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The Last Hurrah for IBM's Mobile Disk Drives?

IBM took the lead again in disk drive capacity Wednesday with the announcement of its Travelstar GN hard disk drives (HDD) for laptop and notebooks, capable of storing 70 gigabits of information per square inch.

The news comes at a time when Big Blue is getting ready to shed its division in a joint venture that gives rival Hitachi 70 percent ownership of the new entity.

The merger of the two companies' divisions, expected to gain Federal Trade Commission (FTC) approval soon, has already been signed off by European Commission and Japan Fair Trade regulators and is expected to close by the end of the year, IBM officials said.

IBM has been edging closer to its prediction to cram 100 gigabits per square inch on HDD's by 2003; today's announcement brings the company that much nearer its self-imposed goal.

Using a technology created in IBM labs -- a ruthenium (a precious metal akin to platinum) layer coated on the recording surface of the two disk drive platters to reduce HDD vibration -- and dubbed laminated Pixie Dust by engineers because of the dampening effects caused by the three-atom-thick buffer, IBM has been able to keep its lead in an area that has otherwise been unsuccessful.

Jim Porter, president of Disk/Trend, a Mountain View, Calif.-based disk drive industry research company, said IBM regains the lead in capacity taken away by Maxtor last month with the release of a 62 gigabit-per-square inch for 3.5-inch desktop drives.

"It's important that IBM keep up in their leadership in that area," he said. "IBM is a leader in only one area, in the 2.5-inch drives used for mobile computing. They are way behind the other leaders in other areas, such as the server drives and the drives used in desktops."

The new line of Travelstar HDD's come in three speeds, from the low-end 4200 rpm disk drives to the speedy 7200 rpm drives, which until today, were only available from IBM in its desktop models.

Only 9.5 mm in height, the Travelstar 80 GN has an 8 MB cache for performance stability and engineers claim the acoustics are four decibels quieter than previous Travelstar models.

According to IBM officials, the Travelstar GN 4200 rpm HDD will be available to vendors in January, with the 5400 rpm and 7200 rpm drives coming out later in the first quarter of 2003. The 4200 rpm model is original equipment manufacturer (OEM) priced at $158 for the 20 GB drive, $224 for the 40 GB and $420 for the 80 GB drives.

Porter said the 80 GB disk drives are something other drive makers have been unable to accomplish in the disk drives used for laptops. IBM's 80 GB 2.5-inch drives are two platters with 40 GB on each, with the Pixie Dust buffering the two. The rest of the industry, he said, is doing 30 GB per platter.

Which leads to the question, what's next for IBM's technology? According to its release, IBM was able to achieve a 100 percent boost in storage density by enhancing its Pixie Dust technology.

Logic dicates it is just a matter of sprinkling more of the dust between the two platters for even more high density achievement to reach the 100 gigabit goal. That's essentially what IBM researchers did to reach its current density, by adding another layer of Pixie Dust.

Kim Nguyen, IBM technology division spokesperson, said it's not just a matter of improving the ruthenium layer technology.

"We don't know what challenges lay ahead of us after reaching this milestone (at 70 gigabits per-square-inch)," she said. "There are other factors that affect density, such as adjusting the read/write head used by disk drives. When you compress more data onto a platter, you need something that will be able to read and write on that smaller medium."

For now, she said, IBM is focusing on rollout of its current product, the Travelstar GN. And, Nguyen said, it's not just for laptops anymore.

"People are using these disk drives in a variety of methods, not just in laptops and notebooks," she said. "I've seen them used in set-top boxes and external storage, so (companies) are finding a lot of ways to use these drives outside the pure computing environment."