Market Watch

If Ultrabooks Go Bust, Cache SSDs Could Fall by Wayside Too

Tablets and other newly ascendant technologies using rival memory forms could hurt cache SSDs

December 20, 2012

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The immense popularity of tablet devices, as well as other rising or recent technologies on the horizon, could significantly cut into the overall prospects of flash memory in cache solid state drives (SSD) now used for superthin Ultrabooks and similarly built PCs, according to an IHS iSuppli Memory on the Move market brief from information and analytics provider IHS.

Shipments of a type of low-power memory known as Embedded Multimedia Card (eMMC) used in tablets are set to rise to 160 million units in 2016, up from 45 million units this year. In comparison, shipments of cache SSDs used in Ultrabooks are projected to grow from 15 million to 145 million units during the same five-year period based on current Ultrabook forecast assumptions. In every year during the forecast, tablet eMMC memory will outflank cache SSD prospects. 

Working alongside a physical hard disk, cache SSDs—so called because the flash memory is used as a cache—help to boost speed and performance in Ultrabooks and other PCs.

Overall, media tablets remain the biggest threat to Ultrabooks a year after the introduction by Intel Corp. of its superthin PCs. Healthy forecasts for consumer SSDs rely on Intel’s fast-storage specification, which will eventually push cache SSD beyond just mainstream Ultrabooks and expanded its use to PCs as a whole.

But the concurrent presence in the marketplace of tablets—whose status as a coveted item among consumers has only continued to grow with time—has altered the landscape for Ultrabooks, and by extension, cache SSDs. Without Intel’s strict standards specifying cache SSD as a necessary part of storage for computers wishing to join the Ultrabook bandwagon, PC manufacturers can leverage the optimizations of newer operating systems around hard disk drive storage. Such a development could then end up pushing flash memory, especially cache SSD, down the priority list for PC manufacturers focused on lowering bill-of-materials costs.

Another looming obstacle to cache SSD is Universal Flash Storage (UFS), a faster-acting successor to eMMC, tailored specifically for mobile applications and computing systems requiring low power and high performance. UFS is expected to make its appearance in the next 18 months, and its energy efficiency is superior to already efficient Ball Grid Array (BGA) and mSATA—mini serial advanced technology attachment—SSDs

A third competitor to cache SSDs in Ultrabooks is Google’s Chromebook, made by the likes of Samsung Electronics. While the Chromebook has limited software capabilities and relies heavily on the Internet to perform its tasks, its recent retooling includes eMMC and a dual-core ARM Cortex A15 processor to help lower costs.

As a result, the Chromebook also comes with an attractive $250 tag—a price point that cannot be matched by the much more expensive Ultrabooks, which cost close to a thousand dollars for basic models, or even more for units with expanded specs. And because the laptops are able to tap into the resources of the cloud, the lack of physical storage on Chromebooks is less intractable of an obstacle.

Ultrabooks still have a good fighting chance in their bruising scuffle with tablets, especially if manufacturers find a way to lower pricing and consumers become excited, particularly as the just-launched Windows 8 software also finds traction among users. The appealing hardware form factor of a superthin mobile computing device, coupled with a newly minted operating software system, should ignite the market and revive prospects for the PC—and along with it, cache SSDs.

Ultimately, failure of the Intel Ultrabook standard would be a painful setback to the budding cache SSD ecosystem. Higher average selling prices and higher-density SSDs might help make up for the big drop in cache SSD shipments, but the consumer SSD market overall will still shrink dramatically if Ultrabooks don’t take off. The nascent cache SSD environment could then be acutely compromised as a result.

Read More >> Implications for Flash if Ultrabooks Go Bust

Research by Market
Memory & Storage
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