July 06, 2022

The state of the solid state

Since the dawn of the PC era, the easiest way to give a consumer PC a boost (short of swapping in a clock-doubled CPU, as I did with my old Windows 95 machine) has been to add more RAM and a hard disk drive (HDD).

Though the technological world has completely changed in the past 40 years, that is still the case, except that HDD upgrade is now a solid-state drive (SSD).

The first IBM PC shipped with 64K of RAM and two full-height floppy disk drives, which ran at the blazing speed of "slow as mud." When buffering a print job, the floppy drives in my Kaypro II sounded like a washing machine in spin cycle.
The IBM XT released in 1983 was equipped with 128K of RAM and a 10 MB HDD. The 4.77 MHz 8088 CPU was the same, but the hard drive made a big difference. You could upgrade to 640KB of RAM but there weren't many options if you wanted a bigger HDD.

Unless you were willing to spend several boatloads of money. The 18 September 1984 issue of PC Magazine featured a 350 MB external hard disk system that could be yours for a mere $14,900 or approximately $50/MB.

That was actually a good deal. Two years earlier, Corona advertised a 10 MB HDD for $2495. By the end of the 1980s, the typical consumer HDD was 30 MB and prices had fallen to $10/MB, a respectable though linear decline in costs.

But in the decade that followed, something astounding happened. The capacity of the typical consumer hard disk drive rose to 20 GB while the cost fell a full three orders of magnitude to $.01/MB. That's a factor of 1000.

And then it happened again! A decade after that, 1 TB consumer hard drives were commonplace at $.0001/MB, two more orders of magnitude.

What happened was the discovery of giant magnetoresistance (GMR) in 1988 by Albert Fert and Peter Grunberg, for which they won the 2007 Nobel Prize in Physics. Their work led to the application of what became known as spintronics to HDD technology.

IBM began manufacturing MR HDD read/write heads in 1990 and GMR read/write heads in 1997.

As with CPU clock speeds, the "spinning rust" of the HDD is reaching its practical limits as a low-cost consumer technology. Over the last ten years, HDD prices have fallen only half an order of magnitude, stabilizing at about $.04/GB. About the cost of assembly.
I imagine that without the GMR revolution, the SSD would have evolved much faster. Like the internal combustion engine and the cathode ray tube, the amazing thing about the HDD is that it works at all, let alone as well as it does.

Even so, next-generation heat-assisted magnetic recording (HAMR) and microwave-assisted magnetic recording (MAMR) hard drive technologies are being rolled out, guaranteeing the HDD will live on in data centers and the cloud.

As Jeffrey Burt puts it, the hard drive is the Mark Twain of technology. "Reports of its death are greatly exaggerated."

A comparable SSD costs around $.08/GB, about twice that of a HDD but still dirt cheap. So while the SSD is standard in portable devices, slapping a 500 GB HDD into a low-end PC like mine is still an easy way to increase the profit margin.

Then again, I recall the day I walked into Walmart and all the tube TVs were gone. Microsoft reportedly wants to hurry the process along and is pushing manufacturers to install an SSD as the boot drive in all PCs starting in 2023.

The day soon will come when, aside from the fan, the only moving parts left in the humble PC will be the DVD or Blu-Ray drive, until they too are relegated to the same niche as turntables and vacuum tube electronics.

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# posted by Blogger Panino Manino
7/09/2022 5:58 PM   
Oh, your mention of Microsoft in the end made me angry... not with you, with Microsoft.
Yes, computers would be better with solid state drives, because they're faster and this makes the computer faster. What makes me angry is that Microsoft is making Windows with these faster speeds in mind. Using Windows 10 for example with and HDD is painful! I have too notebooks here, one with a 1º generation Intel Core and other with a 6º generation Intel Core. Both with similar HDDs. While the 6º gen Core with Windows 10 is unbearably slow to everything, opening programs, simple opening any folder on Explorer, often making programs irresponsible due to mysterious background processes, the older 1º gen Core because it uses a Linux distro just flies. As long as I don't fill out the RAM there's no lag to everything, there's no mysterious processes in the background making things slow.
All the people who I talked to said to me that the Win 10 notebook problem can be resolved by swapping an SDD. Microsoft pushing manufacturers to use SDDs makes me fear that Windows 11 will be even slower.