The oft-quoted Moore's Law, named after Intel co-founder Gordon Moore, states that the density of transistors per square inch on integrated circuits doubles every 18 months, leading to ever-faster and cheaper microprocessors. When it comes to hard disk drives, no one has coined any "laws," but I've certainly noticed a similar trend.
About three years ago, a typical home PC came with about 2 gigabytes of hard disk storage. Today, even sub-$1,000 PCs typically come with 4-, 6- or even 8-gigabyte hard drives. High-end consumer systems now come with 12, 14 or even 16 gigabytes.
The drives themselves haven't gotten any bigger. The disk drive industry has figured out economic ways to squeeze more data into less space. This ability to do more with less has also enabled companies to develop hard disk drives that are, in fact, physically smaller.
IBM on Sept. 9 unveiled what it is calling "the world's smallest and lightest" hard disk drive. The 340-megabyte IBM microdrive, which will become available in mid-1999, is an inch in diameter and weighs 20 grams. Pricing has not been announced.
There isn't really any advantage to having a disk drive this small in a desktop or even a notebook PC, but miniature hard drives could be embedded into small consumer devices such as hand-held PCs, pagers, digital cameras, video cameras and cellular phones.
"A device of this size would fit very easily in a portable phone," said Currie Munce, director of storage systems and technology at IBM's Almaden Research Center in San Jose. "You could fit the phone numbers of everyone in the United States in a device of this size."
While a cellular phone with an embedded hard disk is still a ways off, there is nothing futuristic about putting one in a digital camera. Several current high-end cameras already come with 1.8-inch removable hard drives on a Type III PC card that can store up to 520 megabytes.
You won't find a hard disk in pocket-size, consumer-level digital cameras. Most of today's cameras come with CompactFlash or SmartMedia memory cards that typically store either 4 or 8 megabytes of data. How many images you get on a card depends on the image resolution, but the highest-resolution pictures from so-called mega-pixel cameras in the $600 to $1,000 range typically take up roughly 250 kilobytes, which means you can get about 14 to 18 images on a 4-megabyte card.
Limited storage is a problem with today's consumer digital cameras. Last year, when my family spent a month in Europe, we left the digital camera at home because it didn't have enough memory for the photos we would take during the trip. Instead, we brought along a film camera and about 10 rolls of film. Even if we ran out of film, we could always buy more. A camera equipped with a 340-megabyte hard drive would store about 1,400 high-resolution images, which is enough to bore everyone I know.
Physically, the IBM microdrive is slightly thicker than the Type I CompactFlash memory cards used in most of today's digital cameras, so it requires a Type II CompactFlash slot, which, according to IBM spokesman Bill Healy, will soon be available in new cameras from Canon, Kodak, Hitachi and others. Canon last week demonstrated a prototype of a high-end digital camera with a microdrive at the PhotoKina trade show in Cologne, Germany, according to Healy.
There are reasonably high-capacity options available to owners of today's digital cameras. You can buy extra memory cards of varying capacities. Sandisk makes a 48-megabyte CompactFlash memory (about $250) that can store about 190 high-resolution pictures. Unlike random access memory in PCs, flash memory cards store their contents even when the power is turned off.
In the meantime, Iomega, the company that makes the popular Zip drive, has announced another solution that will work with current-generation digital cameras and hand-held PCs that use either Smart cards or CompactFlash cards. The Iomega Click Drive, which is expected to be available by the end of this year, will store 40 megabytes on a removable cartridge. The drive, which weighs less than a pound, doesn't connect directly to the camera. Instead, you plug the camera's memory card into the drive and transfer the data to the removable cartridge. You put the memory card back in the camera, erase the data, and take more pictures.
The advantage to the Click Drive is that it's versatile and will work with virtually any camera or other device that uses removable memory cards. The 40mb cartridges are pretty cheap (about $10) so you can buy as many as you need, giving you virtually unlimited storage. The disadvantage is that it's an extra item to carry around and fiddle with. It gets the job done, but it's not as elegant as having a camera with a high-capacity internal drive.
There will also be a version of the Click Drive that can connect directly to a notebook PC or hand-held computer that has a PC card slot. Hand-held PCs, such as those that run the Windows CE operating system, are generally pretty limited in storage capacity, which makes it hard to use such devices for data-intensive tasks such as slide show presentations that require large files. However, I saw one demonstration in which a user was able to give a relatively large PowerPoint presentation by connecting a Click Drive to a Compaq hand-held Windows CE computer that was connected to a portable projector.
The Click Drive configured for hand-held PCs will sell for $199; a version for digital cameras will cost $249. A Pro version, which works with both hand-held PCs and digital cameras, will cost $299.
Larry Magid can be reached at email@example.com. His Web page is at http://www.larrysworld.com. On AOL, use keyword "LarryMagid."