Faster and more affordable drives coming

In a world where flash storage is cheap and ubiquitous, speed should be the key differentiator in the marketplace. This is especially so in the USB flash drive market, where commoditization has taken over and capacities double almost every year. Things haven't worked out that way for one major reason.

Prices have dropped every year thanks to the introduction of new and improved NAND flash lithographies, but average speeds haven't changed thanks to the bandwidth bottleneck of the USB 2.0 interface. Most USB flash drives top out at around 35MB/s thanks to protocol overhead, so the main criteria that manufacturers have been competing on are size, capacity, and cost.

Consumers are becoming accustomed to storing numerous large files on their USB flash drives, but are increasingly frustrated at the slow transfer speeds. This is especially true for people with large media collections.

The introduction of SuperSpeed USB 3.0 is changing the game, thanks to its maximum bandwidth of 4.8Gbps versus the measly 480Mbps of USB 2.0. ASUS, Gigabyte, and HP are trying to put USB 3.0 support on all of its products, and even mighty Intel is facing questions regarding its delayed support.

Super Talent has been a pioneer in the USB 3.0 flash drive market and has already launched three product lines. The RAIDDrive has the fastest speeds available, while the SuperCrypt is designed for the corporate and government market with its data encryption technology.

The company's most affordable USB 3.0 flash drive is the Express series, but speeds are nowhere near the RAIDDrive, which remains large and expensive thanks to its RAID design and the need for additional channels and flash chips.

Speed at an affordable price is in the works, though.

The Open NAND Flash Interface (ONFI) working group has been working on its standards based approach to increasing NAND speeds since 2006. Version 2.0 increased speeds to 133MB/s from the mere 50MB/s of Version 1.0, while the latest iterations are capable of up to 200MB/s.

The true USB 3.0 renaissance will come with the introduction of the ONFI 3.0 specification and its maximum speeds of 400MB/s, doubling the speed of the previous generation ONFI 2.2 specification. ONFI 3.0 is still being defined and is expected to be completed this summer, with the first products coming in 2011.

Intel/Micron Flash Technologies (IMFT) may be the first to incorporate ONFI 3.0 technology for its sub-20nm NAND flash products. IMFT will be amongst the first to use ONFI 2.2 for its 25nm NAND flash chips, which will be used by Intel in its next-generation of solid state drives with capacities as large as 600GB.

A new generation of NAND flash controllers will be needed to take advantage of ONFI 3.0 NAND flash chips. ONFI standard support has taken off in the last year as IMFT’s 34nm NAND has been increasingly adopted by SSD manufacturers.


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