Each year in May, personal computer companies showcase their hottest wares at the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference. This year Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) highlighted a quartet of cutting-edge machines, from a snappy laptop to a sleek media-center PC designed to turn the stodgy desktop into a personal video recorder, juke box, and Internet phone. The world's largest computer company offered a hidden gem, with a decidedly stodgy name. HP's Personal Media Drive will store 500 gigabytes or more worth of movies, TV, and music, and it'll function, essentially, as an extremely high-powered, portable, external hard drive.
Designed as a PC add-on, the PMD goes where no portable or removable mass-market drive has gone before. Powered by an array of sliver-thin magnetic hard-disk drives, the PMD can hold dozens of feature-length films in high-definition format or store tens of thousands of songs all in a device about half the size of a shoe-box.
"You could hold an entire season of The Sopranos on this drive and still have space left over for most of your music," says Ameer Karim, HP's director of product marketing for digital-entertainment PCs. Users will be able to swap out one PMD unit for another with a push of a button, without cracking open the case. HP has working prototypes and plans to release PMD production models later this summer. (HP isn't talking about prices yet).
PRELOADED MUSIC? No, data storage will never be sexy. But the field is powering a big shift in how people use their PCs. As the digital lifestyle becomes more entrenched, storage has become the primary enabler for the rising tide of stored music, video, and photos. The demand is spurring a wave of innovation that's opening up wild new possibilities for PCs.
The National Storage Industry Consortium, an industry trade group, has set a goal of storing 1 terabit, or 1 trillion bits, of data per square inch by 2008. This compares to current capacity per square inch of less than one-tenth that amount. "With that kind of memory, you could store a small black-and-white image of every person on the planet on a single CD-size disk," says Edward Schlesinger, director the Data Storage Systems Center at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.
In that future, he says, "Every child who has a laptop or a home PC has the entire contents of the Library of Congress." Music labels could preload entire catalogs of thousands of songs onto computers and charge users to activate them, completely dispensing with the need to download music from the Internet.
Getting to this exalted level of data storage in every PC, however, will require some technological advances. For at least the next decade, the primary storage mechanism in most computers will remain the venerable hard-disk drive (HDD). But researchers have already laid out a roadmap of innovations for HDDs and other devices that they believe will take the industry to the 1 terabit-per-square-inch range and possibly well beyond.
SERIOUS PROBLEM. To get there, they'll have to contend with a scientific mouthful: the superparamagnetic limit. This arcane term describes thermal interference that afflicts magnetic material at the atomic level when bits of data are jammed very closely together. At some point, the ambient thermal energy -- or heat -- inside the drive begins to reduce the magnetic medium's ability to hold a steady charge, causing data quality to quickly degrade.
Since HDD companies have increased the amount of information per square inch -- the so-called areal density -- largely by jamming things closer together, the superparamagnetic limit is a serious problem. "Data becomes extremely hard to write, and then once you have written it, it has a bit life of five seconds," says John Monroe, a chief analyst at tech researcher Gartner.
Researchers think they have the technological fixes to avoid the superparamagnetic limit, which has already begun to affect the densest forms of magnetic-storage media. The first wave entails switching to so-called perpendicular magnetic recording. This means flipping the orientation of the magnetic charge in each memory cell from parallel positions that point either left or right along a disk surface to perpendicular positions that point either up or down at a 90-degree angle to the a disk surface.
EVERYONE IS DOING IT. This change reduces the effect of thermal noise on the individual memory cells, allowing for greater information density and therefore higher capacity. The switch to perpendicular from the older style of longitudinal magnetic recording is already under way, with factories tooling up to churn out the new drives. "Everyone I know, including us, is well into the shift to perpendicular magnetic recording," says Ken Johnson, vice-president for research and development at disk-drive maker Maxtor (MXO).
Beyond perpendicular magnetic recording lies heat-assisted magnetic recording (HAMR). This entails using films that hold very tightly onto the magnetic orientation of each memory cell -- so tightly that a laser must heat each cell up in order to write data onto the disk. Because the materials hold magnetic charges so well, memory cells can be packed together far more tightly than with less robust materials that are required for recording using conventional read-write systems. HAMR systems remain 5 to 10 years away, but Schlesinger and others believe they'll definitely come to fruition.
Another exotic magnetic recording technology is so-called self-ordered magnetic arrays (SOMA). This entails creating special materials that arrange themselves automatically into ordered arrays of magnetically readable bits 100-times smaller than existing magnetic memory cells. That allows for even more density -- perhaps enough to approach a nearly unimaginable capacity of 50 terabits per square inch.
SHUFFLING PARTICLES. Magnetic memory is hardly the only game in the running for the future, however. IBM (IBM) is pushing a technology it has dubbed "Millipede." Based on the idea of a scanning electron microscope, this technology uses armies of extremely accurate probes to read and write data at the atomic level.
The probes are cantilevered arms, each of which is assigned a discrete area of memory medium to address. In that area the probe can move tiny particles back and forth to record data and can scan to find the order of particles to read data. Imagine a player piano that can not only read the punch holes on the scroll but also change those punch holes to create a different tune.
One benefit is that this system has no spinning disks and can, therefore, fit into odd-shaped spaces. That could also open the way for odd-shaped PCs. "The form factor can be anything. It can fit into corners or be bent into L-shapes. That could save a lot of space and provide a lot of flexibility," says Howard Locker, chief architect of IBM's laptop and desktop systems.
Most analysts don't see Millipede or other nanomechanical techniques replacing hard drives any time soon. Locker says they well could do exactly that, however, even though production models remain 5 to 10 years out. Not in time to put the entire Soprano's season on your laptop, for sure, but hope springs eternal -- and maybe memory will, too. By Alex Salkever, Technology editor for BusinessWeek Online