Next week, Samsung Electronics plans to unveil a prototype hard disk drive that can improve system performance and extend battery life on laptops.

The drive is called a hybrid hard drive because it includes flash memory storage space in addition to the usual magnetic disk storage. The flash memory acts as a storage buffer, holding data until it's full and only then writing the data to the disk.

This cuts down on the amount of disk activity – typically, the new drive spins only a few seconds every 10 or 20 minutes – which means battery life is extended by between 8 per cent and 10 per cent, according to Samsung's measurements.

There are also performance benefits, as data stored in the buffer can be read by the computer much faster than if it had to be pulled off the hard disk. On boot-up a computer with a hybrid drive should start between 8 seconds and 25 seconds faster, Samsung said.

Two prototype versions of the drive will be on display at Microsoft's Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC) in Seattle next week. The prototypes will have either 128MB or 256MB of flash memory. Samsung expects to begin delivering sample drives to customers in the third quarter of 2006 and start shipping in volume in January next year.

Microsoft is building support for hybrid drives into Windows Vista under the name ReadyDrive, one of a number of technologies the company is building into the new operating system to help improve system performance. These include ReadyBoost, which allows a removable flash memory device to act as system memory, thus providing an instant memory boost without having to install new RAM boards, and SuperFetch, which preloads frequently used applications into memory to improve system responsiveness.

Windows Vista is expected to be available to business customers at the end of this year and to consumers in January 2007.