Hybrid drives could usher in Macs with more, cheaper storage

Seagate's Momentus XT hybrid drive is already on the market.

A new Apple (s aapl) patent published Thursday by the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office (via Patently Apple) reveals plans for a new type of hybrid drive that combines the benefits of both platter-based and flash storage. A hybrid drive isn’t a new concept; I recently upgraded my 2009 Mac mini with a 500 GB version from Seagate. But Apple’s patent application reveals some innovative ideas about how to use a flash/spinning drive combo.

Smarter data insurance

The key new element in Apple’s patent application has to do with a system for detecting environmental conditions in a computer’s surroundings, and then changing which portion of the drive it writes to based on those conditions. That would allow it to temporarily store information on the flash portion of the drive, if conditions detected are determined to potentially pose a high risk for data written to the platter drive. Hard disk drives are much more sensitive to shock, changes in orientation, ambient temperature or magnetic signals, so this could in theory protect valuable data from being lost due to drive errors.

Fast, capacious and cheap

Meanwhile, the platter-based drive can operate in normal conditions, providing lots more storage per dollar for customers. Flash-based storage will continue to drop in price, but it still has a long way to go before it can compete in terms of per GB cost with platter-based drives. Capacities in Mac computers using hybrid drives could theoretically far outstrip those currently available from flash drives, while also offering some of their performance benefits. Hybrid drives can keep often-accessed data on the flash portion of the drive, to make operations like booting, shutting down and opening applications consistently speedy.

Intel (s intc) is deploying its Smart Response hybrid drive technology in some gaming laptops later this year, and should expand it to more mainstream computers throughout 2012. It’s a technology that companies are beginning to see the value of, since it can bridge the gap between platter drives and SSDs, which have yet to really become available in storage capacities high enough at prices low enough to justify mass-market usage for mobile PCs.

Desktops likely targets

Apple’s targets with this tech, if it ever does put this patent into practice, will likely be its desktop iMac and Mac mini line. That’s because the space requirements for the drives will make them unable to fit within the case of a MacBook Air. I also believe that, as reports have suggested, Apple is planning to move to ultraportable form factors across its line of notebook offerings. If that happens, SSD will probably also be the storage option of choice in those machines, with Thunderbolt serving as a means to connect to larger external drives when they’re needed.