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Mutant heroes to rescue Ultrabooks from price trap

Will Seagate's Momentus hybrid save the day?

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Is Seagate clever or what? In order to get to a $600 entry price, Ultrabook makers are looking to shave off cost by using hybrid flash-disk drives instead of separate flash and disk drives.

Because Seagate is the only hybrid drive supplier, with its Momentus XT product, the company is looking extraordinarily well-positioned compared to the other disk drive suppliers.

The Ultrabook is Intel's attempt to rejuvenate the sagging notebook market. Notebooks, now boring flat boxes running Windows slowly, are facing a booming Apple whose flash-based MacBook Air design is now spreading to its entire notebook line, leaving the other notebook suppliers facing sales declines because their Windows boxes are lumbering horrors compared to the svelte, shiny aluminium sexbombs that Apple produces.

Intel is pushing its Ultrabook idea widely and knows that they have to hit a good entry-level price point for adoption to rise and counter declining PC sales. According to a Digitimes report Intel will ship Ivy Bridge CPUs with lowered prices for the second generation Ultrabook specification in May. It wants suppliers to cut out disk drive latency by using flash: either with all-flash MacBook Air-like designs, or by using hybrid drives using flash caches atop spinning disk capacity.

Storage is thought to represent 10 to 15 per cent of an Ultrabook's cost. The things would need 128GB or 256GB SSDs to offer enough capacity for mainstream use and these cost twice what an equivalent capacity hybrid drive would cost. Jim Wong, Acer's president is cited as thinking hybrid-drive Ultrabooks could get into the $600 to $700 area in the final three months of his year. Those using SSDs only would be more expensive.

An Intel statement said: "We are working closely with our customers, partners and suppliers to infuse continued innovation into the new category of Ultrabook devices and deliver them to consumers at mainstream price points."

Customers want MacBook Airs at the high-end or tablets at the low-end and notebooks have to get an Ultrabook makeover plus low prices to attract punters bedazzled by fondleslabs and sexy Macbook Airs. Hybrid drives open the storage performance door to these lower prices.

The only hybrid drive supplier for now is Seagate, with its 2-platter, Momentus XT 2.5-inch product, now offering up to 750GB of capacity with an 8GB fast SLC flash cache. The company has said it aims to spread this XT technology to other products such as its 1-platter Momentus Thin. Controller supplier Marvell said it is shipping hybrid drive controllers to most HDD vendors and they will have hybrid drive products by the end of 2012.

Given the typical OEM qualification periods needed, it looks as if Seagate is in prime position to be the Ultrabook hybrid drive supplier: its Momentus has come, as we might say.

Thinking on this, notebook users will not enjoy the prospect of Ultrabooks outpacing them speed-wise, and nor will desktop users. We could predict a wholesale migration to hybrid drives by notebook and desktop PC suppliers will start in 2013. ®

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