The Era of Tablet Computing: Flash Memory Enables Another Mega Market
For more than 20 years, flash memory has enabled the creation of new markets such as digital photography, digital music and portable high-capacity data storage. Now, flash-based solid state drive (SSD) technology is poised to drive significant changes in the mobile and PC computing industries (Fig. 1).
Figure 1:Examples of new markets enabled by flash memory that show major size reductions and changes in form factors.
Tablet computers, a new and potentially massive market, continue this trend of size reduction and greater portability. This new product category meets consumers’ demands for on-the-go access to digital content. Tablets serve two sets of consumer demands: computers with greater portability and longer battery life, and mobile devices with advanced features.
Analysts forecast that tablet computers will form the next mega market, enabled in large part by flash memory. The scalability of NAND flash into smaller and thinner form factors has enabled paradigm shifts in the past and is expected to fuel the continued success of tablets. Tablets feature a markedly different appearance and offer a distinct computing experience with user friendly features such as a touch-screen, instant-on, and all-day-computing. Because of these characteristics, consumers are less likely to expect a full-blown computing device.
High demand for the Apple iPad and the subsequent rush of tier one mobile and PC OEMs to develop tablets suggests a large potential market, as shown in Fig. 2. This growth is expected to enlarge the mobile computing pie, however it may also cannibalize the netbook market and, to a lesser extent, the notebook market.
The increases in cloud computing, social media, and networking support the tablet trend. The abundance of web-based applications and our ever-increasing reliance on Internet communication is mind boggling, and tablets provide an ideal means of accessing and engaging with this content.
An important question remains. Will consumers remain satisfied with using their tablets for content consumption or will they push for higher-performance productivity tablets that behave like notebooks?
Tablet usage is closely tied to the device’s architecture. Apple’s iPad, based on their proprietary A4 processor and iOS had an early lead and continues to increase sales, however it is losing some of its market share to others such as the ARM-based tablets using Google’s Android.
Increased productivity in tablets means increased capabilities to support multi-tasking and fast performance for application launch and side loading. These tablets provide laptop functionality in thin new designs, all of which must be delivered with minimal compromise on power consumption and battery life. Productivity tablets capable of creating content will require more powerful processor capabilities and, most likely, Windows OS and Office Applications. Microsoft isn’t sitting still. X86 architecture tablets with Windows 7 have already entered the market, and the highly anticipated Windows 8 OS should support productivity tablets with either Intel or ARM chipsets.
Virtually all tablets use NAND flash rather than hard disk drives–-and with good reason. Flash offers a unique set of benefits that are perfectly suited to the tablet market. Flash memory is the ideal storage medium for tablets because it enables thinner, more portable devices, increases reliability, improves performance, lowers power consumption and allows devices to run coolly and quietly. These significant advantages often compensate for the capacity/cost differential when compared with the hard disk drive.
|Small Physical Size and Weight||Flash allows manufacturers to develop the thin, lightweight tablet designs desired by mobile users. The tablets you see on the market today would not be possible using bulky hard disk drives.|
|Outstanding Reliability||With no moving parts, flash is immune to the most common type of hard disk drive failure, a head crash, which can lead to total data loss. Flash can also withstand higher levels of shock, vibration and temperature fluctuations.|
|High Performance & System Responsiveness||Flash can improve system responsiveness for faster boot times and application launches can be fine tuned to exceed hard disk performance in all of these parameters.|
|Longer Battery Life||Flash consumes significantly less power than the rotating media in a hard drive and thus allows for designs with smaller batteries.|
|Less Heat and Noise||Since flash doesn’t have mechanical moving parts, it neither heats up nor makes noise and doesn’t need a fan in order to stay cool.|
NAND flash has undergone significant developments over the last decade, resulting in lower costs per bit and higher maximum chip capacities. This is a consequence of shrinking the physical size and form factors of flash memory technology and increasing the number of bits per cell. The industry has seen a yearly NAND technology scaling evolution from 160 nanometers (nm) in 2002 down to 24 nm in 2010.
These cost reduction trends imply a bigger challenge for raw NAND performance and reliability that must be carefully addressed at both the NAND and system level. Due to differences in development, manufacturing and quality control, NAND flash memory and the controllers required to manage raw NAND vary greatly.
Managed NAND with an e.MMC interface is a popular solution for 2011 Android tablets. SanDisk offers iNAND embedded flash drives that are designed for thin, lightweight e.MMC-based mobile computing platforms. In addition SATA-based SSD modules are on the market for X86 Windows tablets. SanDisk also offers iSSD (integrated solid state drive) a BGA form factor with a SATA interface, to addresses the need for tiny, high-capacity storage devices with fast performance., (Fig. 3).
As the market for productivity tablets with mainstream Windows applications grows, it is quite possible that high-performance SATA storage solutions will be adopted to support the full-fledged Windows OS and applications. It is also important to note that future designs appear to be adding e.MMC support to X86 architectures as well as SATA support to ARM designs. It is therefore anticipated that the link seen today between the OS and chipset/NAND will likely blur. An example to this trend is the recently announced Freescale i.MX53 platform supporting SATA.
Gartner predicts that tablets will consume a significant share of the global NAND output by 2014, as shown in Fig. 4. A one size-fits-all solution cannot serve such a large market, so we will undoubtedly see a wide assortment of devices.
Figure 4: Consumer, mobile, and tablets will contribute the largest percentages of growth in the flash market.
Consumers and business professionals alike crave high-performance mobile devices. These devices continue to shrink to meet the demands of end users who want reliable, highly-portable computing platforms - thin, lightweight, high performance, with long battery life and little noise or heat - all at a reasonable price. The tablet computer, enabled by flash memory technology, is poised to meet this challenge in supporting end-user requirements for an enjoyable and efficient mobile computing experience.
Doreet Oren, Director of Product Marketing, Solid State Drives (SSD), SanDisk Corporation