A few days ago I said that there hadn’t been any profound changes in computer hardware for a while. That’s true, but there’s a change on the horizon that might affect things deeply, beginning late in 2009.

IntelSSD Solid state hard drives are on the verge of becoming viable replacements for conventional hard drives, especially on notebooks and netbooks. The idea is more or less to hold all the contents of a hard drive on a few chips with no moving parts. That’s not a new idea but until recently there were high barriers keeping them off the market: extremely high cost for the memory chips required; high power consumption; and deteriorating performance caused by repeated reads and writes, kind of like a battery that can’t hold a charge after some number of cycles.

Conventional hard drives rely on moving parts that require extremely high precision. As I said recently, a hard drive has very, very thin round platters spinning incredibly fast (typically 7200 revolutions per minute), while arms with microscopically small sensors dance back and forth fifty times per second (about the speed of a hummingbird’s wings). The space between a read/write head and the surface of the platter is around 50 nanometers, about 1/2000 the diameter of a human hair. Hard drive cases are tightly sealed because a speck of dust is much bigger than the space between the platters and the read/write head.

Solid state disks don’t move. They’re just a bunch of memory chips. They should be more reliable in notebooks that are constantly being banged around. Even better, there are reasons to think that performance will be far better than conventional drives – especially with Windows 7, which is optimized for SSDs. They make no noise and they virtually eliminate any possibility of mechanical failure.

This isn’t new technology but Intel has made incredible strides to improve it in the last year or two. It already has drives that feature low power consumption and high speeds, and its prices are dropping fast thanks to a new, cheaper manufacturing process. Drive capacity is jumping by leaps and bounds, currently up to 320Gb and probably moving up soon.

Intel has also found ways to increase the lifespan of an SSD to far beyond the reasonable needs of anyone carrying a laptop. According to Anandtech:

Intel wanted to represent its SSD lifespan as a function of the amount of data written per day, so Intel met with a number of OEMs and collectively they came up with a target figure: 20GB per day. OEMs wanted assurances that a user could write 20GB of data per day to these drives and still have them last, guaranteed, for five years. Intel had no problems with that.

Intel went one step further and delivered 5x what the OEMs requested. Thus Intel will guarantee that you can write 100GB of data to one of its MLC SSDs every day, for the next five years, and your data will remain intact.

By the end of the year, other manufacturers will probably figure out most of the Intel tricks and competition will drive prices down and availability up. It may not be long before SSDs are part of almost all new notebooks and netbooks.

If you want to see some great technology that might change our world soon, you owe it to yourself to watch this video from Intel. Fascinating stuff!

(Thanks to Honesto Vargas for sharing the Intel video!)