Arik Hesseldahl

Recent Posts by Arik Hesseldahl

So What the Heck Is an Apple Fusion Drive Anyway?

There were more than a few surprises in today’s Apple event. While lots of people expected both the iPad mini and the 13-inch MacBook Pro, not many could have foreseen a full-court refresh to the iPad or the redesigned iMac or the Mac Mini.

And nestled within all that, Apple made news on the feature front as well, adding an entirely new storage option to both the iMac and the MacBook Pro: The Fusion Drive.

The Fusion Drive combines the best of both worlds: The high capacity, reliability and affordability of a traditional hard drive, with the snappy, instant-on speed of a solid-state storage drive, without breaking the budget.

If you’ve been paying attention to the features on Apple’s notebooks for the last few years, you couldn’t help but notice that solid-state storage has been creeping its way in where traditional hard drives have always held sway.

The trend, some argued, was inevitable. Flash memory is speedier and allows a computer to boot up faster, and it also tends to be more power efficient. But until recently, to have an SSD meant sacrificing overall capacity for speed. The MacBook Air maxes out at 512 GB while the hard-drive based MacBook Pro can accommodate a one terabyte drive.

The trouble with solid-state drives is that it costs too much to use enough of them to build a unit that stores as much as standard hard drives — say, a terabyte. Recently, the price per gigabyte for the flash memory used in a solid-state drive has fallen to about 89 cents, says Ryan Chien, a memory analyst at market research firm IHS. Traditional hard drives are still a lot less expensive, costing 5 cents to 10 cents per gigabyte. “And flash has come down the cost curve, but it isn’t going to catch up with hard drives anytime soon,” he says.

Flash also brings help with power consumption. A hard drive has to spin, and that takes about three times as much power as it does to move data in and out of a chip. And even at rest, a hard drive consumes a lot more power than a flash drive. That makes a huge difference in mobile machines, where power consumption and battery life are all-important considerations.

Another fact is that for most users, one terabyte is usually overkill.

Rather than stick with the standard industry trajectory under which hard drive capacity tends to double ever couple of years or so, hybrid drives have been offering a third way to keep storage capacity high, while boosting the overall speed, especially for frequently used data.

Enter the hybrid, which is what the Fusion Drive is. Basically, the Fusion Drive brings 128GB of flash with a 1TB or 3TB hard drive. The operating system and files you use the most often will be kept in the flash memory close at hand and lightning quick. Boot times will be a lot shorter than they used to be and certain key applications — like, say, iTunes and iWork — will be lightning fast as well.

Intel has a technology called SmartResponse that is similar. However, Chien doesn’t think Apple is using Intel’s approach with the Fusion Drive. “Intel is using a caching approach. Apple is using a tiering approach that’s less granular in terms of file manipulation and works on a bigger scale.” Also key: The combined drives act and appear to the user like one big drive.

The traditional storage industry had been facing sort of a bleak outlook and now has an interesting way to stay relevant in personal computers. Who really needs four terabytes today or will need eight a year or two from now? It’s better, Apple seems to be arguing, to have the drive you have, bolstered by some flash chips to give it some extra pep. Expect to see similar drives showing up in notebooks from other manufacturers soon.

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