Flash memory as applied to MP3 players

Any display device needs content to play, be it audio, video, still images or text. It can receive them from the outside via a wired or wireless connection, or "carry" them with it. And although MP3 players often have the ability to receive FM radio, these devices have earned popularity primarily due to the ability to play content from the media.

Unsurprisingly, storage media have been key elements of digital players from the very beginning, and their capacity is one of their main characteristics. It is exactly what type of media is used in the device that is a classifying feature that refers it to one or another subclass, for example, flash players or CD-MP3 players.

The most basic characteristic can be called whether the memory is built into the device or whether removable media is used. The second category includes a very isolated, although interesting in the recent past, segment of CD-MP3 players. Also devices with removable media can be called players that support memory cards. There are also hybrid devices that have both on-board memory and support for removable media, in this case, removable media - memory cards or drives connected via a USB host. Devices that combine built-in memory and the ability to read CD / DVD discs have not received distribution.

However, most modern players fall into the category of devices with built-in memory. This situation is often criticized, users complain about the narrowness of the supply of devices that support removable memory, the lack of high-quality devices with this feature.

As already mentioned in our materials, a large amount of memory on board is one of the few clear advantages of digital players over competing products, PDAs and cell phones. MP3 players also offer the lowest cost per megabyte of built-in memory among portable devices.

All the latest developments in the field of portable information storage - larger flash memory chips, new form factor hard drives - are first sent to serve in the bowels of digital players. This is a rare situation in the context of the fact that the modern industry primarily serves the interests of mobile phone/smartphone manufacturers.

Changes in this direction are rather slow, the example of Nokia's Nseries, more precisely, the N91 model, is typical. The first version of N91 in 2005 and the second one in 2006 belonged to the manufacturer to the category of the most advanced devices, flagships, top music smartphones. One of their characteristics, which, according to Nokia, allows them to be classified as such, is a large amount of on-board memory "in the face" of the built-in microhard drive. It seemed that such a product with a similar cost should be equipped with microdrives of the maximum available capacity. However, neither in 2005 nor in 2006 did this happen: the first version received 4 gigabytes of internal memory, although there were already players on microdrives with 6 GB on the market, the second is equipped with 8 GB, although 12-gigabyte players are already being prepared for sale. All this, not to mention the price: the 12 GB player will be offered in Europe for the equivalent of $290, while the N91 8 GB will cost around $700.

TrekstorVibez is far behind NokiaN91 in most parameters (including, of course, in price), but not in terms of memory (12 GB versus 8)

This shows that, despite the serious progress of musical cellular devices over the past two years, the players somehow continue to hold the palm in memory capacity, as they have done for the past eight years.

History

The first MP3 players appeared in 1998, they were MPMan F10 from Korean SaeHan and Rio PMP300 from American Diamond. Both of these devices had built-in memory, more specifically, NAND flash memory, which will continue to play a leading role in the development of this market in the future.

The flash memory technology itself was developed by Toshiba engineers back in 1989. Its revolutionary nature was, first of all, in energy independence: unlike conventional memory, it did not need power to store information. In the early years of its life, the main area of ​​​​use of flash memory was the storage of small amounts of program code, various software settings, for example, a computer BIOS.

Later, new technology began to be used to store information, the first memory cards appeared. So, Smart Media cards, developed in 1995, in the year 1998, when the first MP3 players appeared, were already a relatively common product.

Therefore, it is not surprising that flash memory was used in the first models of MP3 players. Despite the fact that the flash at that time had an insignificant volume (32 MB) by today's standards and the highest cost, even then it was obvious that it was the most suitable candidate for the role of built-in memory for portable devices.

Although at certain stages of market development, flash memory has been "overshadowed" by other formats - CD-MP3, hard drives - it has always held a large part of the market. Flash players could have an insignificant amount of memory compared to competitors, but they "took" other advantages. Flash memory also showed a much higher rate of development, crowding out competing formats one by one.

Variations

Player developers had to choose between two main types of flash memory: NAND and NOR. The choice fell on NAND, because. this technology is more suitable for storing a large number of files of a significant size, deleting them regularly, writing new ones.

NOR-memory, due to its high reliability and read speed, and short access time, is more suitable for storing the program code of an MP3 player. Therefore, a high-quality MP3 player always has a small amount of NOR-memory for storing the firmware in the form of a separate chip or built into the main microcircuit.

Cheap players, as well as many mid-range devices, often store their firmware in shared NAND-memory, usually in a specially isolated area of ​​it. This not only slightly reduces the amount of memory available to the user, but also forces the NAND chips to perform functions for which it was not designed. Because of this, the areas of memory occupied by the firmware tend to degrade, as a result of which the device may fail. This makes many inexpensive flash players less reliable.

Sigamtel's 34th and 35th generation chips do not have on-board NOR memory to store firmware, so most players based on them store their firmware in the player's main memory

NAND flash, in turn, has two varieties: SLC (Single Layer Cell, single-level cell) and MLC (Multiple Layer Cell, multi-level cell). The difference between them, roughly speaking, is that one cell stores one bit of information in SLC, and two bits in MLC. Due to this, the information density in MLC is higher, so MLC chips are: 1) cheaper, 2) offer more memory. It would seem that MLC is definitely better than SLC, but not everything is so simple. MLC pays for increased capacity: 1) lower access speed, 2) shorter service life. The access speed of the MLC is about two times lower, the service life is ten times lower. Many manufacturers have noticed that a seemingly small difference in speed often leads to a significant loss in performance, for example, during player loading, especially with a large number of files, the player starts to load unacceptably long. Therefore, MLC memory is used only as a last resort today if SLC is not available or affordable. Despite this, the MLC technology itself is considered very progressive, its disadvantages are childhood diseases, and the main memory manufacturers are increasing its production.

Who knows, maybe in a year or two SLC memory will remain only in High-End players (diagram from Toshiba)

Suppliers

Major flash memory manufacturers include: Samsung, Toshiba with Sandisk, Hynix.

NAND-flash vendor breakdown (2005)

Samsung plays the first fiddle here with over 50% of the market (2005). The company has bet heavily on flash memory technology, which is to its semiconductor business what microprocessors are to Intel. It is no coincidence that it was Samsung that formulated the "Moore's law for flash memory", according to which the capacity of flash chips should double annually. To achieve this, the company continuously improves the process, develops and implements new technologies. Her latest achievement is the so-called. Charge Trap Technology, which Samsung considers its greatest achievement since the invention of flash memory in 1989. This technology should be a pass for flash chips to the world of 30- and 20-nanometer processes, which should allow Samsung's "Moore's law" to work without failures for at least another two to three years.

Moore's Law in action

The priority importance of flash for Samsung was shown by the situation with Apple in 2005. Then the American company signed a contract for the purchase of a huge amount of flash at a price almost two times lower than the market price. And although this deal hit both Samsung's compatriots, Korean MP3 producers, and Samsung's own MP3 business, the interests of the flash division turned out to be more important. This deal not only gave Apple a huge price advantage, but it also created a severe shortage of high-capacity memory in the market, driving up prices and putting everyone else in a tough spot. As a result, the alliance between Samsung and Apple attracted the attention of the antitrust authorities, and although no punitive measures followed, the emerging alliance between them was disrupted. Despite the fact that today the companies continue to actively cooperate, Americans prefer not to tempt fate and purchase memory not only from Samsung, but also from Hynix and other suppliers.

In the second generation of nano we see memory from Hynix

Flash memory inventor Toshiba is seriously behind the Koreans, having a share of about 19% in 2005 (28% if you add the share of its partner, American Sandisk). The Japanese company prefers to focus on MLC chips, offering cheaper solutions with higher recording density, which are in demand mainly in memory cards.

Hynix is ​​just trying to follow Samsung's footsteps. In 2005, its share was about 13%. However, Hynix memory is more common in MP3 players than Toshiba's chips. most of the Korean company's products are SLC chips.

We can talk about the following order of preferences of player manufacturers: in the first place is the memory from Samsung, in the second - Hynix, if neither one nor the other could be obtained, Toshiba will do.

Flash memory from Samsung even installs Sandisk in its players (albeit along with memory of its own production)

A new ambitious player in the market is the joint venture between Intel and Micron, IM Flash. Apple also had a hand in the formation of this alliance, interested in increasing the number of memory suppliers. The resources behind the company allow it to hope to enter the top three in the near future, displacing passive Hynix from there, and even fight for second place with Toshiba.

Pros

The vast majority of MP3 players produced today are based on flash memory. And its share continues to grow, so, in comparison with 2005, the supply of players on flash memory increased by 214% (in monetary terms), while the supply of HDD players fell by 12%. Now we can talk about about 90-95% of the share of players on flash memory and 5-10% of the share of HDD players (in quantitative terms).

The dominance of flash memory in the market is due to the presence of a number of advantages that make it the most successful choice for portable equipment:

  • Small sizes
  • Lower system integration cost
  • Low Power
  • Missing mechanical parts
  • High access speed

Small sizes. Today, players use flash memory chips in the so-called. TSOP form factor. They measure 12 (length) by 20 (width) by 0.5 (thickness) mm. Obviously, for any other currently available type of memory, such dimensions are unattainable, here the flash has absolute leadership. For consumer products, expensive, fashionable, in which design is of great importance, this is an advantage that cannot be underestimated. This is especially true for fashionable "thin" solutions, flash memory is the only option here.

TSOPNAND flash module close-up

Such a small size of a single chip opens up the possibility of placing several chips for maximum total volume. So, in the volume of a modern microhard drive, at least six flash microcircuits with strapping can be accommodated - today this can total 24 GB of memory.

Prototype flash drives (SSD, SolidStateDisk) contain so many chips

However, in practice, they are usually limited to one or two chips. Players, for which miniaturization is important, usually cost a single chip, and therefore they have to limit themselves to half the amount of memory. Most of the players on the market are medium and large models that can carry two flash chips. It is worth mentioning that when using multiple flash chips, they must all be of the same capacity, which limits manufacturers in terms of flexibility in terms of increasing memory capacity.

In principle, the control chip and the player's firmware do not care how much memory is installed in the device. This makes it possible to upgrade - replacing the memory chip with a more capacious one. The creators of the first MP3 player Mpman F20 offered such a service - for a fee, they could double the amount of built-in memory of the player, from 32 to 64 MB. Unfortunately, this good initiative was not supported by the industry, and independent memory expansion is not available to the vast majority of users: you need special soldering equipment, skills, and flash memory chips are not easy to get on the free market.

Theoretically, flash memory chips can be smaller. Thus, promising Samsung OneNAND modules for mobile phones are 10 by 13 by 0.8-1.4 mm in size, containing, in addition to the actual NAND memory, also a certain amount of NOR and conventional volatile SRAM. But at present, the size of a standard TSOP chip suits the industry quite well.

The small volume that the flash memory chip occupies along with the entire strapping, among other things, provides much more opportunities for the creativity of designers, its size does not limit their imagination when designing flash players. This nuance, which at first glance seems to be a plus, in reality prevents the flash player from finding its own face, its own image. Unlike HDD players, which quickly took on a common design motif, flash players today come in almost every shape and size.

How similar are HDD players from different companies and how different are flash players

Lower system integration costs. The modern industry of single-chip solutions works mainly in the interests of flash players, which are much more produced, especially in quantitative terms. A proven platform, like Sigamtel, which combines everything that is needed for an MP3 player on one chip, simply does not exist for HDD analogs. Stupidly connecting a hard drive player to a flash-optimized platform will bring many problems, including unsatisfactory high power consumption.

To create a cheap flash player, two chips are enough: a memory and a processor

Therefore, platforms for HDD players are much less integrated. USB controller, digital-to-analog converter, power management, as a rule, have to be implemented by separate microcircuits, this is not counting the buffer from RAM, flash microcircuits for storing firmware. As a result, such a platform flies a pretty penny.

Flash players don't have this problem, on the contrary, the minimum cost of all the "strapping" required to create a flash player has already dropped below five dollars.

Low power consumption. Flash memory is non-volatile and, like hard drives, only needs power during read/write operations. Flash chips do not have the power consumption factors that are present in hard drives, such as a motor for rotating platters, a head drive. As a result, they are much more economical. In general, we can talk about at least a 10-fold difference in power consumption in favor of flash memory.

This doesn't mean, however, that flash players last 10 times longer than their hard drive counterparts, because the energy used to work with memory is only a small part of the total power consumption of an MP3 player. In addition, hard disk players have a buffer of standard volatile memory (RAM), and its power consumption is about half that of flash.

Apple's iPod mini and iPod nano are good examples. Both devices are built on similar processors, but the first has a built-in memory - 6 GB microdrive (we are talking about the second generation mini), and the second has flash. The first works 18 hours from a 630 mAh battery, the second - 14 hours from a 330 mAh battery. After simple calculations, we get about 35% difference in power consumption in favor of flash memory. You can conditionally build on this figure when comparing the power consumption of flash memory and microhard drives; for hard drives of the form factor 1.8 and 2.5 inches, it will be even higher.

The developer can use this gain in economy at his own discretion. It can leave a powerful battery and achieve high run time. But even more tempting is to take a battery of smaller capacity and smaller size. Combined with the miniature size of the flash itself, this allows for extremely compact solutions. Apple made a bet on this and did not lose.

No mechanical parts. The lack of mechanical parts of flash memory owes most of its advantages, in particular:

  • high drop and shock resistance
  • noiseless, no vibration
  • no heating

All these are very important consumer characteristics. Silent, non-vibrating, non-heating flash players are much more in line with the image of high-end devices, “devices of the future”, than noisy, crackling and heating HDD players. The latter does not add points and their lower reliability, that they are “terrible to drop”. Of course, everything that has just been written about hard disk players is a stereotype; for modern devices, many of these problems are no longer relevant. But stereotypes are tenacious.

Immediately after the release, iPodnano underwent a crash test, which revealed its high survivability compared to mini (photo from arstechnica.com)

High access speed. High access speed makes flash memory related to standard RAM, both types of memory are non-mechanical, access to information in them occurs at a very high speed, thousands of times faster than for hard drives. This is fundamental enough to store program code, which is why hard disk players are always equipped with flash memory chips to store firmware. But as regards the storage of actual data, content, the advantages of high memory access speed in flash players are hardly noticeable here. For all typical operations, the speed of the hard disk is enough.

Disadvantages

Naturally, flash memory is not ideal, otherwise it would take not 90, but all 100 percent of the market. Its disadvantages include:

  • Relatively high cost per megabyte
  • Relatively small maximum volume
  • Limited lifetime

The cost of flash memory is dropping at a tremendous rate, sometimes 3-4 times a year, but despite this, it is still the most expensive type of memory on a per megabyte basis.

Dynamics of exchange prices for 1 GB of flash memory from August 2005 to August 2006

On the other hand, today flash memory is the only memory type available in 2GB, 1GB, 512MB, 256MB or less. And if you measure the cost not relatively, but absolutely, then it is flash memory that will be the champion in terms of cheapness - players with its minimum volume cost just a penny, unattainable for HDD analogs.

Media

Average cost per GB ($)

Flash memory as applied to MP3 players

Any display device needs content to play, be it audio, video, still images or text. It can receive them from the outside via a wired or wireless connection, or "carry" them with it. And although MP3 players often have the ability to receive FM radio, these devices have earned popularity primarily due to the ability to play content from the media.

Unsurprisingly, storage media have been key elements of digital players from the very beginning, and their capacity is one of their main characteristics. It is exactly what type of media is used in the device that is a classifying feature that refers it to one or another subclass, for example, flash players or CD-MP3 players.

The most basic characteristic can be called whether the memory is built into the device or whether removable media is used. The second category includes a very isolated, although interesting in the recent past, segment of CD-MP3 players. Also devices with removable media can be called players that support memory cards. There are also hybrid devices that have both on-board memory and support for removable media, in this case, removable media - memory cards or drives connected via a USB host. Devices that combine built-in memory and the ability to read CD / DVD discs have not received distribution.

However, most modern players fall into the category of devices with built-in memory. This situation is often criticized, users complain about the narrowness of the supply of devices that support removable memory, the lack of high-quality devices with this feature.

As already mentioned in our materials, a large amount of memory on board is one of the few clear advantages of digital players over competing products, PDAs and cell phones. MP3 players also offer the lowest cost per megabyte of built-in memory among portable devices.

All the latest developments in the field of portable information storage - larger flash memory chips, new form factor hard drives - are first sent to serve in the bowels of digital players. This is a rare situation in the context of the fact that the modern industry primarily serves the interests of mobile phone/smartphone manufacturers.

Changes in this direction are rather slow, the example of Nokia's Nseries, more precisely, the N91 model, is typical. The first version of N91 in 2005 and the second one in 2006 belonged to the manufacturer to the category of the most advanced devices, flagships, top music smartphones. One of their characteristics, which, according to Nokia, allows them to be classified as such, is a large amount of on-board memory "in the face" of the built-in microhard drive. It seemed that such a product with a similar cost should be equipped with microdrives of the maximum available capacity. However, neither in 2005 nor in 2006 did this happen: the first version received 4 gigabytes of internal memory, although there were already players on microdrives with 6 GB on the market, the second is equipped with 8 GB, although 12-gigabyte players are already being prepared for sale. All this, not to mention the price: the 12 GB player will be offered in Europe for the equivalent of $290, while the N91 8 GB will cost around $700.

TrekstorVibez is far behind NokiaN91 in most parameters (including, of course, in price), but not in terms of memory (12 GB versus 8)

This shows that, despite the serious progress of musical cellular devices over the past two years, the players somehow continue to hold the palm in memory capacity, as they have done for the past eight years.

History

The first MP3 players appeared in 1998, they were MPMan F10 from Korean SaeHan and Rio PMP300 from American Diamond. Both of these devices had built-in memory, more specifically, NAND flash memory, which will continue to play a leading role in the development of this market in the future.

The flash memory technology itself was developed by Toshiba engineers back in 1989. Its revolutionary nature was, first of all, in energy independence: unlike conventional memory, it did not need power to store information. In the early years of its life, the main area of ​​​​use of flash memory was the storage of small amounts of program code, various software settings, for example, a computer BIOS.

Later, new technology began to be used to store information, the first memory cards appeared. So, Smart Media cards, developed in 1995, in the year 1998, when the first MP3 players appeared, were already a relatively common product.

Therefore, it is not surprising that flash memory was used in the first models of MP3 players. Despite the fact that the flash at that time had an insignificant volume (32 MB) by today's standards and the highest cost, even then it was obvious that it was the most suitable candidate for the role of built-in memory for portable devices.

Although at certain stages of market development, flash memory has been "overshadowed" by other formats - CD-MP3, hard drives - it has always held a large part of the market. Flash players could have an insignificant amount of memory compared to competitors, but they "took" other advantages. Flash memory also showed a much higher rate of development, crowding out competing formats one by one.

Variations

Player developers had to choose between two main types of flash memory: NAND and NOR. The choice fell on NAND, because. this technology is more suitable for storing a large number of files of a significant size, deleting them regularly, writing new ones.

NOR-memory, due to its high reliability and read speed, and short access time, is more suitable for storing the program code of an MP3 player. Therefore, a high-quality MP3 player always has a small amount of NOR-memory for storing the firmware in the form of a separate chip or built into the main microcircuit.

Cheap players, as well as many mid-range devices, often store their firmware in shared NAND-memory, usually in a specially isolated area of ​​it. This not only slightly reduces the amount of memory available to the user, but also forces the NAND chips to perform functions for which it was not designed. Because of this, the areas of memory occupied by the firmware tend to degrade, as a result of which the device may fail. This makes many inexpensive flash players less reliable.

Sigamtel's 34th and 35th generation chips do not have on-board NOR memory to store firmware, so most players based on them store their firmware in the player's main memory

NAND flash, in turn, has two varieties: SLC (Single Layer Cell, single-level cell) and MLC (Multiple Layer Cell, multi-level cell). The difference between them, roughly speaking, is that one cell stores one bit of information in SLC, and two bits in MLC. Due to this, the information density in MLC is higher, so MLC chips are: 1) cheaper, 2) offer more memory. It would seem that MLC is definitely better than SLC, but not everything is so simple. MLC pays for increased capacity: 1) lower access speed, 2) shorter service life. The access speed of the MLC is about two times lower, the service life is ten times lower. Many manufacturers have noticed that a seemingly small difference in speed often leads to a significant loss in performance, for example, during player loading, especially with a large number of files, the player starts to load unacceptably long. Therefore, MLC memory is used only as a last resort today if SLC is not available or affordable. Despite this, the MLC technology itself is considered very progressive, its disadvantages are childhood diseases, and the main memory manufacturers are increasing its production.

Who knows, maybe in a year or two SLC memory will remain only in High-End players (diagram from Toshiba)

Suppliers

Major flash memory manufacturers include: Samsung, Toshiba with Sandisk, Hynix.

NAND-flash manufacturers ranking (2005)

Samsung plays the first fiddle here with over 50% of the market (2005). The company has bet heavily on flash memory technology, which is to its semiconductor business what microprocessors are to Intel. It is no coincidence that it was Samsung that formulated the "Moore's law for flash memory", according to which the capacity of flash chips should double annually. To achieve this, the company continuously improves the process, develops and implements new technologies. Her latest achievement is the so-called. Charge Trap Technology, which Samsung considers its greatest achievement since the invention of flash memory in 1989. This technology should be a pass for flash chips to the world of 30- and 20-nanometer processes, which should allow Samsung's "Moore's law" to work without failures for at least another two to three years.

Moore's Law in action

The priority importance of flash for Samsung was shown by the situation with Apple in 2005. Then the American company signed a contract for the purchase of a huge amount of flash at a price almost two times lower than the market price. And although this deal hit both Samsung's compatriots, Korean MP3 producers, and Samsung's own MP3 business, the interests of the flash division turned out to be more important. This deal not only gave Apple a huge price advantage, but it also created a severe shortage of high-capacity memory in the market, driving up prices and putting everyone else in a tough spot. As a result, the alliance between Samsung and Apple attracted the attention of the antitrust authorities, and although no punitive measures followed, the emerging alliance between them was disrupted. Despite the fact that today the companies continue to actively cooperate, Americans prefer not to tempt fate and purchase memory not only from Samsung, but also from Hynix and other suppliers.

In the second generation of nano we see memory from Hynix

Flash memory inventor Toshiba is seriously behind the Koreans, having a share of about 19% in 2005 (28% if you add the share of its partner, American Sandisk). The Japanese company prefers to focus on MLC chips, offering cheaper solutions with higher recording density, which are in demand mainly in memory cards.

Hynix is ​​just trying to follow Samsung's footsteps. In 2005, its share was about 13%. However, Hynix memory is more common in MP3 players than Toshiba's chips. most of the Korean company's products are SLC chips.

We can talk about the following order of preferences of player manufacturers: in the first place is the memory from Samsung, in the second - Hynix, if neither one nor the other could be obtained, Toshiba will do.

Flash memory from Samsung even installs Sandisk in its players (albeit along with memory of its own production)

A new ambitious player in the market is the joint venture between Intel and Micron, IM Flash. Apple also had a hand in the formation of this alliance, interested in increasing the number of memory suppliers. The resources behind the company allow it to hope to enter the top three in the near future, displacing passive Hynix from there, and even fight for second place with Toshiba.

Pros

The vast majority of MP3 players produced today are based on flash memory. And its share continues to grow, so, in comparison with 2005, the supply of players on flash memory increased by 214% (in monetary terms), while the supply of HDD players fell by 12%. Now we can talk about about 90-95% of players on flash memory and 5-10% of HDD players (in quantitative terms).

The dominance of flash memory in the market is due to the presence of a number of advantages that make it the most successful choice for portable equipment:

  • Small sizes
  • Lower system integration cost
  • Low Power
  • Missing mechanical parts
  • High access speed

Small sizes. Today, players use flash memory chips in the so-called. TSOP form factor. They measure 12 (length) by 20 (width) by 0.5 (thickness) mm. Obviously, for any other currently available type of memory, such dimensions are unattainable, here the flash has absolute leadership. For consumer products, expensive, fashionable, in which design is of great importance, this is an advantage that cannot be underestimated. This is especially true for trendy "thin" solutions, flash memory is the only option here.

TSOPNAND flash module close-up

Such a small size of a single chip opens up the possibility of placing several chips for maximum total volume. So, in the volume of a modern microhard drive, at least six flash microcircuits with strapping can be accommodated - today this can total 24 GB of memory.

Prototypes of flash drives (SSD, SolidStateDisk) contain so many chips

However, in practice, they are usually limited to one or two chips. Players, for which miniaturization is important, usually cost a single chip, and therefore they have to limit themselves to half the amount of memory. Most of the players on the market are medium and large models that can carry two flash chips. It is worth mentioning that when using multiple flash chips, they must all be of the same capacity, which limits manufacturers in terms of flexibility in terms of increasing memory capacity.

In principle, the control chip and the player's firmware do not care how much memory is installed in the device. This makes it possible to upgrade - replacing the memory chip with a more capacious one. The creators of the first MP3 player Mpman F20 offered such a service - for a fee, they could double the amount of built-in memory of the player, from 32 to 64 MB. Unfortunately, this good initiative was not supported by the industry, and independent memory expansion is not available to the vast majority of users: you need special soldering equipment, skills, and flash memory chips are not easy to get on the free market.

Theoretically, flash memory chips can be smaller. So, promising Samsung OneNAND modules for mobile phones are 10 by 13 by 0.8-1.4 mm in size, containing, in addition to the actual NAND memory, also a certain amount of NOR and conventional volatile SRAM. But at present, the size of a standard TSOP chip suits the industry quite well.

The small volume that the flash memory chip occupies along with the entire strapping, among other things, provides much more opportunities for the creativity of designers, its size does not limit their imagination when designing flash players. This nuance, which at first glance seems to be a plus, in reality prevents the flash player from finding its own face, its own image. Unlike HDD players, which quickly took on a common design motif, flash players today come in almost every shape and size.

How similar are HDD players from different companies and how different are flash players

Lower system integration costs. The modern industry of single-chip solutions works mainly in the interests of flash players, which are much more produced, especially in quantitative terms. A proven platform, like Sigamtel, which combines everything that is needed for an MP3 player on one chip, simply does not exist for HDD analogs. Stupidly connecting a hard drive player to a flash-optimized platform will bring many problems, including unsatisfactory high power consumption.

To create a cheap flash player, two chips are enough: a memory and a processor

Therefore, platforms for HDD players are much less integrated. USB controller, digital-to-analog converter, power management, as a rule, have to be implemented by separate microcircuits, this is not counting the buffer from RAM, flash microcircuits for storing firmware. As a result, such a platform flies a pretty penny.

Flash players don't have this problem, on the contrary, the minimum cost of all the "strapping" required to create a flash player has already dropped below five dollars.

Low power consumption. Flash memory is non-volatile and, like hard drives, only needs power during read/write operations. Flash chips do not have the power consumption factors that are present in hard drives, such as a motor for rotating platters, a head drive. As a result, they are much more economical. In general, we can talk about at least a 10-fold difference in power consumption in favor of flash memory.

This doesn't mean, however, that flash players last 10 times longer than their hard drive counterparts, because the energy used to work with memory is only a small part of the total power consumption of an MP3 player. In addition, hard disk players have a buffer of standard volatile memory (RAM), and its power consumption is about half that of flash.

Apple's iPod mini and iPod nano are good examples. Both devices are built on similar processors, but the first has a built-in memory - 6 GB microdrive (we are talking about the second generation mini), and the second has flash. The first works 18 hours from a 630 mAh battery, the second - 14 hours from a 330 mAh battery. After simple calculations, we get about 35% difference in power consumption in favor of flash memory. You can conditionally build on this figure when comparing the power consumption of flash memory and microhard drives; for hard drives of the form factor 1.8 and 2.5 inches, it will be even higher.

The developer can use this gain in economy at his own discretion. It can leave a powerful battery and achieve high run time. But even more tempting is to take a battery of smaller capacity and smaller size. Combined with the miniature size of the flash itself, this allows for extremely compact solutions. Apple made a bet on this and did not lose.

No mechanical parts. The lack of mechanical parts of flash memory owes most of its advantages, in particular:

  • high drop and shock resistance
  • noiseless, no vibration
  • no heating

All these are very important consumer characteristics. Silent, non-vibrating, non-heating flash players are much more in line with the image of high-end devices, “devices of the future”, than noisy, crackling and heating HDD players. The latter does not add points and their lower reliability, that they are “terrible to drop”. Of course, everything that has just been written about hard disk players is a stereotype; for modern devices, many of these problems are no longer relevant. But stereotypes are tenacious.

Immediately after the release, iPodnano underwent a crash test, which revealed its high survivability compared to mini (photo from arstechnica.com)

High access speed. High access speed makes flash memory related to standard RAM, both types of memory are non-mechanical, access to information in them occurs at a very high speed, thousands of times faster than for hard drives. This is fundamental enough to store program code, which is why hard disk players are always equipped with flash memory chips to store firmware. But as regards the storage of actual data, content, the advantages of high memory access speed in flash players are hardly noticeable here. For all typical operations, the speed of the hard disk is enough.

Disadvantages

Naturally, flash memory is not ideal, otherwise it would take not 90, but all 100 percent of the market. Its disadvantages include:

  • Relatively high cost per megabyte
  • Relatively small maximum volume
  • Limited lifetime

The cost of flash memory is dropping at a tremendous rate, sometimes 3-4 times a year, but despite this, it is still the most expensive type of memory on a per megabyte basis.

Dynamics of exchange prices for 1 GB of flash memory from August 2005 to August 2006

On the other hand, today flash memory is the only memory type available in 2GB, 1GB, 512MB, 256MB or less. And if you measure the cost not relatively, but absolutely, then it is flash memory that will be the champion in terms of cheapness - players with its minimum volume cost just a penny, unattainable for HDD analogs.

Media

Average cost per GB ($)

Flash memory as applied to MP3 players

Any display device needs content to play, be it audio, video, still images or text. It can receive them from the outside via a wired or wireless connection, or "carry" them with it. And although MP3 players often have the ability to receive FM radio, these devices have earned popularity primarily due to the ability to play content from the media.

Unsurprisingly, storage media have been key elements of digital players from the very beginning, and their capacity is one of their main characteristics. It is exactly what type of media is used in the device that is a classifying feature that refers it to one or another subclass, for example, flash players or CD-MP3 players.

The most basic characteristic can be called whether the memory is built into the device or whether removable media is used. The second category includes a very isolated, although interesting in the recent past, segment of CD-MP3 players. Also devices with removable media can be called players that support memory cards. There are also hybrid devices that have both on-board memory and support for removable media, in this case, removable media - memory cards or drives connected via a USB host. Devices that combine built-in memory and the ability to read CD / DVD discs have not received distribution.

However, most modern players fall into the category of devices with built-in memory. This situation is often criticized, users complain about the narrowness of the supply of devices that support removable memory, the lack of high-quality devices with this feature.

As already mentioned in our materials, a large amount of memory on board is one of the few clear advantages of digital players over competing products, PDAs and cell phones. MP3 players also offer the lowest cost per megabyte of built-in memory among portable devices.

All the latest developments in the field of portable information storage - larger flash memory chips, new form factor hard drives - are first sent to serve in the bowels of digital players. This is a rare situation in the context of the fact that the modern industry primarily serves the interests of mobile phone/smartphone manufacturers.

Changes in this direction are rather slow, the example of Nokia's Nseries, more precisely, the N91 model, is typical. The first version of N91 in 2005 and the second one in 2006 belonged to the manufacturer to the category of the most advanced devices, flagships, top music smartphones. One of their characteristics, which, according to Nokia, allows them to be classified as such, is a large amount of on-board memory "in the face" of the built-in microhard drive. It seemed that such a product with a similar cost should be equipped with microdrives of the maximum available capacity. However, neither in 2005 nor in 2006 did this happen: the first version received 4 gigabytes of internal memory, although there were already players on microdrives with 6 GB on the market, the second is equipped with 8 GB, although 12-gigabyte players are already being prepared for sale. All this, not to mention the price: the 12 GB player will be offered in Europe for the equivalent of $290, while the N91 8 GB will cost around $700.

TrekstorVibez is far behind NokiaN91 in most parameters (including, of course, in price), but not in terms of memory (12 GB versus 8)

This shows that, despite the serious progress of musical cellular devices over the past two years, the players somehow continue to hold the palm in memory capacity, as they have done for the past eight years.

History

The first MP3 players appeared in 1998, they were MPMan F10 from Korean SaeHan and Rio PMP300 from American Diamond. Both of these devices had built-in memory, more specifically, NAND flash memory, which will continue to play a leading role in the development of this market in the future.

The flash memory technology itself was developed by Toshiba engineers back in 1989. Its revolutionary nature was, first of all, in energy independence: unlike conventional memory, it did not need power to store information. In the early years of its life, the main area of ​​​​use of flash memory was the storage of small amounts of program code, various software settings, for example, a computer BIOS.

Later, new technology began to be used to store information, the first memory cards appeared. So, Smart Media cards, developed in 1995, in the year 1998, when the first MP3 players appeared, were already a relatively common product.

Therefore, it is not surprising that flash memory was used in the first models of MP3 players. Despite the fact that the flash at that time had an insignificant volume (32 MB) by today's standards and the highest cost, even then it was obvious that it was the most suitable candidate for the role of built-in memory for portable devices.

Although at certain stages of market development, flash memory has been "overshadowed" by other formats - CD-MP3, hard drives - it has always held a large part of the market. Flash players could have an insignificant amount of memory compared to competitors, but they "took" other advantages. Flash memory also showed a much higher rate of development, crowding out competing formats one by one.

Variations

Player developers had to choose between two main types of flash memory: NAND and NOR. The choice fell on NAND, because. this technology is more suitable for storing a large number of files of a significant size, deleting them regularly, writing new ones.

NOR-memory, due to its high reliability and read speed, and short access time, is more suitable for storing the program code of an MP3 player. Therefore, a high-quality MP3 player always has a small amount of NOR-memory for storing the firmware in the form of a separate chip or built into the main microcircuit.

Cheap players, as well as many mid-range devices, often store their firmware in shared NAND-memory, usually in a specially isolated area of ​​it. This not only slightly reduces the amount of memory available to the user, but also forces the NAND chips to perform functions for which it was not designed. Because of this, the areas of memory occupied by the firmware tend to degrade, as a result of which the device may fail. This makes many inexpensive flash players less reliable.

Sigamtel's 34th and 35th generation chips do not have on-board NOR memory to store firmware, so most players based on them store their firmware in the player's main memory

NAND flash, in turn, has two varieties: SLC (Single Layer Cell, single-level cell) and MLC (Multiple Layer Cell, multi-level cell). The difference between them, roughly speaking, is that one cell stores one bit of information in SLC, and two bits in MLC. Due to this, the information density in MLC is higher, so MLC chips are: 1) cheaper, 2) offer more memory. It would seem that MLC is definitely better than SLC, but not everything is so simple. MLC pays for increased capacity: 1) lower access speed, 2) shorter service life. The access speed of the MLC is about two times lower, the service life is ten times lower. Many manufacturers have noticed that a seemingly small difference in speed often leads to a significant loss in performance, for example, during player loading, especially with a large number of files, the player starts to load unacceptably long. Therefore, MLC memory is used only as a last resort today if SLC is not available or affordable. Despite this, the MLC technology itself is considered very progressive, its disadvantages are childhood diseases, and the main memory manufacturers are increasing its production.

Who knows, maybe in a year or two SLC memory will remain only in High-End players (diagram from Toshiba)

Suppliers

Major flash memory manufacturers include: Samsung, Toshiba with Sandisk, Hynix.

NAND-flash vendor breakdown (2005)

Samsung plays the first fiddle here with over 50% of the market (2005). The company has bet heavily on flash memory technology, which is to its semiconductor business what microprocessors are to Intel. It is no coincidence that it was Samsung that formulated the "Moore's law for flash memory", according to which the capacity of flash chips should double annually. To achieve this, the company continuously improves the process, develops and implements new technologies. Her latest achievement is the so-called. Charge Trap Technology, which Samsung considers its greatest achievement since the invention of flash memory in 1989. This technology should be a pass for flash chips to the world of 30- and 20-nanometer processes, which should allow Samsung's "Moore's law" to work without failures for at least another two to three years.

Moore's Law in action

The priority importance of flash for Samsung was shown by the situation with Apple in 2005. Then the American company signed a contract for the purchase of a huge amount of flash at a price almost two times lower than the market price. And although this deal hit both Samsung's compatriots, Korean MP3 producers, and Samsung's own MP3 business, the interests of the flash division turned out to be more important. This deal not only gave Apple a huge price advantage, but it also created a severe shortage of high-capacity memory in the market, driving up prices and putting everyone else in a tough spot. As a result, the alliance between Samsung and Apple attracted the attention of the antitrust authorities, and although no punitive measures followed, the emerging alliance between them was disrupted. Despite the fact that today the companies continue to actively cooperate, Americans prefer not to tempt fate and purchase memory not only from Samsung, but also from Hynix and other suppliers.

In the second generation of nano we see memory from Hynix

Flash memory inventor Toshiba is seriously behind the Koreans, having a share of about 19% in 2005 (28% if you add the share of its partner, American Sandisk). The Japanese company prefers to focus on MLC chips, offering cheaper solutions with higher recording density, which are in demand mainly in memory cards.

Hynix is ​​just trying to follow Samsung's footsteps. In 2005, its share was about 13%. However, Hynix memory is more common in MP3 players than Toshiba's chips. most of the Korean company's products are SLC chips.

We can talk about the following order of preferences of player manufacturers: in the first place is the memory from Samsung, in the second - Hynix, if neither one nor the other could be obtained, Toshiba will do.

Flash memory from Samsung even installs Sandisk in its players (albeit along with memory of its own production)

A new ambitious player in the market is the joint venture between Intel and Micron, IM Flash. Apple also had a hand in the formation of this alliance, interested in increasing the number of memory suppliers. The resources behind the company allow it to hope to enter the top three in the near future, displacing passive Hynix from there, and even fight for second place with Toshiba.

Pros

The vast majority of MP3 players produced today are based on flash memory. And its share continues to grow, so, in comparison with 2005, the supply of players on flash memory increased by 214% (in monetary terms), while the supply of HDD players fell by 12%. Now we can talk about about 90-95% of players on flash memory and 5-10% of HDD players (in quantitative terms).

The dominance of flash memory in the market is due to the presence of a number of advantages that make it the most successful choice for portable equipment:

  • Small sizes
  • Lower system integration cost
  • Low Power
  • Missing mechanical parts
  • High access speed

Small sizes. Today, players use flash memory chips in the so-called. TSOP form factor. They measure 12 (length) by 20 (width) by 0.5 (thickness) mm. Obviously, for any other currently available type of memory, such dimensions are unattainable, here the flash has absolute leadership. For consumer products, expensive, fashionable, in which design is of great importance, this is an advantage that cannot be underestimated. This is especially true for fashionable "thin" solutions, flash memory is the only option here.

TSOPNAND flash module close-up

Such a small size of a single chip opens up the possibility of placing several chips for maximum total volume. So, in the volume of a modern microhard drive, at least six flash microcircuits with strapping can be accommodated - today this can total 24 GB of memory.

Prototype flash drives (SSD, SolidStateDisk) contain so many chips

However, in practice, they are usually limited to one or two chips. Players, for which miniaturization is important, usually cost a single chip, and therefore they have to limit themselves to half the amount of memory. Most of the players on the market are medium and large models that can carry two flash chips. It is worth mentioning that when using multiple flash chips, they must all be of the same capacity, which limits manufacturers in terms of flexibility in terms of increasing memory capacity.

In principle, the control chip and the player's firmware do not care how much memory is installed in the device. This makes it possible to upgrade - replacing the memory chip with a more capacious one. The creators of the first MP3 player Mpman F20 offered such a service - for a fee, they could double the amount of built-in memory of the player, from 32 to 64 MB. Unfortunately, this good initiative was not supported by the industry, and independent memory expansion is not available to the vast majority of users: you need special soldering equipment, skills, and flash memory chips are not easy to get on the free market.

Theoretically, flash memory chips can be smaller. So, promising Samsung OneNAND modules for mobile phones are 10 by 13 by 0.8-1.4 mm in size, containing, in addition to the actual NAND memory, also a certain amount of NOR and conventional volatile SRAM. But at present, the size of a standard TSOP chip suits the industry quite well.

The small volume that the flash memory chip occupies along with the entire strapping, among other things, provides much more opportunities for the creativity of designers, its size does not limit their imagination when designing flash players. This nuance, which at first glance seems to be a plus, in reality prevents the flash player from finding its own face, its own image. Unlike HDD players, which quickly took on a common design motif, flash players today come in almost every shape and size.

How similar are HDD players from different companies and how different are flash players

Lower system integration costs. The modern industry of single-chip solutions works mainly in the interests of flash players, which are much more produced, especially in quantitative terms. A proven platform, like Sigamtel, which combines everything that is needed for an MP3 player on one chip, simply does not exist for HDD analogs. Stupidly connecting a hard drive player to a flash-optimized platform will bring many problems, including unsatisfactory high power consumption.

To create a cheap flash player, two chips are enough: a memory and a processor

Therefore, platforms for HDD players are much less integrated. USB controller, digital-to-analog converter, power management, as a rule, have to be implemented by separate microcircuits, this is not counting the buffer from RAM, flash microcircuits for storing firmware. As a result, such a platform flies a pretty penny.

Flash players don't have this problem, on the contrary, the minimum cost of all the "strapping" required to create a flash player has already dropped below five dollars.

Low power consumption. Flash memory is non-volatile and, like hard drives, only needs power during read/write operations. Flash chips do not have the power consumption factors that are present in hard drives, such as a motor for rotating platters, a head drive. As a result, they are much more economical. In general, we can talk about at least a 10-fold difference in power consumption in favor of flash memory.

This doesn't mean, however, that flash players last 10 times longer than their hard drive counterparts, because the energy used to work with memory is only a small part of the total power consumption of an MP3 player. In addition, hard disk players have a buffer of standard volatile memory (RAM), and its power consumption is about half that of flash.

Apple's iPod mini and iPod nano are good examples. Both devices are built on similar processors, but the first has a built-in memory - 6 GB microdrive (we are talking about the second generation mini), and the second has flash. The first works 18 hours from a 630 mAh battery, the second - 14 hours from a 330 mAh battery. After simple calculations, we get about 35% difference in power consumption in favor of flash memory. You can conditionally build on this figure when comparing the power consumption of flash memory and microhard drives; for hard drives of the form factor 1.8 and 2.5 inches, it will be even higher.

The developer can use this gain in economy at his own discretion. It can leave a powerful battery and achieve high run time. But even more tempting is to take a battery of smaller capacity and smaller size. Combined with the miniature size of the flash itself, this allows for extremely compact solutions. Apple made a bet on this and did not lose.

No mechanical parts. The lack of mechanical parts of flash memory owes most of its advantages, in particular:

  • high drop and shock resistance
  • noiseless, no vibration
  • no heating

All these are very important consumer characteristics. Silent, non-vibrating, non-heating flash players are much more in line with the image of high-end devices, “devices of the future”, than noisy, crackling and heating HDD players. The latter does not add points and their lower reliability, that they are “terrible to drop”. Of course, everything that has just been written about hard disk players is a stereotype; for modern devices, many of these problems are no longer relevant. But stereotypes are tenacious.

Immediately after the release, iPodnano underwent a crash test, which revealed its high survivability compared to mini (photo from arstechnica.com)

High access speed. High access speed makes flash memory related to standard RAM, both types of memory are non-mechanical, access to information in them occurs at a very high speed, thousands of times faster than for hard drives. This is fundamental enough to store program code, which is why hard disk players are always equipped with flash memory chips to store firmware. But as regards the storage of actual data, content, the advantages of high memory access speed in flash players are hardly noticeable here. For all typical operations, the speed of the hard disk is enough.

Disadvantages

Naturally, flash memory is not ideal, otherwise it would take not 90, but all 100 percent of the market. Its disadvantages include:

  • Relatively high cost per megabyte
  • Relatively small maximum volume
  • Limited lifetime

The cost of flash memory is dropping at a tremendous rate, sometimes 3-4 times a year, but despite this, it is still the most expensive type of memory on a per megabyte basis.

Dynamics of exchange prices for 1 GB of flash memory from August 2005 to August 2006

On the other hand, today flash memory is the only memory type available in 2GB, 1GB, 512MB, 256MB or less. And if you measure the cost not relatively, but absolutely, then it is flash memory that will be the champion in terms of cheapness - players with its minimum volume cost just a penny, unattainable for HDD analogs.

Media

Average cost per GB ($)

However, most modern players fall into the category of devices with built-in memory. This situation is often criticized, users complain about the narrowness of the supply of devices that support removable memory, the lack of high-quality devices with this feature.

As already mentioned in our materials, a large amount of memory on board is one of the few clear advantages of digital players over competing products, PDAs and cell phones. MP3 players also offer the lowest cost per megabyte of built-in memory among portable devices.

All the latest developments in the field of portable information storage - larger flash memory chips, new form factor hard drives - are first sent to serve in the bowels of digital players. This is a rare situation in the context of the fact that the modern industry primarily serves the interests of mobile phone/smartphone manufacturers.

Changes in this direction are rather slow, the example of Nokia's Nseries, more precisely, the N91 model, is typical. The first version of N91 in 2005 and the second one in 2006 belonged to the manufacturer to the category of the most advanced devices, flagships, top music smartphones. One of their characteristics, which, according to Nokia, allows them to be classified as such, is a large amount of on-board memory "in the face" of the built-in microhard drive. It seemed that such a product with a similar cost should be equipped with microdrives of the maximum available capacity. However, neither in 2005 nor in 2006 did this happen: the first version received 4 gigabytes of internal memory, although there were already players on microdrives with 6 GB on the market, the second is equipped with 8 GB, although 12-gigabyte players are already being prepared for sale. All this, not to mention the price: the 12 GB player will be offered in Europe for the equivalent of $290, while the N91 8 GB will cost around $700.

Later, new technology began to be used to store information, the first memory cards appeared. So, Smart Media cards, developed in 1995, in the year 1998, when the first MP3 players appeared, were already a relatively common product.

Therefore, it is not surprising that flash memory was used in the first models of MP3 players. Despite the fact that the flash at that time had an insignificant volume (32 MB) by today's standards and the highest cost, even then it was obvious that it was the most suitable candidate for the role of built-in memory for portable devices.

Although at certain stages of market development, flash memory has been "overshadowed" by other formats - CD-MP3, hard drives - it has always held a large part of the market. Flash players could have an insignificant amount of memory compared to competitors, but they "took" other advantages. Flash memory also showed a much higher rate of development, crowding out competing formats one by one.

Variations

Player developers had to choose between two main types of flash memory: NAND and NOR. The choice fell on NAND, because. this technology is more suitable for storing a large number of files of a significant size, deleting them regularly, writing new ones.

NOR-memory, due to its high reliability and read speed, and short access time, is more suitable for storing the program code of an MP3 player. Therefore, a high-quality MP3 player always has a small amount of NOR-memory for storing the firmware in the form of a separate chip or built into the main microcircuit.

Cheap players, as well as many mid-range devices, often store their firmware in shared NAND-memory, usually in a specially isolated area of ​​it. This not only slightly reduces the amount of memory available to the user, but also forces the NAND chips to perform functions for which it was not designed. Because of this, the areas of memory occupied by the firmware tend to degrade, as a result of which the device may fail. This makes many inexpensive flash players less reliable.

Sigamtel's 34th and 35th generation chips do not have built-in NOR memory for storing firmware, so most players based on them store their firmware in the player's main memory

Who knows, maybe in a year or two SLC memory will remain only in High-End players (diagram from Toshiba)

Suppliers

Major flash memory manufacturers include: Samsung, Toshiba with Sandisk, Hynix.

NAND-flash vendor breakdown (2005)

Samsung plays the first fiddle here with over 50% of the market (2005). The company has bet heavily on flash memory technology, which is to its semiconductor business what microprocessors are to Intel. It is no coincidence that it was Samsung that formulated the "Moore's law for flash memory", according to which the capacity of flash chips should double annually. To achieve this, the company continuously improves the process, develops and implements new technologies. Her latest achievement is the so-called. Charge Trap Technology, which Samsung considers its greatest achievement since the invention of flash memory in 1989. This technology should be a pass for flash chips to the world of 30- and 20-nanometer processes, which should allow Samsung's "Moore's law" to work without failures for at least another two to three years.

Moore's Law in action

The priority importance of flash for Samsung was shown by the situation with Apple in 2005. Then the American company signed a contract for the purchase of a huge amount of flash at a price almost two times lower than the market price. And although this deal hit both Samsung's compatriots, Korean MP3 producers, and Samsung's own MP3 business, the interests of the flash division turned out to be more important. This deal not only gave Apple a huge price advantage, but it also created a severe shortage of high-capacity memory in the market, driving up prices and putting everyone else in a tough spot. As a result, the alliance between Samsung and Apple attracted the attention of the antitrust authorities, and although no punitive measures followed, the emerging alliance between them was disrupted. Despite the fact that today the companies continue to actively cooperate, Americans prefer not to tempt fate and purchase memory not only from Samsung, but also from Hynix and other suppliers.

In the second generation of nano we see memory from Hynix

Flash memory inventor Toshiba is seriously behind the Koreans, having a share of about 19% in 2005 (28% if you add the share of its partner, American Sandisk). The Japanese company prefers to focus on MLC chips, offering cheaper solutions with higher recording density, which are in demand mainly in memory cards.

Hynix is ​​just trying to follow Samsung's footsteps. In 2005, its share was about 13%. However, Hynix memory is more common in MP3 players than Toshiba's chips. most of the Korean company's products are SLC chips.

We can talk about the following order of preferences of player manufacturers: in the first place is the memory from Samsung, in the second - Hynix, if neither one nor the other could be obtained, Toshiba will do.

Flash memory from Samsung even installs Sandisk in its players (albeit along with memory of its own production)

A new ambitious player in the market is the joint venture between Intel and Micron, IM Flash. Apple also had a hand in the formation of this alliance, interested in increasing the number of memory suppliers. The resources behind the company allow it to hope to enter the top three in the near future, displacing passive Hynix from there, and even fight for second place with Toshiba.

Pros

The vast majority of MP3 players produced today are based on flash memory. And its share continues to grow, so, in comparison with 2005, the supply of players on flash memory increased by 214% (in monetary terms), while the supply of HDD players fell by 12%. Now we can talk about about 90-95% of the share of players on flash memory and 5-10% of the share of HDD players (in quantitative terms).

The dominance of flash memory in the market is due to the presence of a number of advantages that make it the most successful choice for portable equipment:

  • Small sizes
  • Lower system integration cost
  • Low Power
  • Missing mechanical parts
  • High access speed

Small size. Today, players use flash memory chips in the so-called. TSOP form factor. They measure 12 (length) by 20 (width) by 0.5 (thickness) mm. Obviously, for any other currently available type of memory, such dimensions are unattainable, here the flash has absolute leadership. For consumer products, expensive, fashionable, in which design is of great importance, this is an advantage that cannot be underestimated. This is especially true for fashionable "thin" solutions, flash memory is the only option here.

TSOPNAND flash module close-up

Such a small size of a single chip opens up the possibility of placing several chips for maximum total volume. So, in the volume of a modern microhard drive, at least six flash microcircuits with strapping can be accommodated - today this can total 24 GB of memory.

Prototype flash drives (SSD, SolidStateDisk) contain so many chips

However, in practice, they are usually limited to one or two chips. Players, for which miniaturization is important, usually cost a single chip, and therefore they have to limit themselves to half the amount of memory. Most of the players on the market are medium and large models that can carry two flash chips. It is worth mentioning that when using multiple flash chips, they must all be of the same capacity, which limits manufacturers in terms of flexibility in terms of increasing memory capacity.

In principle, the control chip and the player's firmware do not care how much memory is installed in the device. This makes it possible to upgrade - replacing the memory chip with a more capacious one. The creators of the first MP3 player Mpman F20 offered such a service - for a fee, they could double the amount of built-in memory of the player, from 32 to 64 MB. Unfortunately, this good initiative was not supported by the industry, and independent memory expansion is not available to the vast majority of users: you need special soldering equipment, skills, and flash memory chips are not easy to get on the free market.

Theoretically, flash memory chips can be smaller. Thus, promising Samsung OneNAND modules for mobile phones are 10 by 13 by 0.8-1.4 mm in size, containing, in addition to the actual NAND memory, also a certain amount of NOR and conventional volatile SRAM. But at present, the size of a standard TSOP chip suits the industry quite well.

The small volume that the flash memory chip occupies along with the entire strapping, among other things, provides much more opportunities for the creativity of designers, its size does not limit their imagination when designing flash players. This nuance, which at first glance seems to be a plus, in reality prevents the flash player from finding its own face, its own image. Unlike HDD players, which quickly took on a common design motif, flash players today come in almost every shape and size.

How similar are HDD players from different companies and how different are flash players

Lower cost of integration into the system. The modern industry of single-chip solutions works mainly in the interests of flash players, which are much more produced, especially in quantitative terms. A proven platform, like Sigamtel, which combines everything that is needed for an MP3 player on one chip, simply does not exist for HDD analogs. Stupidly connecting a hard drive player to a flash-optimized platform will bring many problems, including unsatisfactory high power consumption.

To create a cheap flash player, two chips are enough: a memory and a processor

Therefore, platforms for HDD players are much less integrated. USB controller, digital-to-analog converter, power management, as a rule, have to be implemented by separate microcircuits, this is not counting the buffer from RAM, flash microcircuits for storing firmware. As a result, such a platform flies a pretty penny.

Flash players don't have this problem, on the contrary, the minimum cost of all the "strapping" required to create a flash player has already dropped below five dollars.

Low power consumption. Flash memory is non-volatile and, like hard drives, only needs power during read/write operations. Flash chips do not have the power consumption factors that are present in hard drives, such as a motor for rotating platters, a head drive. As a result, they are much more economical. In general, we can talk about at least a 10-fold difference in power consumption in favor of flash memory.

This doesn't mean, however, that flash players last 10 times longer than their hard drive counterparts, because the energy used to work with memory is only a small part of the total power consumption of an MP3 player. In addition, hard disk players have a buffer of standard volatile memory (RAM), and its power consumption is about half that of flash.

Apple's iPod mini and iPod nano are good examples. Both devices are built on similar processors, but the first has a built-in memory - 6 GB microdrive (we are talking about the second generation mini), and the second has flash. The first works 18 hours from a 630 mAh battery, the second - 14 hours from a 330 mAh battery. After simple calculations, we get about 35% difference in power consumption in favor of flash memory. You can conditionally build on this figure when comparing the power consumption of flash memory and microhard drives; for hard drives of the form factor 1.8 and 2.5 inches, it will be even higher.

The developer can use this gain in economy at his own discretion. It can leave a powerful battery and achieve high run time. But even more tempting is to take a battery of smaller capacity and smaller size. Combined with the miniature size of the flash itself, this allows for extremely compact solutions. Apple made a bet on this and did not lose.

No mechanical parts. The lack of mechanical parts of flash memory owes most of its advantages, in particular:

  • high drop and shock resistance
  • noiseless, no vibration
  • no heating

All these are very important consumer characteristics. Silent, non-vibrating, non-heating flash players are much more in line with the image of high-end devices, “devices of the future”, than noisy, crackling and heating HDD players. The latter does not add points and their lower reliability, that they are “terrible to drop”. Of course, everything that has just been written about hard disk players is a stereotype; for modern devices, many of these problems are no longer relevant. But stereotypes are tenacious.

Immediately after the release, iPodnano underwent a crash test, which revealed its high survivability compared to mini (photo from arstechnica.com)

High access speed. High access speed makes flash memory related to standard RAM, both types of memory are non-mechanical, access to information in them occurs at a very high speed, thousands of times faster than for hard drives. This is fundamental enough to store program code, which is why hard disk players are always equipped with flash memory chips to store firmware. But as regards the storage of actual data, content, the advantages of high memory access speed in flash players are hardly noticeable here. For all typical operations, the speed of the hard disk is enough.

Disadvantages

Naturally, flash memory is not ideal, otherwise it would take not 90, but all 100 percent of the market. Its disadvantages include:

  • Relatively high cost per megabyte
  • Relatively small maximum volume
  • Limited lifetime

The cost of flash memory is dropping at a tremendous rate, sometimes 3-4 times a year, but despite this, it is still the most expensive type of memory on a per megabyte basis.

Dynamics of exchange prices for 1 GB of flash memory from August 2005 to August 2006

On the other hand, today flash memory is the only memory type available in 2GB, 1GB, 512MB, 256MB or less. And if you measure the cost not relatively, but absolutely, then it is flash memory that will be the champion in terms of cheapness - players with its minimum volume cost just a penny, unattainable for HDD analogs.

Media

Average cost per GB ($)