SSDs: Perfect fit for mobile computing?

Testing SSDs on laptops has given rise to some intriguing scenarios

There aren't many products I review that I can test for traveling. In fact, most are large enough for me to hide behind, if not inside. But the Lenovo Thinkpad T61 with a 64GB Samsung SSD (solid state drive) I am currently testing offered a rare opportunity to take my work with me on the road.

Testing SSDs on laptops has given rise to some intriguing scenarios. For example, an imaginative person at memory solutions vendor SuperTalent came up with the idea of using a paint shaker to put together a torture test scenario for SSDs [movie clip with Active-X control].

That odd combination of handyman and IT skills was meant to demonstrate how impervious SSDs are to shocks and vibrations that could, by contrast, easily damage a spinning drive. This resilience to misuse makes SSDs a good alternative in mobile devices.

Although I agree in spirit to Super Talent's test case, isn't that demonstration a bit theatrical? Of course it is: It's tantamount to shaking a book to prove that paper is a better medium than a disk drive. Then again, with a cost per gigabyte still outrageously higher than that of spinning drives, it's easy to understand why SSD vendors leverage everything they can think of to promote their products.

Of course, the test does make a point. After all, laptop drives are indeed vulnerable to misuse. For example, the Thinkpad T61 that I am testing has applications and sensors capable of detecting potentially harmful shocks and stopping the disk drive before damage occurs. It's like having a seismic needle in you machine. I deactivated that protection, however, I wanted to test the resilience to shock of the Samsung 64GB SSD.

My scenario? I hired a test assistant to ride shotgun in my pickup while downloading music, videos or playing games on that T61. Some people have a really easy life.

An important component in that test was a Pantech PX-500 mobile broadband card that kept my Sprint EV-DO connection up and running throughout those long trips, but that's a topic for another column. You should be able to read more on that and other tests in an upcoming review, but I cannot share the price of the Samsung drive or the laptop because those details are still covered by written embargo at the moment.

If that embargo surprises you, consider that prices in the SSD market are moving faster than a politician running for a photo-op. Take for example, this week's announcement by Sun about offering SSDs on their machines. I'll be the first to admit that the Sun news is only loosely related to our topic because it addresses the server space, where the requirements are considerably different from those of laptops. Think battery life, for one. Still, that announcement proves that EMC, as well as other storage vendors before it, are the vanguard of a much larger crowd marching at the SSD beat. Obviously a larger offer of SSDs should bring their price further down.

We'll keep an eye on whatever else develops in the corporate storage space, but a concurrent announcement from SuperTalent, the paint-shaker test folks, is square on target for the mobile devices space. In fact, the vendor is announcing the MasterDrive KX family of 1.8-inch SSDs for laptops and ultra-mobile PCs. The drives are offered in 30GB, 60GB, and 120GB capacities.

The declared performance numbers of the MasterDrive KX seem to be on par with other devices in that class, but price is the real jaw dropper in the Super Talent announcement: The 30GB unit should sell for about $300, a price that, although still much higher than comparable spinning drives, is a temptation, rather than a hopeless barrier for an IT manager. Sort of like contemplating that sports car instead of that cheaper sedan; not exactly the same cost, but still affordable.

Other capacities also carry a tempting sticker. The 60GB model adds only US$150, and the 120GB models is a notch below US$700. If durability is a concern, Super Talent suggests a life span of more than 16 years for the 30GB drive at 50GB per day of write/erase cycles. The life expectancy doubles for the 60GB unit and stretches to 66 years for the 120GB drive. Whatever model you choose, the mobile device you have will probably fail or become passee well before the drive reaches the end of its useful life.

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