Will hybrid drives catch on after latest iMac?

With the release of its latest line of iMacs, Apple introduced a hybrid form of storage to the desktop, called Fusion Drive, combining HDD with flash memory. While Apple's hybrid storage is software-based, with flash memory linked to a standard HDD, Reuters' Himank Sharma today published an analysis suggesting Apple's solution could be a turning point for hybrid HDD/SSD storage, bringing to market cheaper, faster Ultrabook laptop PCs. 

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The 128 gigabytes of flash content on Apple's Fusion Drive is technically ahead of any hybrid solution currently on the market, since the industry has largely waited for high SSD costs to come down while HDD costs have fallen in the meantime. Hybrid solutions for products had once been viewed as a transition, but never fully materialized.

"The problem is, (SSDs are) still not cheap enough and hard drives on the other hand are still getting cheaper every day," an analyst at IHS iSuppli told Reuters.

Until now, according to the report, the only manufacturer of a hybrid drive has been Seagate Technology Plc, whose Momentus XT hybrid drive has shipped only about 1.5 million units since launching four years ago. The company now plans to transition its product line to a nearly all-hybrid format, while Western Digital is expected to launch hybrids of varying capacities in the coming year. 

The analysis, bolstered by industry projections from Gartner and IDC, emphasizes the fact that storage demand is through the roof. SSD shipments, despite high costs, have tripled this year. An expected 650 terabytes of storage will be sold just this year, which Reuters notes is enough to store every piece of data on the web twice over.

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Specifically Ultrabook PCs with hybrid drives are expected to figure prominently at January's CES in Las Vegas. Such devices would be sold as rivals to tablets, helping transition as SSD costs come down while also adhering to the specifications of Intel, which supplies the chips used in Ultrabooks. The report notes that Ultrabooks have been criticized for their high price, however hybrid drives could bring them to the mass market while optimizing performance. 

Different scientific reports and analyses offer divergent conclusions about the future of NAND-based flash memory, which is most widely used in SSDs, but hybrid drives are expected to increase until the cost of SSDs comes down. 

Whether or not hybrid drive Ultrabooks can challenge tablets using flash memory -- in performance, cost and appeal -- will be dependent in part on how well the next advances in hybrid drives can account for all of these factors, relative to consumers and device makers. 

If Apple's iMac does end up kicking off a significant wave of products with hybrid drives, it could represent something of a twist. Computerworld's Gregg Glazer writes that the iMac is on the road to irrelevance as Apple's desktop sales shrink next to its notebook sales. Another factor to consider is that if more and more businesses and individuals opt to store data or run applications through cloud services, the priority of storage for certain devices could be diminished.

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