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CHALLENGING HARD DRIVE SPEED, BUT NOT VALUE

The hard-disc drive is so common that most computer users take it for granted. But now it has a challenger for its role as the principal storage device. It's called the solid-state drive, or SSD, and it has begun to show up in some big-name notebook computers.

Solid-state drives have some key advantages. Because they lack moving parts, they are faster, draw less power, are harder to damage and are quieter. Unfortunately, today's early versions of SSDs for laptops have two big drawbacks: They offer much lower capacity and have much higher prices.

On the new Apple MacBook Air ultrathin laptop, the HDD version costs $1,799 and stores 80 gigabytes. The SSD version costs $2,798, but stores less - just 64 gigabytes. On the Toshiba Portege R500 subnotebook, the basic hard drive version costs $1,999 and stores 120 gigabytes. The cheapest SSD version is $2,699 and also stores just 64 gigabytes.

Despite these limitations, I believe SSDs are likely to become more popular as capacities increase and prices drop. Samsung, which makes the 64-gigabyte SSDs in the Apple and the Toshiba, has announced an SSD with twice the capacity that costs much less per gigabyte.

I've been testing the SSD models of the Portege R500 and the MacBook Air. For the small slice of users who are deeply worried about hard disc failures, it may be worth it to pay a huge premium. Because SSDs aren't subject to mechanical failures, your data is probably safer.

I focused on comparing the hard drive and SSD models. Would the SSD make a difference in speed and in battery life?

To measure battery life, I conducted my usual harsh test, where I turn off all power-saving software, set screen brightness to maximum, turn on the Wi-Fi and play an endless loop of music.

In this test, the SSD made little difference in the MacBook Air. The SSD MacBook gave me just five more minutes. Apple says this is because its hard drive model uses a low-power drive.

On the Portege R500, my first battery test with the SSD model yielded far less battery life than the hard drive model: Toshiba ships the base SSD model with a battery with half of the capacity. When I swapped in the normal battery, which costs $117 extra, the SSD model gave me an added 1 hour and 21 minutes of battery life, about a 36 percent increase. That would translate to nearly 2.5 hours in more normal usage. It may be worth the huge price premium for some folks.

On both laptops, the SSD was faster than the HDD models. The SSD version of the Apple booted from a cold start and rebooted with several programs running, about 40 percent faster. But the gain isn't impressive as it seems because the hard drive versions booted up in less than a minute and rebooted in just a little more than a minute. On the Toshiba, running Windows XP, the SSD model knocked about 40 seconds off a cold boot time on the HDD version of 2 minutes and 7 seconds. On my reboot test, starting with programs running, the SSD model was 80 seconds faster. I imagine with the slow-booting Vista, the improvements might be meaningful.

The SSD is promising, but now is not the time for most users to buy it.

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