Toshiba aims to slash Ultrabook prices with new hybrid hard drives

The Japanese manufacturer will begin mass production of a 1TB drive that has 8GB of NAND flash for improved speed

Toshiba will soon begin mass production of a new line of hybrid disk drives equipped with flash memory, touting them as a low-cost replacement for the solid-state drives used in Ultrabook and laptop computers.

Hybrid drives are touted as a way to achieve the high boot and start-up speeds of SSD while keeping costs down, but have been slow to catch on. With manufacturers eager to slash prices on ultrabooks they could finally take off: the SSD in such devices currently accounts for about 25 percent of the total price, according to market estimates.

"Our number one target is the laptop market. Many users are moving to tablets, and to bring them back to laptops, instant start-up is very important," said company spokesman Atsushi Ido.

"We will sell the hybrids at a price that is close to standard hard drives."

Toshiba said its new drives cut application boot times by about 40 percent compared to standard disk drives. It is not disclosing the price of the new drives, which will be sold primarily to manufacturers, but Ido said they will be less than twice the price of standard hard drives, while providing much of the benefits of SSD products, which typically cost about 10 times the cost of standard hard drives.

The company said it has begun shipping samples of two hybrid drives, in 1TB and 750GB capacities. Mass production is to begin in October, with the goal of producing 3 million drives in the fiscal year that ends in March of 2014. Hybrid drives are designed to store frequently accessed items, such as operating system data, in their flash memory to increase read times, while keeping overall prices low by storing most data in a standard disk drive.

The 2.5-inch hybrid drives are 9.5 millimeters thick, making them unsuitable for the new category of super-thin laptops called ultrabooks. But Ido said that by early next year the company will also launch a 7-millimeter version suitable for ultrabooks, and sell them as a way to significantly cut costs.

Toshiba rival Seagate currently sells a 750GB hybrid drive that can be purchased online for about US$130, in the same price range as a 120GB SSD, with 16 percent of the storage.

Toshiba's new 1TB drive will contain about 8GB of flash memory, enough to hold an operating system and frequently accessed files. The drive contains software that automatically decides which data is stored on its flash portion, over which the user has no control.

"The drive watches and learns the habits of the user" to allocate storage, Ido said.

The Japanese manufacturer is the world's third-largest hard drive maker by market share, with 13 percent of the market, behind Western Digital at 45 percent and Seagate at 42 percent, according to August data from IHS iSuppli.

Toshiba is also the world's second-largest NAND flash manufacturer, with roughly a third of the market, behind leader Samsung Electronics.

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