Apple is apparently working on a hybrid hard-drive system, pairing a platter-based traditional drive with flash memory in a configuration that could prevent data loss if your MacBook is dropped or jolted. Detailed in a newly-published patent application, 20110238887, for "Hybrid-device storage based on environmental state" Apple's solution is positioned as a way to avoid errors caused by "changes in temperature, vibration and acceleration" but could also have an impact on the speed of data access.
"By selectively storing the block of data in the flash memory, the hybrid storage device can address the sensitivity of the HDD to changes in the environmental state of the hybrid storage device. For example, if the change in the environmental state information results in an operating state of the HDD in which failure or shut down of the HDD is to occur during the write operation, or if there is an imminent risk of data loss during the write operation, the write operation can be completed using the flash memory. Therefore, this storage technique can increase the reliability of the hybrid storage device" Apple patent application
As Apple describes it, the hybrid drive could quickly save data to the flash section if it detected it needed to suddenly lock down the platters such as during a fall. Alternatively, if drive temperature exceeded a preset "safe" level, the platters could spin down and the flash storage be used as a temporary cache until they had cooled once more.
Hybrid hard-drive technology isn't new, and several manufacturers already have products that pair spinning platters and solid-state memory. Perhaps best known is Seagate's Momentus XT - which we reviewed all the way back in July 2010 - though the primary purpose of the combined storage is usually expressed as a matter of speed.
That would also be a benefit of Apple's system, the company recognizes - "the external device may be able to improve performance by leveraging the relative performance capabilities of HDD and flash memory" - though it's possible the focus is on longevity so as to suitably differentiate the patent application from prior art. Whether that will fly with the USPTO remains to be seen, but we wouldn't be surprised if future MacBook Pro models incorporated a cost-effective balance of hybrid storage rather than the wholesale shift to expensive SSDs that some have predicted.