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Next Big Thing

February 7, 2011
By Dave Hecei,

Apple has another big hit, the MacBook Air. It is small, light, inexpensive, and even though it has the slowest processor of any current Macintosh, it 'feels' fast. This is because the Air does not use a traditional hard drive for storage. A traditional hard drive is one that spins. The Air uses a type of storage that will be the next big thing.

I am talking about an SSD, which stands for Solid-State Drive. Instead of spinning rigid platters coated with magnetic material, an SSD is made up of memory chips, thus it has no moving parts. Since there is nothing spinning it is also silent. With no moving parts an SSD is also less susceptible to physical shock, like dropping. This makes an SSD more reliable and an excellent choice for a mobile device.

Because an SSD is Random Access Memory (RAM) it is also very fast - and I mean really fast. Spinning hard drives have to wait for the platter and read/write head to move into proper alignment to access data. It's all part of a spinning hard drive's specs. Spin-up time is usually measured in seconds and random access time in the milliseconds. A fast 'spinning' drive might have a spin-up time of 3 seconds and access time of 10 milliseconds. An SSD drive has no spin-up time, it's instantaneous. Random access time is usually about .1 to .2 milliseconds. This is fast.

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Apple is not new to the SSD game. The original MacBook Air, released in January of 2008, had a build-to-order option for a 64GB SSD drive. This drive added a hefty $999 to the already pricey unit. Up until recently, an SSD had to be packaged in a case with a standard drive interface. This packaging was wasted space and added to its cost.

The new MacBook Air, available with either an 11.6-inch or 13.3-inch display, is only available with an SSD drive. But this is no ordinary SSD. Apple got rid of the extra packaging and put the chips on a long narrow card. This new type of SSD is super thin and adds little to the overall weight and thickness of the new Air. The original MacBook Air with an SSD drive was over $2600. The new 11-inch MacBook Air with a 64GB SSD and 2GB RAM is only $999.

Everyone that has tried an Air is surprised at how fast it feels. The most popular model seems to be the 11-inch, which only has a 1.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor. This model Air can boot in 10 to 15 seconds. When you click an icon on the dock, the App jumps to life. All of this 'speed' is due to the SSD. If the new MacBook Air proves anything, the hard drive is now the bottleneck in a modern computer.

Speed is a great benefit of having an SSD, but there are some negatives - mainly price and storage capacity. Today, SSD based storage is very expensive compared to a spinning drive, but prices should start to drop. This new SSD format that Apple is using helps in lowering the cost. Capacity of an SSD is also much lower than a traditional drive. The 11-inch Air has either 64 or 128GB of SSD storage and the 13-inch Air has either 128 or 256GB. That's as big as they go, for now.

The other problem is that Flash based memory chips have a certain lifespan. They can only be written to just so many times and then they will start to fail. Don't panic, this lifespan should be several years, but it is something to consider. As the SSD industry grows and learns more about how these chips perform, this lifespan will likely increase.

With such a small amount of storage (which is more than my Mac had 6 years ago), you will have to work differently. But then if you decided to buy an Air instead of a MacBook or MacBook Pro (or even an iPad), then you probably knew what you were getting into.

If you want the smaller Air I would highly recommend spending $200 more and getting the 128GB SSD. In fact, I would even spend a little bit more and go from 2 to 4GB of RAM. With 128GB of storage the 11-inch Air should be able to handle most any home/student/office/Internet task you throw at it. Just remember that you won't be storing all your music, pictures, and video on the SSD. This is when a good external hard drive will help.

The type of external drive depends on how you plan to use your Air. If you want lots of storage that you can take with you, then a portable hard drive (2.5-inch) is your best choice. This type of drive is very small and does not need a separate power supply. If you plan on using the Air on the road and then come home and dock it to an external keyboard, mouse, and monitor, then a standard 3.5-inch external drive is perfect. This type of drive will have more storage and lower cost-per-GB, but they do have to be plugged into an AC outlet not too portable.

An alternative to a standard external hard drive is a home NAS, or Network Attached Storage (1TB models are around $100). These look just like a 3.5-inch external hard drive, but instead of connecting to your Mac by USB or Firewire, they have an Ethernet port and connect through your home network. The advantage with this type of storage is that you can use it with multiple computers in the house (great for sharing stuff), and many models will allow you to access your data from the road. The ultimate NAS is Apple's Time Capsule. This is a multitasker if ever there was one. It is a wireless router, NAS, wireless print server, and Time Machine backup device. Time Capsule comes with either 1TB or 2TB sizes priced at $299 and $499.

Speed, size, reliability, silent operation, no moving parts; these are just some of the benefits of an SSD. SSD means speed. 2011 will be the year that SSDs make a big impact. More and more users are opting for an SSD instead of a spinning drive - in laptops and desktops. Over time, SSDs will be available with larger capacities and lower prices. SSD - definitely the next big thing.



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