Laptops are about to get a whole lot faster

SSDs will offer as much as 10X the speed of HDDs

Macbook Pro SSD PCIe

The factory-installed Samsung PCIe SSD is in the upper right hand corner of this 2015 Macbook Pro.

Credit: Lucas Mearian

SSD prices have dropped so precipitously that as many as half of all laptops sold worldwide in 2018 are expected to have the non-volatile memory in them, according to a new report.

DRAMeXchange, a division of TrendForce, said today that prices stabilized for the first time in a year for mainstream client-grade SSDs in the PC-maker market during the current third quarter.

Though there are signs of tightening inventories in the SSD supply chain during the second half of this year, DRAMeXchange maintained that the adoption rate in the notebook market will exceed 30% in 2016 and may reach 50% in 2018.

ssd dramexchange graphic DRAMeXchange

"The second quarter had an increase in work days and this allowed branded notebook vendors and their channels to significantly reduce their excess inventories," said Alan Chen, senior manager of DRAMeXchange. "Furthermore, notebook demand was stimulated by new model releases. Global notebook shipments in the second quarter posted an 8.2% sequential increase, while global shipments of SSDs for notebooks also grew 24% over the prior quarter."

SSD are approaching price parity with HDDs

As SSD makers have transitioned from two-bit per cell MLC (multi-level cell) NAND flash to three-bit per cell TLC (triple level cell) NAND flash, they've been able to cram more capacity into a smaller space, reducing production costs. The greater densities have led to lower SSD prices for computer manufacturers.

The prices of mainstream consumer SSDs have fallen dramatically every year over the past four, and by 2017 they are expected to be within 11 cents of the per-gigabyte price of hard disk drives (HDDs).

While SSD pricing has dropped dramatically, HDD pricing hasn't. From 2012 to 2015, per-gigabyte pricing for HDDs dropped one cent per year from 9 cents in 2012 to 6 cents last year. However, through 2017, the per-gigabyte price of HDDs is expected to remain flat at 6 cents per gigabyte.

That means a 1TB hard drive will continue to retail for an average of about $60, though they can be found for under $45 on many online retail sites.

By comparison, consumer SSDs were selling for 99 cents a gigabyte in 2012. From 2013 to 2015, the price dropped from 68 cents to 39 cents per gigabyte. This year, SSD prices declined to 24 cents per gigabyte and in 2017, they're expected to drop another 7 cents. That means a 1TB SSD, on average, would retail for $170.

Along with TLC NAND flash, one of the technologies driving down the cost to produce SSDs is 3D NAND flash, which stacks flash cells like tiny skyscrapers up to 48-layers high. The ability to move from planar, or flat, NAND flash to vertically-oriented architectures has greatly increased the density of the medium, meaning more capacity can be created in a vastly smaller space.

cjxzirx8d3rywufw16q0pihklhbcfgr8pj9yaf9fkea 100575720 primary.idge Toshiba

Along with its manufacturing partner Toshiba, Western Digital announced its latest generation of BiCS technology stacks 64 layers of microscopic NAND layers atop one another, vastly increasing memory density.

In fact, for the first time in history, SSD densities surpassed those of HDDs earlier this year.

Both Samsung and Micron demonstrated areal densities in their laboratories that far outstripped HDDs. Micron revealed a density of up to 2.77Tbpsi (terabits per square inch) for its 3D NAND. That compares with the densest HDDs of about 1.3Tbpsi.

"Though there was a supply shortage and a sharp price hike for TLC flash memory during May and June, SSD shipments to the worldwide channel market registered a 12% sequential increase in the second quarter. Increase in work days and manufacturers having sufficient inventories resulted in the above-expected quarterly shipment result," Chen said.

"On the other hand, 3D NAND flash based on the MLC architecture is not as competitive in terms of production cost, so its market share in the overall 3D-NAND Flash market will be small," he continued. "Its application will also be limited to high-end storage products."

DRAMeXchange's data shows the SSD adoption rate in the notebook market for the second quarter was 32% to 33%. Total shipments of client-grade SSDs for the period hit 28.3 million units, translating to a quarterly growth of 15% to 20%.

Intel, Micron 3D NAND Intel

Intel and Micron's new 3D NAND flash will enable 3.5TB of capacity in an M.2 expansion stick.

For the current third quarter, NAND flash will be in short supply and TLC Flash memory prices will remain high, so increasing SSD shipments to PC OEMs will come at the expense of shipments to the channel market and vice versa. DRAMeXchange projects that the total client-grade SSD shipments for the period will increase by just 2% to 3%.

TLC SSDs are expected to become the mainstream memory architecture for 3D NAND SSDs, further increasing bit density and lowering costs to produce the memory. PCIe-attached SSDs are expected to show marginal growth this year, according to DRAMeXchange.

A faster SSD interface

Another technology driving SSD use in notebooks is the PCIe, or peripheral component interconnect express, interface. PCIe is a high-speed serial expansion card format that uses a point-to-point architecture, meaning it offers vastly better performance over typical SATA-connected SSDs because of the direct connection to a computer's motherboard. There's no translation layer required.

Not only does placing the NAND flash on the memory board make for a faster I/O interface, but it also reduces the size of the medium from 2.5-in hard drive form factor to a flat board no bigger than a couple of postage stamps.

In 2013, Apple announced it would offer a Macbook Pro with a PCIe SSD that had  astoundingly fast 1.25GBps read and 1.0GBps write speeds. By comparison, a top-rated laptop SSD using a SATA II interface tops out at about 550MB/sec, about half that of the PCIe flash Apple was using. When it comes to hard drives that are pervasive today in laptops, there's no comparison. SSDs are up to 10 times faster.

In 2015, Apple launched the new Macbook Pro with a PCIe SSD in it and it proved twice as fast as the previous model.

screen shot 2015 08 05 at 2.24.08 pm Toshiba, SanDisk

Toshiba and SanDisk's Bit Cost Scaling (BiCS) 3D vertical NAND design stacks 48 NAND cells one atop another like a tiny skyscraper.

Other laptop makers have followed Apple's example and have begun to make thinner, faster machines using PCIe SSDs.

In the SSD interface market, major PC-OEMs have just started to adopt PCIe in the second half of this year, Chen said. Meanwhile, most of the demand in the channel market is still for SATA III.

DRAMeXchange expects SATA III to remain the popular interface type for client-grade SSDs in 2016. In contrast, PCIe is projected to account only for 20% of the client-grade SSD market this year, showing a slight increase from 2015.

This story, "Laptops are about to get a whole lot faster" was originally published by Computerworld.