Years after TV sets solved a similar problem, personal computers still make us wait—and wait—between the time we switch on the power and the time we can actually do what we sat down to do. This year — in anticipation of Vista, the new version of Microsoft’s Windows operating system — San Jose-based PortalPlayer has developed an “always on” subsystem for notebook computers.
Preface, as the product is known, stores information like address books, email messages, and calendar items. It hooks into a feature of Vista called SideShow, which supports auxiliary displays; since it uses its own processor, memory cache, controls, and operating software, you can access your address/email/calendar information without waiting for your whole notebook to boot.
Added benefit: reduced power consumption. “Everything that you do on this secondary subsystem uses much less power than the main CPU,” explains PortalPlayer vice president of marketing Arman Toorianis. “If you listen to music or do slideshows on a regular notebook, you can do that for four or five hours. With our subsystem, you can do it for 100 to 400 hours.”
Another product timed for the Vista launch is the hybrid hard drive, which uses so-called flash memory. Today’s memory standard, dynamic random access memory (DRAM), holds information only as long as it’s receiving power; whenever you restart your computer, all the information it needs to operate must be reloaded from the hard drive, while you wait. Flash memory, by contrast, doesn’t need power to retain information, so devices that use it — digital cameras, cell phones, handheld computers — power up almost instantly.
New hybrid hard drives use flash memory as a cache, so “boot times can be accelerated by a factor of three,” according to Don Barnetson, an assistant director of marketing for Samsung in San Jose. The flash cache will also save power and improve reliability, adds Barnetson, by reducing the time a system is reading and writing data to its hard drive.
The idea of using flash memory to speed up performance isn’t limited to hard-drive makers. Chip manufacturer Intel recently announced an initiative aimed at standardizing a method for using flash memory on PC motherboards.
Flash memory, though, may be only a bridge to more-exotic approaches, such as magnetic random access memory (MRAM). “The process of writing and erasing to flash wears out the memory, so you can really only write to it about 100,000 times,” maintains Bill Gallagher, an IBM senior manager in Yorktown Heights, New York. MRAM, he observes, doesn’t suffer from that endurance problem; on the other hand, it will be 5 to 10 years before it poses a commercial challenge to DRAM.
As for PortalPlayer’s Preface software and those new hybrid hard drives — both of which must await the arrival of Vista — they’ll have to remain on hold a little longer; Microsoft has pushed back the release of Vista until January 2007.