitachi already has two competitors in the 1-inch market space. They are Colorado-based Cornice Inc., which brands its 1.5G-byte drive the "Storage Element" and is already shipping the drive to customers including iRiver Co. Ltd. and Digitalway Co. Ltd. for use in MP3 players, and GS Magicstor Inc., a start-up disk maker based in China's western province of Guizhou.

"Hitachi has been until recently the only player in the market and we expect them to continue to be the technology leader," said Thomas Su, chief technical officer of GS Magicstor, at the same Tokyo conference. "Cornice has enjoyed some early success with a proprietary interface. But we expect many players will come into the market sooner or later. It's a matter of time."

However, while the hard drives are cheaper than flash memory the price tag for a 4G-byte drive still puts it out of the reach of most consumers.

"With only three companies its hard to get economies of scale," said Su. "Consumer electronics products are very cost sensitive."

Still, the entry of Cornice and GS Magicstor has already resulted in lower prices for users. GS Magicstor's CompactFlash form factor 2.2G-byte drive costs US$199, which is only US$40 more than the cheapest 1G-byte Microdrive, and Cornice's non-removable drive is cheap enough that Digitalway's 1.5G-byte HS-100 USB (Universal Serial Bus) drive costs US$150.

Toshiba wouldn't disclose pricing details or a shipping schedule for its sub 1-inch drive due to be shown at CES.

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