Toshiba enters the solid-state disk arena

Nearly a full year after leading flash memory producer Samsung presented its first solid-state drives, flash producer Toshiba plans to follow along behind with three models that take advantage of its exclusive design.

By next February, Toshiba plans to begin sampling 32 GB and 64 GB embedded solid-state disk drives for small, portable equipment. After having stayed out of the market to this point, the manufacturer plans to ramp up production quite rapidly from there, with a goal of producing 128 GB SSDs in the 1.8" and 2.5" form factors by next May.

What Toshiba has that other manufacturers don't -- not yet, at least not in quantity -- is a technology called multi-level cell (MLC) NAND memory. Essentially, MLC replaces the bits we typically thought would reside at the foundation of memory for the remainder of history, with cells that can attain any of four stable states rather than just two. A single cell, therefore, does the work of two bits.

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But although Toshiba is the world's #2 supplier of NAND flash memory with 27.2% of the market by iSuppli's estimates (Samsung is at #1 with 40.2% in the third quarter of this year), it isn't alone in the MLC business. It may have had its hand forced by #4 supplier Micron Technology, which just two weeks ago announced its intention to enter the market. Micron shares an MLC design with partner Intel.

Though SSDs and today's high-capacity HDDs both share the same SATA interface connection -- which boasts a 3 Gbps maximum transfer rate -- sustained transfers are typically much slower. Top-of-the-line HDDs actually hover in the range of 60 MB/sec for reads (that's megabytes, not gigabits), with maximum transfer rates tipping the scale at 80 MB/sec. Today, Toshiba said it's aiming for a maximum of 100 MB/sec for reads, and 40 MB/sec for writes.

Unless Samsung has some surprises of its own for CES 2008 next month -- which is not out of the question -- Toshiba's MLC technology could give it an edge in the capacity department, with a 128 GB device that actually has as many storage cells as Samsung's 64 GB models.

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