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Super Talent's 2.5" IDE Flash hard drive

Why wait for hybrids?

ManufacturerSuper Talent
Model2.5" IDE Flash
Price (street)

IN AN ATTEMPT TO improve performance and extend battery life, mobile hard drive manufacturers are working on hybrid designs that combine flash memory with traditional platters. Flash memory's fast access times, low weight and power consumption, and lack of moving parts make it ideal for mobile environments, which is perhaps why Microsoft has made hybrid drives a requirement for Windows Vista Premium certification starting in June of 2007.

Of course, the first hybrid hard drives aren't even expected to become available until early next year. However, you don't have to wait six months to get flash memory in a 2.5" notebook hard drive; Super Talent's 2.5" IDE Flash drives are available today in sizes up to 16 GB. The prospect of a silent, lightweight notebook hard drive with frugal power consumption is certainly tantalizing, but what about performance? Join us as we run Super Talent's IDE Flash drive through the wringer to determine whether it's a worthy notebook upgrade.

Why flash?
Before we dive into Super Talent's IDE Flash drive, it's worth taking a moment to explore why hard drive manufacturers are bothering with flash memory at all. Traditional hard drives store data on spinning platters that are accessed by a drive head that darts back and forth across the platter's surface. This design has stood the test of time, but because it relies on the physical movement of the platters and drive head, it's bound by mechanical latencies. Cranking up the spindle speed of the platter, increasing cache sizes, and using more intelligent command queuing logic can reduce the impact of those mechanical latencies, but not by as much as ditching the mechanics completely.

Switching from spinning platters to memory chips takes drive mechanics out of the equation, enabling significantly lower disk access latencies. If data needs to be read from or written to a given address, there's no need to wait for the drive head and platter to move into position—the address can be accessed instantly.

Moving to a memory-based storage solution like Gigabyte's i-RAM can have a profound impact on disk performance. However, the i-RAM relies on volatile DRAM memory for storage, so it needs a steady stream of power to hold data. That simply won't do in the mobile space, where users can't afford to lose data just because their notebook battery has run dry.

Enter flash memory. Made famous by countless USB thumb drives, flash memory enjoys the low access latencies of chip-based storage without the volatility of DRAM. It's not as fast as DRAM, but it doesn't require power to retain data, making it ideal for mobile applications.

The drive
Rather than combine flash memory with mechanical platters, Super Talent is betting the farm on flash with its IDE Flash drive. That should ensure low access latencies, but interestingly, Super Talent doesn't make any bold performance claims about the drive. That's particularly notable because while flash memory has excellent access latencies, transfer rates aren't always as impressive. We'll see for ourselves when we get to the benchmarks.

Super Talent's IDE Flash drive isn't much to look at, but then, few hard drives are.

At first glance, the IDE Flash drive actually looks quite similar to a traditional 2.5" mobile hard drive. Picking up the IDE Flash immediately reveals that it's significantly lighter than its platter-based counterparts, though. The IDE Flash weighs a scant 40 grams—much less than traditional mobile ATA drives, which typically weigh around 100 grams.

Replacing a traditional hard drive's mechanical internals and magnetic platters with memory chips allows the IDE Flash to drop a lot of weight. It also lets Super Talent build a slimmer drive than traditional 2.5" ATA designs. The IDE Flash is just 6 mm thick, while most notebook drives are 9.5 mm thick. Still, the IDE Flash uses the same 44-pin interface and mounting screws as other 2.5" ATA drives, making it a drop-in drive replacement for ATA-equipped notebooks.

Because it has no moving parts, the IDE Flash is considerably more shock-resistant than traditional ATA drives. That's particularly important for notebooks that tend to get moved around a lot. The IDE Flash drive also includes internal ECC logic to ensure data integrity, and Super Talent claims that the drive will retain data for at least 10 years. According to Flash IDE vendors, the drive's rated for more than 1 million write/erase cycles, as well. However, Super Talent doesn't publish write/erase cycle specs on its website.

Super Talent currently offers the IDE Flash in 4, 8, and 16 GB capacities, and only with an ATA interface. Those capacities aren't particularly jaw-dropping in an era where notebook drives with perpendicular recording are pushing the 200 GB mark, but the 8 and 16 GB models offer enough storage for Windows and a few applications. Road warriors more concerned with battery life and weight may find the capacity trade-off easier to swallow, although the lack of a Serial ATA model will keep the IDE Flash out of most newer notebook designs.