With the appearance of solid state disk (SSD) technology in two of Dell's Latitude notebooks, SSD seems poised to become a mainstream storage technology. Although SSD has had a reputation as a costly and specialized technology, its availability in consumer- and business-user-targeted devices may make it more popular and affordable for general-purpose computing users.

SSD devices take physical RAM and package it so that RAM can interface directly with the hard-disk interface in users' computers. Traditionally, SSD's usage has been limited to a few vertical markets, where its lack of moving parts and its fast access speeds (compared with rotating disk drives) offset its higher price as compared with standard hard-disk drive technologies. Although other PC hardware vendors have recently started making SSD drives available in their business computers, Dell's announcement at the end of April marks the first release of consumer-focused SSD devices from a major US computer company.

Dell is offering a 32GB SSD drive--made by SanDisk--in two of its Latitude models, each of which focuses on a different user market segment. The first model is the Latitude 620 ATG. ATG stands for All Terrain Grade, which is Dell's name for a line of notebooks that are MIL-STD 810F certified (commonly called "ruggedized" notebooks). Dell's ATG models offer shock-mounted drives, LCD panels, and many other features that make the notebooks more usable outdoors and in environments that are less clean than an office. Although a shock-mounted disk comes standard in the Latitude 620 ATG, switching to the SSD device adds another level of reliability to the notebook. The SSD also comes with a substantial price tag, adding about $600 to the cost of the notebook, compared with one with a standard hard drive, and 50GB less storage than the standard drive. However, this is still a significant drop in price for a SSD device. Before Dell started offering a SSD in the Latitude notebook, SSD devices ranged from $1,500 to $10,000, depending upon size and purpose.

On the other end of the portable-computing spectrum, Dell is offering the same SSD device in its ultra-portable Latitude D420 notebook. In this environment, the additional reliability that the SSD offers over a standard hard drive is beneficial, but users will more likely notice the faster boot-up and application load times that the SSD enables--two key qualities that users require in ultra-portable notebooks. Adding an SSD to the Latitude D420 costs about $550 more than the cost of the standard 30GB hard drive.

When an SSD is in use, the computer's OS sees the SSD as a hard disk; no special drivers are needed to make it work, which avoids possible functionality problems. Users who need very fast disk storage will want to pay the price for it, leading the way for SSD devices to appear in a larger selection of computers. As the cost of memory chips continues to decline and production capacities increase, SSDs will continue to drop in price. Although SSDs are never likely to match the cost of rotating media, higher-capacity SSD devices should soon be available at lower prices, which should also help SSDs to become more widely used in the high-availability, high-performance server market.