By Michael Rau
August 27, 2007
Today I'd like to tell you about a couple of up-and-coming technologies that, while they might not seem to be particularly impactful, are still very cool for the geekier of us, and will affect how computers are configured in the future, not to mention how well they serve you.
The first of these is actually something I've talked about before, but is finally starting to hit it's stride. It's the emergence of solid-state memory in the world of computing.
Commonly known as Flash memory, you're probably most familiar with it in the form of USB Thumb drives, which have become as common as dirt, and Flash Memory Cards, the little chip-like things used in most digital cameras and some camcorders to store media.
I can't really explain the technology, but think of it as using a similar method to the way your computer stores it's BIOS, or startup system. It's stored on a chip, and in turn, when you boot your computer, it initiates the primary operating system stored on your main hard drive.
Anyway, magnetic hard drives (the kind commonly found in your computer) are truly amazing devices. If you stop and think about what they do, storing libraries of data and accessing it at amazing speed, all while spinning at as much as 7,200 rotations per minute, you can't help but be impressed.
But whatever else they are, they're mechanical devices and thus subject to all the various and sundry problems that can affect mechanisms, such as heat, dirt, and shock.
Solid-state memory, on the other hand, stores data with no moving parts. The storage is accomplished electrically. And because of the elimination of limitations brought about by the mechanism itself, data stored in solid-state memory can transfer much, much faster.
Now, suppose you could eliminate the mechanical hard drive in your computer with a solid-state equivalent. You'd achieve these much higher transfer speed and eliminate one of the weakest points in your system.
A few manufacturers are now offering solid-state drives that can be directly swapped out for the standard hard drive in your desktop or laptop. Most of these are made by small specialty manufacturers that have offered them mostly to manufacturers of computer systems designed to be used in extreme environments.
But recently, SanDisk, a large manufacturer of Flash drives, has begun offering such drives. And Seagate, a major builder of hard drives, has just announced plans to start offering solid-state drives themselves.
There are two major drawbacks to these drives now.
First off, there are limitations to how large these drives can be. The largest I've found so far is 64 GB. This should increase gradually - just as the capacity of mechanical hard drives did through development.
The second drawback is cost.
I could find no price on the 64 GB SanDisk drive as they're not yet offering to consumers yet - only to computer manufacturers. Seagate said in their announcement that they would first start manufacturing solid-state hard drives for blade servers, so it'll be a while before you see models available for your home computer.
I did find a 32 GB solid-state drive from a less known manufacturer that was available to the public. Its price was just under $1,100, or about 100 times the cost per MB of storage as that of a conventional mechanical drive.
Analysts all say that the price of Flash memory will continue to plummet, so maybe in another year or two, they'll be competitive. In the meantime, look for solid-state drives to start showing up shortly in high-end laptops.
The other technology I wanted to tell you about is showing up in laptops now. It's called the LED backlit LCD screen.
Liquid crystal displays themselves produce no illumination. They use small lamps located above or to the sides of the screen to light the display.
These lamps are very small and very powerful, but they're also the source of the heat that you'll feel radiating from the screen. In addition, they also use a relatively large amount of power when compared to other parts of the system. They also use mercury in the manufacturing process, and mercury is, of course, toxic.
The new system uses light emitting diodes, or LEDs, to illuminate the screen. LEDs use a fraction of the amount of energy and put out almost no heat. The benefits achieved through eliminating heat, as well as saving energy, are fairly obvious.
Sony was the first to use LEDs in their laptops, beginning in 2005 in their high-end VAIO models, and other major computer makers, including Apple and Dell, are now selling models using LED Backlit displays. In a couple more years, I imagine these will be the standard for flat-screens, rather than the exception.
Like I said, these developments may not sound terribly exciting, but they really are. Both will go a long way to make the use of your computer more efficient and less wasteful - a good goal for any of us to strive for.
Michael Rau is a mass-communications consultant in Virginia Beach. To send feedback or view past columns, go to http://dailypress.asoundidea.com.
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