Robson: Wave of the Future?

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Sometimes it’s the little, even the little, stupid things that count most.

For instance, how do many people judge how “fast” a computer is? By how fast it boots, even though boot time can be greatly affected by a lot of non-CPU factors.

At its recent developers’ forum in Taipei, Intel showed off its latest attempt to cut that time down. It’s called Robson.

What is Robson? Robson is Intel’s way of using flash memory to create a big memory cache to be used instead of the hard drive to boot up/use commonly used applications.

No, this is not a bolt out of the blue. In the past few months, Samsung has been talking about flash hard drives and hybrid flash/hard drives.

So what makes Intel’s offering interesting?

Well, if Intel does it right, Robson is likely to be rather better than Samsung’s ideas.

What’s “doing it right?” “Doing it right” is providing a little thingamajig on the mobo where you can pop flash cards in and out.

Why is that important? Flexibility is likely to be important in determining the winner of any flash contest.

The Intel version allows the use of flash cards ranging from as low as 64Mb to as much as 4Gb. This lets manufacturers (and hopefully customers) introduce the technology at low (i.e. cheap) levels, then move upward as the need (or prices) move them.

In contrast, it looks like with Samsung, what you see is what you get. You can’t expand later on, and in the case of the hybrids, if the hard drive goes, so does the flash.

Am I sure about that? No. Could Samsung possibly incorporate upgradability into these devices? Sure, and it would be a very good thing if they did.

Granted, ungradability may not be on the top of the average PC owner’s list, but repairability ought to be. The reality is, flash wears out. Is it reliable enough to last three or four years in most cases? Probably. Is it reliable enough to last five or six or seven? Maybe not.

One could avoid a lot of ill-feelings if worn-out flash could be replaced as easily as memory.

Again, provided Intel does it right, they can get an edge on Samsung here, too, and again, Samsung would be wise to match.

Finally, and perhaps more important, Robson isn’t just silicon. It’s silicon matched with software to optimize its performance. The smarter the software, the better any flash-based drive will work.

For instance, much if not most software is essentially dumb, it pays no mind to what features (i.e. programming files) the user actually needs or regularly uses. A more intelligent caching system (and a lot more cache to work with) can greatly increase the seamlessness of a flash system.

I suspect a big problem with the iRAM is that it doesn’t have smart software backing it up.

Here, the matchup between Intel and Samsung is much more even, simply because Samsung has partnered with Microsoft. The hybrid hard drive is supposed to be “supported” by Windows Vista. I put “supported” in quotes not because I doubt that. It will be supported alright. It will be supported far above and beyond the call of duty, and a lot more than any competition. 🙂

Still, if you had to pick anybody to match or beat MS at its own game when it comes to making CPUs work better, it would be Intel.

But This Is Supposed To Be For Notebooks!

This is true, but how long do you think that’s going to last, with flash prices continuing to drop through the floor?

The initial offering may be just for notebooks, but I think we’ll see flash-based mobos and components designed for at least higher-end desktops within a year.

What about iRAM? So long as it gets handicapped by a slow interface, it will be restricted to a niche.

For the mainstream, at least for the next few years (until faster non-voliatile memory becomes available and cheap), it’s going to be flash, one way or the other. If I’ve said otherwise in the past, well, I was wrong.

The PC world has never been about the best technology. It’s been about the best affordable technology, and with flash opening up a big price gap, that’s the affordable technology. Yes, it’s nowhere near as fast as DRAM, but it will be good enough for most mainstream purposes, so that’s what it will be.

Yes, it’s possible Intel will be dopey about this and weld the flash chip into the mobo, and some mobo makers might, but I don’t think they universally will. After all, flash is a discrete component, and the cost difference between a welded component and a socket is $2, there’s enough good reasons for at least some to provide the socket, especially for the higher-ended systems where it will initially be placed.

We shall see.

Ed

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