Skip navigation
Electronic Design

Hard Times Ahead For Hard Drives—And The People Who Depend On Them

My PC dependency really hit me hard when my home desktop and my laptop simultaneously decided to go belly-up. While I'm pretty beholden to our IT experts at the office, at home, I'm the help desk. I've been scrambling to try to resuscitate both machines, particularly since my kids completely rely

on the PC and the Internet for school projects. Things were so unstable, I nagged the kids to save frequently onto USB sticks. That way, anticipating the next crash, at least their current work would be salvageable.

As much as I hate to throw in the towel, I'm ready to take the machines into the shop and plead for help. But when it comes to hard-disk recovery, I'm afraid the prognosis won't be bright. In fact, my errant PC experiences have got me thinking about Digital Technology Editor Daniel Harris' recent article forecasting PCs without hard drives (see "Mainstream Magnetic Storage Gets The Boot").

Laptops without hard drives have been in the news as the One Laptop Per Child project (OLPC, also known as "the $100 laptop") becomes reality, bringing computers to kids in the developing world. Prototypes of the laptop, the "XO," are now up and running, with production runs expected later this year.

OLPC chairman Nicholas Negroponte has marketed the XO directly to ministries of education, which will "distribute them like textbooks." He has said full production will begin when orders hit 5 million units. Libya's recent order for 1.2 million XOs follows on 1 million-unit orders from Brazil, Argentina, Nigeria, and Thailand, bringing that magic number into view.

Negroponte, former head of MIT's Media Lab, says low costs are achieved by the high volumes and by "getting the fat out of the systems. Today's laptops have become obese. Two-thirds of their software is used to manage the other third, which mostly does the same functions nine different ways."

According to specs on the OLPC's Web site (, the XO is a Linux-based machine with a 7.5-in. dual-mode display—a full-color, transmissive DVD mode and a black-and-white sunlight-readable reflective option. It has a 366-MHz processor (an AMD Geode GX-500) and 128 Mbytes of DRAM, with 512 Mbytes of flash memory and three USB 2.0 ports.

The laptop also has built-in 802.11b/g Wi-Fi as well as mesh networking capabilities (developed at MIT) so each laptop can talk to its nearest neighbors. It has multimedia capabilities too, with an Analog Devices AD1888 audio decoder and a 640-by-480 resolution video camera.

Negroponte says the XOs can "do most everything, except store huge amounts of data." This might be a good thing in the long run. Considering all the music, photos, and documents I haven't backed up on my sickly PCs, I'm thankful for the decentralized backup I do have, like the gig in the Gigabeat music player and the 1-Gig card in the digital camera.

The storage paradigm is certainly shifting away from the PC. Video can be stored on a hard-disk recorder, music on the portable music player, and documents on the Internet via Google documents. Even business applications can "pay by the drink" and be hosted off site by Amazon Web Services.

Still, the PC remains the hub for all our digital systems, and nothing yet matches its ability to bridge applications and to multitask. If you want to take a break from your engineering design work and click over to check the price on your stock options (or, barring that, sports scores or perhaps some online shopping), the PC provides our window to the world.

To add a new option to your multitasking, and to further our mission as engineering educators, Penton Media's Design Engineering and Electronics OEM magazines present Engineering TV. You can access the latest episode from our home page at Or, go straight to to view episodes of your choosing or subscribe to an RSS feed.

With new segments produced semi-weekly, the goal of each 5minute episode is to take you "under the hood" for an engineer's perspective on projects like the OLPC (watch for an interview with Nicholas Negroponte) and other newsworthy technologies. This month, look for our reports from CES, including segments on Honda's ASIMO robot, the NextGen digital home, the latest Whirlpool connected refrigerator, and more.

TAGS: Components
Hide comments


  • Allowed HTML tags: <em> <strong> <blockquote> <br> <p>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.