Monday, October 12, 2009

SSD in a low-end netbook

Netbooks tend to live a hard life. They're used in moving cars, they spend a lot of time banging around in backpacks, and so forth. Early netbooks like the Asus eee that practically defined the category used Linux and a small flash memory chip. This dealt quite well with the problem of durability -- flash memory chips don't care about vibration (at least, not about levels of vibration that wouldn't utterly disintegrate the whole computer) and The problem is that people want to use their netbooks to view multimedia content, and Linux is woefully inadequate in that area due to the fact that Linux users today are either utter geeks (parodied in this Xkcd comic) or are using it for servers where multimedia is not an issue (other than serving it via a web server). So netbooks have moved to using Windows XP rather than Linux.

The problem is that Windows XP does not run well off of the slow flash memory chips included with first-generation netbooks, thus netbooks have moved towards the cheapest hard drives available. Unfortunately this brings two problems: 1) those hard drives are still painfully slow compared to current state-of-the-art hard drives, and 2) those hard drives have the same vibration sensitivity and G sensitivity of all hard drives, making them a poor fit for netbooks.

The solution would be a high-speed SSD drive. They perform much better than low-end hard drives, and the only vibration or G forces that could destroy them would turn the entire netbook into a pile of shards. The problem is that SSD's were typically expensive. Until now: 64GB SSD for $150, in this case a Kingston SSDNow V-Series.

64GB doesn't sound like a lot of storage, but I examined the hard drive on my Acer Aspire One netbook and discovered that I was using a whole 20GB of hard drive space. I think my usage of the netbook is probably typical of most people's usage of a netbook -- Internet browsing and light word processing. These aren't computers that you buy to do video processing or music recording, they don't have the CPU horsepower for that, but they're perfectly acceptable for Internet browsing. When I'm bouncing around in my Jeep on field expeditions I don't want to haul around my expensive Macbook Pro, I want something small and durable for doing quick email checks whenever I get near civilization, and the Aspire One suffices for that. Except for the hard drive issue.

Thus I purchased the above SSD and installed it in my Aspire One. I had previously purchased the disk imaging CD/DVD set from Acer to allow re-imaging my netbook when the hard drive failed (note the "when", not "if" -- netbooks live hard lives), and it installed fine onto the SSD. The results have been gratifying. Performance is much better than with the low-end hard drive, and the durability is excellent. The second-generation SSD's have now conquered the stuttering problems that plagued the first-generation SSD's, at least for applications such as netbooks where large writes are rare -- I have never encountered stuttering problems.

What does this mean for the future? It means yet more low-power energy-efficient netbooks, perhaps higher in price than current netbooks but with better durability and performance. Netbooks will be relegated to the long-battery-life small-storage-capacity category rather than being marketed based on low performance and low price. You will start seeing some netbooks in the $700 range, around the same as a "real" notebook, assuming that sufficient performance can be obtained to justify that price. The question is whether Intel will deliberately cripple their Pineview follow-on to the current Atom processors the way they currently cripple it by forcing netbook makers to use the antiquated high-power-use 945 chipset, which has atrocious graphics performance (i.e., cannot even play HD videos from YouTube without stuttering, which is a major problem given that many people buy these things to browse Internet multimedia content). If they do, expect rival chips from AMD and VIA to gain popularity, albeit not with major vendors due to Intel's anti-competitive behavior of charging vendors more for chips if computer vendors use a rival's chips for more than 5% of their shipping computers. Given that there are major markets where Intel's chips are the only available chips, this clearly is going to limit how many jump ship to AMD and VIA. But if Intel can't deliver the performance that people want, somebody will jump ship to AMD or VIA, even if it isn't Dell or HP...


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