By Jon Fortt
September 10, 2007

Dell (DELL) has begun shipping consumer laptops that use Samsung flash memory rather than a just hard drive to store data, the two companies said today.

The 2.5-inch SATA, 32- and 64-gigabyte solid state drives are shipping in Dell subsidiary Alienware’s Area-51 m9750 gaming laptop and in Dell’s XPS M1330 ultra-portable. Later this year, the company expects to make flash drives available on more XPS systems, Latitude business laptops and Precision mobile workstations.

In Dell’s online store, the 32GB flash drive is offered as a “high reliability” option. Though it stores far less data than the 160GB standard drive, it costs $450 more.

The move is important because it is not yet clear whether consumers will embrace flash storage in laptops. Flash has some clear advantages. Because they have no moving parts, flash drives operate silently, allow slimmer device designs and use less power than traditional hard drives. But flash drives can’t read data as quickly as hard drives, and as noted above, they cost far more per gigabyte.

There are promising signs that the market for flash storage in laptops could eventually take off. Flash has become the dominant storage medium in Apple’s (AAPL) iPod media player line, as customers have come to value battery life and portability more than raw storage capacity. Flash has also become the storage medium of choice for high-end cell phones, including Apple’s iPhone and Nokia’s (NOK) N95.

Dell is not the only company readying laptops with flash hard drives. Hewlett-Packard (HPQ), which has overtaken Dell as the global leader in PC sales, last week announced that it will offer a flash drive option in its Compaq 2710p.

If the timing proves to be right and sales of laptop flash drives take off, that could bode well for flash memory makers such as SanDisk (SNDK), Micron Technology (MU) and Intel (INTC) in 2008.

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