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Friday, April 3, 2009

IBM gives laptop hard drives a soft landing

Simple ideas are often the best, and IBM's latest innovation for notebook PCs must rank as one of the simplest for many years.

Technologically it's not trivial, but the idea itself is wonderful - put an accelerometer inside a notebook PC and use it to monitor any sudden changes in motion - such as when the notebook's being dropped. Then use this information to instantly park the heads on the hard disk to prevent them bashing against the data areas on the platters.

As hard drive damage due to impact is a common cause of data loss in notebook PCS, this could be a godsend for companies with large numbers of mobile users. Until now, manufacturers have concentrated on physical protection such as shock-absorbing rubber pads or silicon gel padding to minimise shock damage.

Active Protection System is the name IBM's given to this technology, and it's being premiered in the new ThinkPad T41. The accelerometer used is similar to those used in car airbag sensors and is an example of nanotechnology, using tiny micromachined silicon levers and pivots.

Technically such chips are known as Micro Electro Mechanical Systems, or MEMs for short. Since their commercial introduction in the early 1990s, costs have come down until now some MEMs accelerometers are available for about $2-3 each.

Applications in IT hardware have so far been limited to motion-sensitive pointing devices such as 'free motion' game controllers.

The IBM ThinkPad T41 will go on sale in the UK priced from around £1,830 (ex. VAT) and includes Intel Centrino models.

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