If Ultrabooks Go Bust, Cache SSDs Could Fall by Wayside Too

IHS iSuppli’s Ryan Chien says that the immense popularity of tablet devices, as well as other rising or recent technologies on the horizon, could significantly cut into the overall prospects of flash memory in cache solid state drives (SSD) now used for superthin Ultrabooks and similarly built PCs, according to an IHS iSuppli Memory on the Move market brief from information and analytics provider IHS.

Chien reports that shipments of a type of low-power memory known as Embedded Multimedia Card (eMMC) used in tablets are set to rise to 160 million units in 2016, up from 45 million units this year. In comparison, shipments of cache SSDs used in Ultrabooks are projected to grow from 15 million to 145 million units during the same five-year period based on current Ultrabook forecast assumptions that in every year during the forecast, tablet eMMC memory will outflank cache SSD prospects.

Working alongside a physical hard disk, cache SSDs – so-called because the flash memory is used as a cache – help to boost speed and performance in Ultrabooks and other PCs. The new hybrid ‘Fusion’ drives optionally available with Apple’s latest iMacs and Mac minis are an example.

The report says that overall, media tablets remain the biggest threat to Ultrabooks a year after the Intel Corp. launched its superthin PC laptop specification, and that forecasts for consumer SSDs rely on Intel’s fast-storage specification, which will eventually push cache SSD beyond just mainstream Ultrabooks and expanded its use to PCs as a whole.

However Chien notes that the concurrent presence in the marketplace of tablets – whose status as a coveted item among consumers has only continued to grow with time – has altered the landscape for Ultrabooks, and by extension, cache SSDs. Without Intel’s strict standards specifying cache SSD as a necessary part of storage for computers wishing to join the Ultrabook bandwagon, PC manufacturers can leverage the optimizations of newer operating systems around hard disk drive storage. Such a development could then end up pushing flash memory, especially cache SSD, down the priority list for PC manufacturers focused on lowering bill-of-materials costs.

Another looming obstacle to cache SSD is Universal Flash Storage (UFS), a faster-acting successor to eMMC, tailored specifically for mobile applications and computing systems requiring low power and high performance. UFS is expected to make its appearance in the next 18 months, and its energy efficiency is superior to already efficient Ball Grid Array (BGA) and mSATA – mini serial advanced technology attachment – SSDs

A third competitor to cache SSDs in Ultrabooks is Google’s Chromebook, such as those made by Samsung Electronics – a category of machine that supports only limited on-board software capabilities and relies heavily on the Internet to perform its tasks. Chien notes that recent ChromeBook retooling includes eMMC and a dual-core ARM Cortex A15 processor to help lower costs, allowing the Chromebook to be offered with an attractive $250 price tag that can’t be matched by the much more expensive Ultrabooks, which cost close to a thousand dollars for basic models, or even more for units with expanded specs. And because the laptops are able to tap into the resources of the cloud, the lack of physical storage on Chromebooks becomes a less intractable obstacle.

Chien thinks Ultrabooks still have a good fighting chance in their bruising scuffle with tablets, especially if manufacturers find a way to lower pricing and consumers become excited, particularly as the just-launched Windows 8 software also finds traction among users. He contends that the appealing hardware form factor of a superthin mobile computing device, coupled with a newly minted operating software system, should ignite the market and revive prospects for the PC – and along with it, cache SSDs.

But he concedes that ultimately, failure of the Intel Ultrabook standard would be a painful setback to the budding cache SSD ecosystem. Higher average selling prices and higher-density SSDs might help make up for the big drop in cache SSD shipments, but the consumer SSD market overall will still shrink dramatically if Ultrabooks don’t take off, leaving the nascent cache SSD environment acutely compromised as a result.

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