SanDisk 32GBFlash drives: ultra-fast. Zero noise. Absurdly awesome reliability. Now, replacing your hard drive.

That’s the vision, anyway. Flash memory, once limited to very tiny chunks, is slowly creeping towards storage big enough to use for audio. You’ve already got flash storage around, most likely, because of devices like Apple’s iPod nano and iPhone. But 4GB or 8GB is a little cramped for most audio and music work. You need numbers like 32GB.

That’s exactly the size of the drive Dell is putting in its new Latitude D420. But it doesn’t come cheap: the SanDisk 1.8″ drive, while extremely fast and reliable, will have a street price around US$500. So if flash storage is so expensive, what’s the point? Well, for starters, the failure rate on hard drives is very high. Even ignoring the (significant) performance gains in flash memory, it’s worth having a more robust medium, with no moving parts. Second, the sense is that flash costs will continue to fall. After all, there was a time not so long ago when a 20 MB(!) hard drive was a luxury.

Dell Lattitude D420 [UberGizmo]
Solid State, baby: SanDisk SSD UATA 5000 1.8″ [SanDisk.com]

Of course, the big push on the PC side — and some of the functionality supported in Intel’s Santa Rosa and not used by Apple’s new MacBook Pros — is using flash to store Windows bloat– I mean, uh, cached data and applications. (Okay, let’s face it: all three OSes have become pretty bloated if we’re talking about needing hundreds of dollars of high-performance flash memory just to cut down on endless load times. See Vista’s ReadyBoot and such.) But I think for the music market, the bigger draw could be storing media files. We can wait for the OS and app to load; it’s media file performance that matters.

In the meantime, it’s easy enough to become a flash memory convert for other reasons. I’m really happy with my Corsair FlashVoyager GT, the USB key I carry around. It’s limited by USB2 speeds, but I’ve even run audio and video off it live. And it’s comforting just knowing my data is backed up on a reliable medium, and mobile between the various machines I own. (Yes, no matter how great networking gets, nothing beats a little SneakerNet.) Imagine if this thing were large enough to keep all your projects on. And for all the complaints about the small storage size of the iPhone, there’s nothing worse than dropping your iPod and killing the hard drive.

So the big question now is, when will prices fall enough that a little musical flash drive is a no-brainer?

Thanks to Moldover for the links.

  • http://www.jatunmusic.com dead_red_eyes

    Peter, I read these posts a while back on Gizmodo … and Sandisk has a 64GB option, and there's a company called PQI that has a 256GB option.

    http://gizmodo.com/gadgets/laptops/pny-and-sandis

    http://gizmodo.com/gadgets/laptops/pqi-teases-us-

    PQI is also working on a 32GB ExpressCard/34 flash card. That would be just the thing that all the Macbook Pro owners need. Who knows, maybe they're working on a ExpressCard/54 version as well.

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    Yeah, I've been watching this for a while; it was certainly a big push of Microsoft with their Vista launch. (This is one of those things that's newsworthy only in that things are now shipping, and my mate Moldover reminded me of it!)

    ExpressCard would be terrific. I think that's a key, too — I seriously doubt a whole lot of people will commit to a pre-built model or even a BTO, but as an upgrade …

    And there's the fact that then you aren't tied to internal storage. Where do I sign up? :)

  • http://www.jatunmusic.com dead_red_eyes

    No doubt. I'd kill for a 32GB Expresscard/34 option … that would be perfect for hosting samples on wouldn't it? 64GB would be much better … but I could swing with using 32GB for the time being.

    I'm really glad to see that someones trying to come up with better uses for the Expresscard 34 and 54 slots. You ask me, that's just screaming for extra internal storage.

    I hate lugging around my external drive, and if it was possible to get an affordable Expresscard flash drive … oh baby. Just think how nice that would be. You could still back up all of your data onto an external drive, but just host samples on the Expresscard. Most of my friends host their samples on an external drive, and most use anywhere from 20GB to 50GB of just samples … so if PQI gets their stuff together, with an affordable price, I could see this being something that the entire music community would embrace. After all, don't most laptops these days come with an Expresscard 34 or 54 slot?

    Also, I've been wondering something about the Expresscard/34 slot … is it only being used by Apple, and the Expresscard/54 is being used on Windows based laptops? It seems that every Windows based laptop I see has an Expresscard/54 slot.

  • http://indiedanceparty.com DJ McManus

    Anyone else using one computer for the office / personal and using a second dedicated to music performance?

    It'd be clean to just use one sweet small form factor computer and switch the HD for either set of needs.

    How are these for heat?

    When will Live be available for Ubuntu?

    Great Blog.

  • bliss

    I remember when I used to have a Turbo Grafix game console. It was either that or Sega at the time. I should have went with Sega. Anyway, Turbo Grafix games, way back then, were distributed on flash drives, and even back then I wondered why they weren't more popular than hard disk drives. Good thing flash memory is becoming less expensive.

  • http://www.myspace.com/onyxashantisinterstellarribshack onyxashanti

    the only fear i have right now, is dropping my laptop. although i know that i should have triple redundant data backups, i dont. i literally have a couple of dozen different storage mediums laying around; about 10 hard drives, 8 of which have failed for various reasons, 2-300 CD's, 30-40% of which are unreadable, and a dozen or so flash drives and SD cards, ALL of which are fully functional, and some are as old as 10 years!! so suffice it to say that as soon as a decent 100gb flash drive, at a decent price, hits the market, i will never buy another mechanical drive again.

    onyx

  • scott l.

    hmm…if we're talking about the souped-up cousin to the 256MB and 512MB USB keychain thingies out there, there better be some serious improvements to data stability on these suckers. let's say you got one on your mac and you need to eject it and either the system hangs and you have to yank it out or you forget to eject it and instead simply pull it out unthinkingly. you'll get the 'you removed a USB device before you were supposed to and data might be corrupted' message. in my experience, 8 times out of ten when this happened i ended up with corrupted data – word files or reason songs that were suddenly unreadable, etc… i've bought 3 of these USB flash drives – broke one (in a soft rubber casing), lost another and the third outright failed after 2 or 3 months. each time my trusty sidekick which i can save stuff on is my iPod or an external HD. if i yank those things offline unexpectedly i'm 99 % likely to have my data intact. it's certainly not perfect but i for one would not trust USB flash drives with backups of crucial data. redundancy is the best solution overall. haven't had these issues with SD cards but don't use them as much. anyone else have reliability issues with USB flash drives?

  • jp

    the way i understand it, flash memory degrades over time – much like analog tape quality. is it that it occurs over such an extended period of time that you're likely to have upgraded your hard drive anyway?

    i'm still enamored with my tape-backups!

  • http://www.jatunmusic.com dead_red_eyes

    DJ McManus – "How are these for heat?"

    There is no heat issues with flash drives, there's no moving parts.

    jp – "the way i understand it, flash memory degrades over time – much like analog tape quality"

    That's correct, as far as I understand it. But I honestly think that flash memory would last longer than analog tape.

  • Colin J

    Deead_Red_Eyes…

    I hava a sony vaio that has both the Expresscard/34 and Expresscard/54.

  • thesimplicity

    scott l: Wow, I think you have some pressing computer use issues that you need to work out with yourself. Yeah, unplugging a flash drive while it's in the middle of an operation could corrupt some of your data. The same way dropping a HDD into lava could corrupt some of your data. That's why you try not to do it!

    I can't wait for solid state disks that I can swap into a RAID. In fact, I'm giddy just thinking about it. I could care less about form factor or squeezing the drives into notebooks… I just want all my data on these things. I'm sick of trying to guess when one of my disks is about to fail and making sure all my backups are up to date.

    In the future, the only moving parts anywhere will be in the chrono-synclastic pulsating brainworms that we hide from. And as they gnaw through our minds and take control of our solid state nervous systems, we'll think to ourselves "good lord, I can't believe we used to trust our data to hard disk drives!"

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    I can't top ANYTHING thesimplicity just said. But for the record — flash memory degrades, just like everything else. Data in any file write operation can be corrupted under certain circumstances. Redundancy is always the key. That said, having a lower *hardware failure rate* is a good thing, even with backups. Even talking USB keys, there are ones that are well made, and I think we're talking other form factors, anyway.

  • http://www.johnnyrandom.com/ Flip

    I'm bummed the new mac pros didn't have flash drives. I'm holding out till they do.

  • http://www.johnnyrandom.com/ Flip

    Uh, duh. Sorry. Macbook Pros.

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    Yeah, but if you can swap out via ExpressCard some day …

    I could be wrong, but I just don't think Apple will cut into their margins or complicate device configs via internal drives. That said, the current Santa Rosa is missing the new 45nm chip coming I would think around early 2008.

    And after that there's something better again.

    Probably only you know when the right time is to upgrade for your own needs, in other words. :)

    Watch for a current-gen MBP test soon, anyway. And maybe I can get SanDisk to loan me a flash drive for a coupla weeks. ;)

  • http://www.itshibrow.com _object.session

    hi. sorry if this is too long of a quote, but i thought this might explain some of the questions about the expresscard sizes, from expresscard.org:

    There is no direct performance difference between an ExpressCard/34 and an ExpressCard/54 module. In fact, both modules use the same 26 contact connector, so your computer is not even aware of which size of module has been inserted. …However, the ExpressCard/54 form-factor does allow for greater thermal dissipation due to its larger surface area. … there are some applications that require the larger ExpressCard/54 module's extra width. Some examples of this are: SmartCard readers, CompactFlash readers, and hard drives with 1.8" platters. …

    also, expresscard/54 slots support expresscard/34 cards. so, i figure that laptop companies put in the larger slot when their design can spare the extra space.

  • http://indiedanceparty.com DJ McManus

    thermal dissipation …

    I hear what dead red eyes is saying about no moving parts meaning no heat production in these.

    I have a kingmax 1 gig thumbdrive which is smaller than a stick of trident gum. It was replaced under warranty after failing once already and it gets quite hot when data is transfered to it.

    On the other hand my 2 gig smartdisk card is going strong but because its inside my camera I've never checked its temperature.

    Has anyone actually got one of these as their main HD yet?

  • http://www.rekkerd.org loops

    Early flash memory had problems with write endurance (number of times you could write to it). The finite number of erase-write cycles quickly spread some FUD and kept people from adapting to it.

    But new techniques like wear levelling and BBM (bad block management) have improved the lifespan and stability of flash memory.

    Check here to read about the technical "worst case scenario" lifespan of 51 years for flash memory using these techniques.

    But that doesn't mean these things won't break earlier. You'll still need to make backups just like with your hard drives.

  • bliss

    The main issue for me is noise. I'd like to make music, surf, and play games without the extra noise made by hard drives and fans. I can imagine using heat sinks with flash drives in desktop systems that will totally eliminate heat and noise. I don't mind having to backup data, I'd do it even if it weren't required, because you never know. Just get rid of the noise and I'd be the happiest cat.

  • http://www.jatunmusic.com dead_red_eyes

    DJ McManus, I've actually heard of some people having flash drives that get hot … but I honestly couldn't see these newer flash drives having heat issues.

    Who knows tho, untill we start to see some specs on these bad boys all we can do is speculate really.

  • scott l.

    well, my only totally reliable experience with flash memory is SD cards from cameras and my H4. i can even swap out cards and read pictures from my H4's reader and vice versa on my camera. they show up on the desktop and go away when you hit the eject button. there are times occasionally when the mac refuses to dismount USB media or devices. it can't be that uncommon. i've done it on a bunch of macs and all of them occasionally have the same dismounting issue. most of the time it's a user error – like i still have an application going, but sometimes the mac hangs in housekeeping mode and i've quit all the applications and it still refuses to dismount USB devices. this has happened to me on at least 4 different machines, not just my own.

    regarding the yanking the drive issue at inopportune moments – hey, it happens to all of us at some point. i try to remember but i still forget occasionally. but this is where i think the technology should be forgiving and made to be more robust regarding data integrity and preservation in spite of user error. supposedly the new mac os (leopard) has ZFS which is supposed to be a more recoverable file system than HFS+ is, but i bet it'll probably break 10 other things that were working fine under Tiger.

  • bliss

    Wow! I hadn't heard of the ZFS formatting of Leopard — I want to know more about that.

  • bliss

    Anyone wanting to know more about ZFS should read this article at Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ZFS

    Seems it is serious challenge to get implemented for everyday use in Mac OS X Leopard: "As of Mac OS X 10.5 (Developer Seed 9A321), support for ZFS has been included, but lacks the ability to act as a root partition, noted above. Also, attempts to format local drives using ZFS are unsuccessful; this is a known bug." Interesting stuff!

  • nonstatic

    only a matter of time. i can't wait.

  • james braselton

    hi there yes i have a macbook air 13.3 inch 2.13 ghz duo core cpu 4 gb ram 256 gb ssd new macbook airs 512 gb ssd 15.5 inch macbook pro with retna dissplay has 768 gb ssd flash drive soo apple macs will soon hit the 1 terabyte flash drive