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The Biggest Failures of 2009

James – NAND Flash Memory

While this year has had several duff product launches, namely Intel’s daft LGA1156 Core i5/i7 branding blunder and the lack of high performance CPUs from AMD, I’ve decided not to pick on one company for my chosen ‘Fail of 2009’.

In fact, I’m going to start off things on a positive note, as that will show just how disappointing this aspect of 2009 has been. It all started off in early 2007 when I wrote the first group test of SSDs to be published in the UK. Back then, the industry still hadn’t decided whether to pursue RAM drives or NAND flash for its SSDs, and the capacity for many of the drives was extremely limited - a mere 8GB in some cases. However, despite their tiny capacity and huge prices (upwards of £20 per gigabyte), these early SSDs showed real promise and an escape from the tyranny of the clicking, clunking hard disk.

I didn’t used to hate hard disks – I even owned one (a full height 5.25in drive) years before most people in the UK had even heard of them. It was particularly fun bragging at school that my computer didn’t forget its applications when I turned it off at night, unlike floppy disk and tape-driven computers.

The Biggest Failures of 2009 Rising NAND Memory Prices
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That said, while hard disks now store more than 25,000 times as much data as they did back then and are a fraction of the physical size, they are seriously holding back the PC. Let’s start with performance – compared to modern CPUs and memory they take ages to read and write data. They’re also noisy – you may not think so, but once you’ve built a water-cooled PC you’ll soon notice that the hard disk(s) are the noisiest components.

Since that first group test in 2007 the industry has made great strides forward, so much so that by early 2009 we were confidently predicting that 2009 would be the year of the SSD. The leading controller companies (Indilinx, Intel and Samsung) had given up on RAM drives, and focused their efforts on making sure that the latest NAND flash drives could write at a decent rate, while new features such as TRIM and garbage collection were helping to ensure that performance did not go down significantly over time.

Unfortunately, another group of companies had another idea altogether and decided to nip the SSD revolution in the bud. I’m talking about the manufacturers of NAND flash and the way that almost overnight they almost doubled the price of NAND chips.

The Biggest Failures of 2009 Rising NAND Memory Prices
Click to Enlarge

When we first reviewed the awesome Crucial M225 this autumn it retailed for £223, so with the 128GB version, each gigabyte would set you back £1.74. Yet, just a few weeks later, its price had skyrocketed to £400. At first we suspected that Crucial was trying to earn some money on the back of the positive review, but it quickly became apparent that all the SSD manufacturers were in the same boat – the price of the NAND flash they had to buy to use in their drives was going through the roof.

The price has started to trickle down now (you could pick up an M225 for around £300 now, but the damage has already been done. The lucky few who did manage to buy an SSD before the price of NAND flash went ballistic got a great deal, but for everybody else, the upgrade from a turgid old hard disk to a shiny new silent SSD is now a much more expensive affair. Even among the upgrade addicts in the bit-tech and Custom PC office, only one of us who had planned on buying an SSD this year has actually done so (me), and that’s only because I luckily bought mine before the ludicrous price increase.

So, to the greedy NAND flash manufacturers, I hoist your proverbial skulls onto the top of Traitors Gate – your corporate greed and incompetence neatly killed off the SSD revolution in 2009. As a result it will now take months, if not years for SSDs to get down to the sort of price that enthusiasts will start to upgrade en mass. Well done.