What are Hybrid Drives?

R. Kayne

Hybrid drives are a new generation of hard disk drives that incorporate large flash memory buffers for increased performance. Samsung Electronics and Microsoft Corporation are working together to bring the first hybrid drives to market by the final quarter of 2006. Most computer users are familiar with flash memory from its application in memory sticks, also called key drives. Flash memory features several significant advantages over the spinning platter technology of conventional hard drives. Hybrid drives take advantage of these benefits.

Hybrid drives offer both the advantages of a traditional hard drive system and the speed of a solid-state drive.
Hybrid drives offer both the advantages of a traditional hard drive system and the speed of a solid-state drive.

By including a large capacity flash memory buffer, hybrid drives map complete sectors of the hard disk to flash memory. Data transfer speed is faster, as access to the information does not involve locating the data on spinning platters. Sectors are mapped to the buffer depending on frequency of use, though user configuration might also be exercised.

Hybrid drives use less power by keeping frequently accessed data in the flash memory, extending valuable battery life in laptops and notebooks. Platters only spin up when a required file or program is not already in memory. When the buffer becomes full, it is written to the hard drive and emptied, thereby made available once again.

Another advantage of hybrid drives is that they generate less heat, as flash memory has no moving parts. This is especially significant for notebooks, but will benefit desktops and overclockers as well. Other key advantages of hybrid drives are that flash memory is non-volatile - the buffers do not require power to maintain their contents. In the event of a power outage, flash memory will maintain every last keystroke. Hybrid drives should also reduce shutdown and boot up time to about one second.

Hybrid drives are slated to be fully compatible with Microsoft’s new operating system, Vista. They represent a step towards future flash drives that will eliminate spinning platters altogether. These drives have already been demonstrated at trade shows, but are cost-prohibitive at this time. Conventional hard drives are so inexpensive that flash drives can’t compete in a viable way until manufacturing costs drop. Some insiders expect this to happen by 2008.

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