Over the past two years, solid state drives (SSDs) have only been sold directly to laptop or portable device manufacturers or through selected online electronics retail sites.
That changed last week when Intel Corp. announced that its flash drives will be the first to be sold traditional retail stores, in this case more than 800 Best Buy stores. Other companies, such as SanDisk Corp., said they will soon follow suit and sell their SSDs in brick-and-mortar retail stores.
The move to selling SSDs in brick-and-mortar retail stores is likely an indication that consumers are warming up to flash memory storage technology as the drives become affordable enough to either replace or supplement their computer's hard disk drive.
"The move to brick-and-mortar retail stores broadens the target consumer profile," said Gregory Wong, an analyst at market research firm Forward Insights. "Gaming and technically sophisticated users will continue to be the main consumers for SSDs but retail will enable SSD vendors to reach mainstream consumers. Offering SSDs in mainstream retail outlets is a necessary step towards broadening the appeal of SSDs and enabling further adoption of SSDs as prices come down."
Jason Bonfig, Best Buy's vice president of Computing, said last week that said SSDs will become increasingly popular "as people realize how much faster they can boot up and run their favorite software or work-intensive applications."
"Our customers are looking for the latest and greatest in technology and entertainment experiences," Bonfig said in a statement. "Now they can purchase an Intel SSD and add it to a new or existing computer for a makeover that will improve their computing or gaming experience."
SSDs are still up to 10 times as expensive as hard disk drives, and have in fact increased in cost over the past year or so. The price of a flash memory chips, which are stacked inside hard drive casings to create SSDs, rose to $4.10 in the second quarter of last year, representing a $1.80, or 127%, increase from the final quarter of 2008.
Hard disk drives sell for about 30 cents a gigabyte. Wong believes that for PC, notebook and netbook manufacturers, SSD prices will drop from about $1.90 per gigabyte today to about $1.70. Online shoppers shouldn't see any marked decrease in pricing and can expect to continue to pay $3.00 to $3.30 per SSD gigabyte on sites like Newegg.com.
Intel is pitching its consumer-class SSD, the 80GB X25-M , in Best Buy stores for $229.
The typical SSD, with anywhere from 80GB to 120GB of capacity, costs from $215 to $400 on e-tail sites such as Pricegrabber.com or Newegg.com.
By comparison, a hard drive with up to 1TB of capacity can be had for as little as $90.
For mainstream consumers, SSDs beat out hard disk drives when it comes to performance, particularly for computer boot-up or application load times. In many cases, they offer more than twice the I/Os per second. In Computerworld's own benchmark tests, SSDs handily beat out hard disk drives in a cold boot contest -- 20 seconds for the SSD versus 40 seconds for the hard drive.
The SSD also beat the HDD for restarts: 26 seconds versus 37 seconds.
And because there are no moving parts -- no actuator arms or motors -- SSDs are more durable and therefore may be better choices for mobile devices.
While SSDs still cost 10 times more than hard disk drives, there is a crossover point where the base cost of a hard drive -- about $40 -- would buy an SSD with about 16GB of capacity.
Users could combine the technologies -- lower-capacity SSDs could be used to run a PC's operating system and key applications, while files could be stored on a secondary internal or external hard disk drive. SSD manufacturers have recognized that crossover point and have begun selling lower-capacity SSDs aimed at supplementing hard drives as boot drives.
Intel is pitching its 40GB Intel X25-V Value SSD in Best Buy as a boot drive. That drive will sell for $129 in the retail store.
"When you upgrade to an Intel solid-state drive, you see a dramatic improvement in your computing experience," said Pete Hazen, director of marketing at Intel's NAND Solutions Group. "We've already shipped more than a million SSDs and consumers are realizing that SSDs aren't just an alternate means of storage, but a performance enhancement that brings a new level of responsiveness to their computer."
Wong said one of the main obstacles to faster SSD adoption is that many consumers don't yet understand the benefits of solid state drive technology. The move to the brick-and-mortar should boost knowledge of the devices as sales personnel can help educate consumers, he added.
"In addition, the Geek Squad provides a broad service network that can assist consumers and small businesses to migrate their PCs to SSD solutions," Wong said.