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Where's the hard disk?

Posted by: Kenji Hall on October 11, 2006

Fujitsu is tip-toeing into new territory. On Oct. 11, Japan’s second-largest computer maker announced that it would make a laptop that relies only on NAND flash memory, the chip-of-choice when it comes to storing data on portable music players, cameras and cell phones. Fujitsu plans to sell the laptop to businesses in Japan in limited numbers; the machines will be built-to-order and prices will start as low as $1,700 for up to 32 gigabytes of memory.

As you might have guessed, it’s going to take some time for tech companies to jam as much storage capacity in flash-only computers as hard disks. One reason is the lofty price of the memory chips themselves. NAND flash drives, which store data even when switched off, still cost at least six times more than hard disks for the same amount of storage capacity. (Fujitsu says the NAND-only laptop will sell for about $700 more than the comparable hard-disk version.) That’s got analysts predicting that flash-based computers won’t reach the mainstream consumer for another few years. Consumers probably wouldn’t go for a PC with so little memory anyway, given all the photos, music and other digital junk that gets saved on the average PC these days.

Still, Fujitsu's move is a promising sign for computers. You'll likely see other tech companies joining the fray soon. That's because average selling prices for NAND flash are expected to fall 56% this year and next year, according to Gartner forecasts. And the market researcher predicts demand will continue to double every year through 2010.

NAND flash chips would help reduce the annoying minutes-long wait to fire up your PC. It could also make laptops more shock-resistant since NAND uses electrons to store information instead of moving mechanic parts that are susceptible to breakage. Another plus is that such computers would weigh less and consume less power--a key consideration in this age of ever-faster, power-hungry processing chips that can run up the electricity bill.

Fujitsu's initial batch of NAND-based laptops is expected to account for only a tiny percentage of the laptops made at its Shimane plant, in western Japan. The company made 2.2 million laptops there last year. But it's already looking into the possibility of marketing these newfangled machines to a broader audience. "We don't think prices of NAND flash memory will be going up any time soon so we're studying the idea of a mass market model," says spokeswoman Miho Hirasawa.

Of course, Fujitsu will have plenty of competition. Samsung released a 32-GB laptop in March. Sony launched one over the summer that resembles a PDA. Toshiba is rumored to be working on its own NAND-only machine, and chip-making giant Intel is developing a hybrid flash/hard disk drive. That's good news for consumers. The more companies experimenting on this technology, the better the chances are that we'll see these machines in stores soon.

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