The launch of Windows Vista, Microsoft's latest O/S, in the last quarter of this year may change the computing landscape. One of its intriguing features called ReadyDrive requires the use of hybrid drives. Strictly speaking, this technology centaur is half hard disk drive (HDD), and half solid state disk (SSD) drive. Aiming to exploit the best of both worlds, hybrid drives consists of a rotating magnetic platter for storage, and a non-volatile flash memory chip for caching.

Vista’s endorsement is exciting but it's human nature not to trust strange disk drives. The tricky part is getting users acquainted with SSDs to care enough about hybrid drives. The half of the pair presents no problem. Almost everyone is familiar with HDDs – its form factor, RPM, and storage capacity – that it's almost like household furniture. While people can readily identify HDDs, they have difficulty defining SSDs. This limited knowledge of SSDs may be attributed to the fact that it is distributed to the consumer market in small doses.

Flash memory-based storage devices have permeated commercial electronic stalls in the form of thumb drives, storage chips for digital cameras, MP3/MP4 players, and mobile phones, and memory cards for PDA and handheld computers. It comes in all these forms but SSD still doesn’t ring a bell, does it?

Here's one scenario: let’s say Tom buys a digital camera and is overjoyed with his 1 GB flash disk memory…he tirelessly browses the Internet for tricks and tweaks he can do with his professional 'digicam', he combs stores for lenses, he deliberates what tripod and carry case to use… but wait, does he take time to read up on his 1GB flash disk? At most, he will skim through a review on it but the typical answer would be 'No'. As an average user, Tom is more concerned with the functionality of his digital camera than the wonder that is his 1GB flash disk memory.

Imagine the same scenes playing out with Dick's brand new mobile phone and Harry’s latest PDA. If Tom, Dick, and Harry don't even bother to seek out information on their newly acquired flash disk memory, how can they ever encounter the acronym SSD? How will they learn more about this amazing technology? Surely, a lot of people are guilty of doing what Tom, Dick and Harry did.

In today’s technological arena, SSDs are more commonly used as storage solution for defense, enterprise, and other market segments that are willing to pay premium. These industries are exposed to high-risk environmental conditions and have significant storage speed, reliability and endurance demands. As such, it is easily ignored by the consumer electronics industry whose users are happy just to get the computer work on applications such as word processing, spreadsheets and Internet surfing.

The induction of hybrid drives via Vista is an opportunity for SSD to go beyond its widely accepted minor role and play a more prominent part in daily computing. As one half dedicated storage in hybrid drives even if only for caching scraps of data, the storage capacity of SSD drives has been expanded so that it cannot be missed. Even Tom, Dick and Harry will be interested to know just what this 16GB chunk of flash drive is up to – what is it? What does it do? How can it do that?

Once these questions are answered, users are not only more educated about SSDs, but the superior points of SSD have also been unveiled – all thanks to the arrival of these dichotomous drives.

What is it? SSDs have been around and available for almost twenty years. Several industries rely on the technology for storage drives because it is faster, more reliable, and rugged. It can read and write data in microseconds and that’s 1,000 times faster than 1 millisecond! The chances of it failing are kept to a minimum. It can withstand extreme weather conditions. The absence of moving parts also eliminates noise, heat, and weight compared to HDDs. Some of today’s most popular electronic devices, as mentioned earlier, use SSDs.

Hybrid drives plan to use a flash-based SSD to store immediate data for quicker processing. When used in hybrid drives, SSDs act as temporary storage for write data, significant read data, frequently accessed applications and files, and any disk sector that requires quick retrieval. Because all needed data are easily accessible in the cache, much of the user’s waiting time, either for storing and executing files, is removed.

How can it do that?

The idea is to fill up the flash disk while the HDD is at rest. It is only when the flash disk is fully loaded that the HDD wakes up and spins so that the data from the flash disk can be transferred and stored. This simple mechanism makes possible a myriad of advantages for computer users, especially for notebook users.

Hybrid drives promise to shorten boot up and shut down times, prolong battery life (for notebooks), reduce energy consumption and overheating, speed up overall performance, and get rid of some noise.

After Vista's release, the notion that SSD drives only come in bite sizes can be broken. Thanks to hybrid drives, SSDs now have one leg in the storage mainstream market. These duplex drives may very well dominate the scene once Microsoft piles them on the racks. However, their reign may not last for long. Future iterations of SSD technology target high capacity at low cost – possibly leading to pure-play SSD notebook computers. Indeed some have already been announced in the ultra mobile category with 32GB SSDs.

With Vista giving users the option of using hybrid drives, no one can deny that a slice of the SSD experience has also been tossed to the eager consumer market, and a door has been opened to SSD drives where its other leg is just waiting to step in. The idea of SSDs as storage option even for your typical desktop/notebook user has been sneaked in along with Vista, and time will tell when this dream will be realized. It is true what they say: there is no way to go but up and further, to the next big and better thing. It is just a matter of time before SSD drives become just one more accepted storage option.