To guess at the kinds of storage options Mac buyers will likely have in 2013 and 2014, you just have to look at the storage industry as a whole. That’s because Apple is relatively conservative when it comes to storage, and doesn’t break new ground.
The SSD Road Map
Solid-state drive prices, which had been decreasing steadily for years, plummeted in 2012, falling over 50 per cent in the first half and bringing the cost per gigabyte under one pound. You can find 512GB SSDs selling for under £300. Prices will continue to fall over the next 18 to 24 months, and a 512GB SSD will likely retail for less than £200 by the end of 2014. Note that those are retail figures. Apple charges £400 more for the MacBook Air with 512GB of flash storage than it does for the model with 256GB.
In the next 24 months, the maximum storage capacity for MacBooks will probably double, but the speed of storage will not. Current SSDs are already pushing the limits of the 6Gbps SATA 3.0 interface in today’s computers, and – aside from SATA Express, which uses PCIe channels – no higher-speed SATA specification is planned for the next two years. But some progress can be made with small random read and write operations, those that make a computer feel fast when you’re not copying large amounts of data. Manufacturers will focus on improving such functions rather than ramping up sustained read and write speeds.
All SSD, All the Time?
SSDs will likely become standard on all MacBooks; the Air and the Pro with Retina display are already solid-state-only and will stay that way. But storage quantities will probably increase.
As manufacturers develop higher-density NAND modules (the flash memory chips that SSDs use), Apple and other vendors will be able to squeeze more storage capacity into the same amount of space. Current MacBooks use 64GB NAND packages, the highest-density ones available. The 512GB Air (the highest-capacity model) uses eight of them, and the Retina MacBook Pro tops out at 768GB. Memory makers such as Samsung and IMFT are working on higher-density NAND that will enable 128GB packages in the next year, so the next wave of Airs will likely feature a maximum of 1TB of flash storage, while the next Retina Pros will have 1.5TB. By the end of 2014, the top-end Air and Retina Pro could have 2TB or more of flash storage for around the same price as today’s top configurations.
The entry-level MacBook Pro is the only Apple laptop to still offer a traditional hard drive option, and it will do so for at least one more product cycle. Standard 2.5in drives will reach 2TB within two years, before we reach the limits of current technology.
However, if Apple continues to position the MacBook Air as the everyman’s laptop, with the MacBook Pro with Retina display as the high-end model, you might expect it to discontinue the old unibody MacBook Pro, perhaps as soon as next year. That would leave the Retina model as the only Pro in 2014, and it would mean the end of mechanical hard drives in the MacBook.
Over the next two years, Apple will continue to use traditional platter-based hard drives in desktop systems and in the cloud. For users sticking with the desktop as the family computing hub, the company will need to offer terabytes of storage for movies, pictures, and music.
The Mac mini and iMac will offer both mechanical and flash storage for the next 24 months. Expect the former to have up to 2TB of flash or 3TB of hard disk; the Server iteration (if still available) should have both. The iMac uses a 3.5in hard drive with an optional 2.5in SSD; if it remains available in two years, you’ll could be able to configure it with 6TB of mass storage and 1TB of flash space.
Apple has promised it will update the Mac Pro in 2013. Expect to see an Intel chipset with faster, better 6Gbps SATA support, almost certainly Ivy Bridge-E. You’ll be able to configure its four drive bays separately. By 2014, each bay will max out at 6TB of platter drives or 2TB of flash, and you’ll be able to stripe the drives together, achieving throughput over 1Gbps for two SSDs in RAID 0. You’ll be able to add a fibre-channel SAS card or an external Thunderbolt RAID chassis for more space.
Apple recently added another option: the Fusion Drive, a 1TB (on the mini) or 3TB (on the iMac) mechanical drive coupled with 128GB of flash storage. OS X manages the storage. The technology is similar to hybrid drives for Windows PCs, but it marks the first time the hybrid feature has been integrated into the OS itself. You can expect the Fusion Drive to become more common, with both the flash space and the mechanical space increasing with each update.
iCloud and Cloud Storage
iCloud storage gives you access to documents on multiple devices.
As everyday computing moves to flash-bearing laptops, phones and tablets, what happens to the data we can’t carry around with us? Increasingly, we’ll be storing it in the cloud. iCloud already lets you stream your music, photos, documents, and more to your MacBook or iOS devices; Google offers similar features to Android users, and Microsoft is chasing the same with SkyDrive. Subscription streaming services such as iTunes Match, Pandora and Spotify have made locally stored music files a thing of the past for many people. Expect streaming adoption to accelerate over the next two years, and Apple to increase iCloud’s paid-for storage tiers to accommodate that growth.
Streaming relies on always-on internet, which unfortunately isn’t always on, so you’ll still need local storage in 2013.
As for the cloud itself, all the items you stream to your device will live on millions of traditional hard drives in vast data centres all across the world. Even if these use SSDs and RAM disks for their most frequently accessed files and allocation tables, the bulk of their storage will still be on mechanical drives.