The hard disk drive (HDD) has been a crucial component of PCs of all types for the last 50 years. Indeed the first hard drive was developed by IBM in 1956 and ever since its conception prices and physical size have decreased while the capacity of the drives has greatly increased. Two terabyte drives have recently become widely available for around £100 with the first 4TB drive being shipped by Hitachi last year. However, the speed by which hard drive storage can be expanded upon has slowed and with the dropping price of solid state drives we might, after 50 years of dominance, be about to see the death of hard drive for everything but mass storage. Until last year a solid state drive (SSD) was the ultimate sign of a PC enthusiast with prices often reaching £2-3 per GB with that amount getting higher as the capacity increased. Yet in the past week SSD prices have seen a significant drop with a 240GB drive available for £175. That’s only 71p per GB, a price that was almost unimaginable two years ago. Indeed signs are pointing to the fact that we might be about to witness the decline of the traditional hard disk drive.

Why Now?

Yet people have predicted the death of the hard drive for years now and every time hard drive manufacturers have found a way to increase capacities and reduce size. So why do I think that in the next year we will see the replacement of hard drives in laptops and in desktops? We will of course see hard drives remain for mass storage but for the average consumer they will become a thing of the past.

Floods and Lost Sales

The first reason is because of last years floods in Thailand and the large effect in had on hard drive sales. Last year there were serious floods in Thailand that rendered the production facilities of major hard drive manufacturers unusable. This meant that during the Christmas period and even into the new year hard drive prices were at inflated levels. Whereas before the flood a 1TB hard drive cost £60, after it prices were around the £100-120 range. Not only did this result in the loss of sales but more importantly a loss in sales that were translated into SSD sales. For just over £120 you could buy a 120GB SSD. While you would have clearly lost a lot of storage in opting for the SSD you will have gained incredible speed. Christmas is a time when many people would have been updating their systems and it is likely that they opted for an SSD boot drive and waited until hard drive prices lowered. Whereas before the flood they may have been looking to get a HDD boot drive they instead ended up with the much faster SSD instead. It is unlikley that people who bought an SSD would be able to go back to using a HDD and therefore the process by which people moved from using HDDs to SSDs was sped up.

The Emergence of the Cloud

Another reason that HDDs could be said to be on their last knees is due to the ever expanding network of cloud storage. Dropbox, SkyDrive, iCloud and Google Drive all provide cloud storage alternatives to the HDD. This storage obviously comes at a price but brings with it the convenience of being able to access your data almost any time you have access to the internet. Dropbox for example has both a browser app as well as android, iOS and desktop applications. The only problem with cloud storage at the moment is the price per GB ratio. 100GB of storage on Dropbox is $200 a year or $19.99 a month. Thats considerably more that an HDD and is even more expensive than an SSD. Microsoft’s SkyDrive offers much more reasonable prices, however. One hundred GB of storage with SkyDrive is only $50 a year. With competition between Google, Microsoftt, Apple and Dropbox set to cause prices to drop further it won’t be long before we store most of our information in the cloud.

Prices are Going Down but Capacity is Going Up

As SSD performance improves greatly as the storage capacity increases the ability to have an SSD capable of storing lots of data came at an exorbitant price. Yet the size of SSDs is increasing just as prices are dropping. It won’t be long before we see 1TB SSDs on sale. Even though these are likely to be extremely expensive most people will not be looking to purchase a drive with so much capacity. A 256GB SSD is probably big enough for most users as traditional hard drives can still be used to store large amounts of data if you really need them to.

The Rise of the Ultrabook and MacBook Air

While Intel’s Ultrabook initiative may not have hit the heights Intel and partners would have hoped, Ivy Bridge has signalled a new start for high end ultra-portables. In a device where performance and size are key the SSD provides the ultimate answer to the storage question. SSDs contain no moving parts and are therefore silent, require less power and produce less heat than traditional spinning platter HDDs. All of these things lead them to being the perfect solution for manufacturers looking to produce fast and sleek looking machines. Previously both price and capacity have held SSDs back from being a key component in ultra-portables, but as already stated this is becoming less of an issue and as Intel continues to demand inclusion of SSDs in products under the ultrabook name it looks like traditional hard drives have been relegated to the budget end of the notebook market. As prices continue to fall there will be less and less reason for manufacturers to include HDDs in their devices and as notebook sales far outweigh those of desktops it certainly looks like HDDs are soon to be replaced by SSDs.

Speed, Speed, Speed

Finally and arguably most importantly is the speed of SSDs compared to HDDs. A 7200rpm Seagate barracuda hard drive is advertised as reading data at around 156MB/s. This is compared to a mid range, year old OCZ agility 3 SSD that has advertised read speeds of 525MB/s. This is clearly a huge leap in performance and more importantly relates to real world differences. SSDs cause applications such as microsoft word to open almost instantaneously and cause games to load, in some cases, three times faster than a traditional hard drive allows. Possibly the best benefit to this increased performance is how fast computers boot when the operating system is stored on an SSD. Windows 7 running on a 120GB crucial M4 loads in around 20s although half of that time is the time it takes for the computer to POST. However, unlike booting from a HDD, once windows has loaded on a SSD the computer is completely usable. For instance as soon as you see the home screen you will be able to load up your applications without the wait you normally see when the operating system is stored on a HDD.
Indeed it certainly looks like we may be about to see the death of the hard disk drive, especially in laptops. With the growing popularity of cloud storage consumers no longer seem to need the huge storage capacities that hard drives provide. Instead the huge speed benfits that SSDs provide in comparison to HDDs means that they are quickly becoming the storage option of choice and with SSD prices only getting cheaper manufacturers and consumers alike have a fast SSD filled future to look forward to.