A few months back (give or take), word arrived that Intel were working on flash memory-based caching technology for laptop computers codenamed “Robson”. Yesterday, Anandtech reported more on this NAND-based caching technology from the Intel Developer Forum.
The basic idea here is to store oft-used files in flash memory, which is a lot faster to access than a hard drive. NAND flash memory retains the data written to it even when it is not supplied with power. (Apple’s iPod Nano uses this type of memory to store the music files.)
Thus, NAND combines the speed of normal working memory (RAM, whose contents is lost when the power is removed – everyone who’s ever been exposed to a power outage knows this…) with the persistence of a hard drive. Obviously, there are reasons why we’re not all using flash memory instead of harddrives – cost and storage limitations.
Apple’s iPod Nanos are available with up to 4 GB of memory. If you want more, you’ll have to get the 20 GB disk based model. That gives a fair indication of what’s available at a reasonable cost right now. Noone can get by with 4, 8 or even 16 gigabytes of storage these days (even if you could afford it), meaning flash memory is not currently a viable solution the primary storage needs of the average laptop user (I’m talking about me now, not your mom. The thought that she could probably get by with 8 gig without any problems unless someone shared their DivX movies with her is an interesting topic in itself).
Flash technology development chart from Samsung
However, the fact that the iPod is retailing for 149$ with 1 GB of NAND flash (or 249$ for 4 GB) means that it could be possible to put this in a computer without increasing its cost all that much. The computer Intel showed off at the IDF used only 0,25 GB of flash memory, still it booted Windows in half the time compared to the laptop without Robson and was faster overall. That sounds like a bargain to me.
Of course, the specific improvements you get will be determined by what exactly this flash memory is used to store. Files often used by the OS is a winner. Personally, I would like to have 2 GB of this – then I could have the entire page file and most of the OS in flash memory instead of on disk.
Ironically, my Aopen 1557GLS laptop is unstable when used with Windows’ Standby mode. Standby means that you tell the computer to go to sleep, and it just shuts down, but the working memory (RAM, if you like) is supplied with power. This isn’t flash memory, so if the power disappears, so does your data, meaning that you wouldn’t want to accidentally put your computer in standby when on batteries and then forget to hook it up to a power source. The main advantage is that you can shut the PC down and resume your work where you left off in a matter of seconds.
Unfortunately, 1/3 of the time, my laptop just doesn’t wake up, so Standby is basically useless to me. This is to all laptop makers reading this: If you’re planning to implement Robson, please make it stable too. My workaround to the Standby problem is to use Hibernate – this feature writes the contents of memory to disk and reads it back in when you resume. Though slower than standby, It’s a lot faster than booting from scratch and you don’t lose anything if your battery runs out, but, obviously, this still annoys me quite a lot.
Right, lets get back on track- I hope that my next laptop both implements a working Standby and allows me to Hibernate to flash memory if I want to. Did I mention that the reduction in hard drive use means lower power consumption? Combine that with a faster boot (and resume, if your Standby isn’t working…) and a speedier computing experience overall, and I can’t see how I can get a laptop without Robson.
The introduction of the first Robson laptops is scheduled for Q1 2007, which is also when I’ll start to look around for a new laptop. Sweet.
PS: A while back (yeah, I know, I’m not being real specific on dates today) Gigabyte announced their i-RAM. It’s basically a PCI card with memory slots where you can insert standard memory modules of the sort you normally use for working memory (RAM) in your computer. The card has a battery and a S-ATA connector, and lets you use the memory modules as if they were a hard drive. The BIOS and operating system sees a standard S-ATA drive, and that’s that. Exactly what you use it for is up to you, but with room for up to 8 GB of memory, it could be a really fast system disk. The battery means that your “virtual drive” will live for something like 12 hours if you lose power. Putting that much memory into it is hugely expensive of course and not for the masses, but I think the i-RAM is an interesting taste of what might be in store for us if NAND prices continue to drop (and they will!).
The i-RAM from Gigabyte