LAS VEGAS - It wasn't so long ago that computer geeks would swagger around bragging about their 10- gigabyte hard drives.
Now hard drives are no longer the province of the PC savvy and what once seemed huge seem, well, puny. Scores of diminutive devices on display at the Consumer Electronics Show here are sporting hard drives that dwarf what was found on high-end PCs just two or three years ago. And everyone from music lovers to the drive makers themselves may see a payoff.
The disks are showing up in personal video recorders, music players and even video gaming consoles. Their growing popularity is based on the fact they represent an established and relatively inexpensive technology that can easily hold massive amounts of data - in the form of entertainment.
For instance, Santa Clara, Calif.-based SONICblue this week rolled out a 20-gigabyte portable music player called the Rio Riot that can hold the equivalent of 400 CDs. The unit takes up the space of a thick Palm Pilot and weighs less than a pound.
"Most people can put their entire record collection in this," said Jonathan Sasse, product manager for SONICblue's portable products.
Another SONICblue device, which connects directly to home stereo speakers, acts as a stereo system that plays music stored on a 40-GB hard drive - the equivalent of more than 600 CDs worth of music.
On the video side, SONICblue, TiVo, Microsoft's Ultimate TV division and big names like Sony and Panasonic are stuffing hard drives into video recorders that are used instead of video tape to record television shows. TiVo, which pioneered digital video recorders about three years ago with a 15-GB hard drive, now plans to put a 60-GB drive into its newest TV recorders.
Figuring more is better, Microsoft plans an 80-GB model for its Ultimate TV line, and SONICblue says it will cram two 160-GB drives into a TV recorder, allowing it to hold 320 hours of video programming. One of the biggest boosts for disk drive makers comes from Microsoft, which is installing disk drives into its new Xbox video game consoles. With more than 1 million Xboxes manufactured in just a few months, that represented a major boost for drive makers, even as they struggle with flat or declining PC sales.
"It's a growing market," said Steve Shattuck, a spokesman for Western Digital Corp., which makes drives for Ultimate TV and the Xbox. The Xbox order accounted for about 5 percent of Western Digital's $441 million in sales last quarter, Shattuck said. The company last month bought a 155,000-square-foot hard drive and head stack facility in Bangkok from Fujitsu Co. to expand its capacity.
And while the growth of the video recording market is slower, experts see long-term benefits in that market, too.
"I think there's a lot of hope (in the disk drive industry) for consumer devices. It's really helped us," Shattuck said.
Though the hardware itself isn't getting any cheaper, gadget makers are including hard disks in their equipment because engineers have managed to cram more capacity onto each disk.
Lance Ohara, a spokesman for SONICblue's Replay TV unit said his company can get a 40-gigabyte hard drive today for what they paid for 20 gigabytes two years ago.
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