What is Apple’s ‘Fusion Drive,’ and how does it work?

In the whirlwind of Apple upgrades announced Tuesday, company executive Phil Schiller sped through an explanation of the “Fusion Drive” — a hybrid hard drive that Apple has suggested as an option for its Mac mini and new iMac.

It can be hard to get excited about hard drives and storage when there are new devices to research, but Anand Shimpi of AnandTech told The Washington Post that the change could have a real, positive impact for consumers.

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As Apple explains, the storage option aims to merge the fast performance of flash memory with a more affordable, traditional hard drive technology. The drive couples a 128 GB flash drive with a 1 TB or 3TB hard drive.

Flash storage, Shimpi said, offers reliability and speed benefits, but it’s very expensive. Laptops often have flash storage, and consumers are used to trading speed and stability for capacity. But when it comes to desktops, he said, decreasing the amount of storage isn’t an option.

“You can’t get a consumer drive that’s 1TB or 3TB of flash — you would be talking about thousands of dollars for a single drive,” he said.

There are hybrid drives out there, but it’s difficult for consumers to figure out what they should be putting on the high-speed drives and what they should leave to the slower storage.

Apple’s solution, Shimpi said, takes care of that consumer confusion by moving files and programs between the two drives based on what people actually use.

“No one’s done something like this before, at least not at this level,” he said. “The [operating system] and all applications that Apple pre-loads onto the computers are stored to the flash side. As you install new applications, if software determines that you’re not using things, it will move it over.”

Apple is also portioning off part of the flash memory — around 4GB — reserved to process the actions users are doing at any given moment, such as editing photos, reading e-mails or writing a document.

Shimpi said that’s a smart move on Apple’s part, because most hybrid drives will “fall apart” when they store the things users consume in flash storage but don’t automatically bring that power when users are producing, or writing, content.

Traditional hybrid drives that mix these kinds of storage would, for example, give you fast access to viewing something like a photo gallery, but would switch to the slower speeds when you save a file or export a photo. This is particularly annoying, he said, while people are multitasking and creating small bits of content — e-mails or notes, for example — that get tasked to the slower drive.

That’s perfect for lighter desktop users, he said, while high-performance users who create a lot of content may still find that some tasks move to the slower drive.

“It simplifies it for the mainstream user,” Shimpi said.

In its question-and-answer article, Apple added a couple of additional points for those considering the storage option. Users can add one separate section, or partition, to the hard disk, but not to the flash memory. Also, users cannot add external drives to the Fusion Drive.

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