Storage that's both fast and roomy? It's on the way

Good news for laptop and smartphone buyers: a novel flash-memory design should cut costs and boost capacity.

Intel and Micron will ship flash-memory chips this year with 256 gigabit and 384 gigabit capacity. A tiny 16-chip package could hold 768GB.
Intel and Micron will ship flash-memory chips this year with 256-gigabit and 384-gigabit capacity. A tiny 16-chip package could hold 768GB. Intel

Intel, Micron and Toshiba want to give you the best of both worlds when it comes to flash memory, the storage technology used in smartphones, tablets and higher-end laptops.

Today, smartphones and tablets often don't have enough room for all your apps, photos, videos and music. And laptop buyers have to decide between hard drives, which are cheap and roomy, but slow, and flash-based solid-state drives (SSDs) that are fast but expensive.

A partnership between Micron and Intel, though, is now beginning to yield flash chips with triple the capacity of the top alternative from Samsung. And Toshiba announced a competing chip that matches Samsung's capacity, a competitive move that should help maintain pricing pressure.

The new chips could mean a 3.5TB flash drive for PCs that's the size of a stick of gum, Intel said. Today's top-end laptops with 1TB SSDs are very expensive options, but more affordable chips could help fast flash memory displace hard drives in lower-end PCs.

Both of the new chip designs -- as well as Samsung's chips introduced last year -- take a similar approach called 3D stacking to provide more bits. In essence, the idea is to emulate Manhattan's skyscrapers rather than the sprawl of Los Angeles.

"3D is going to be one of the ways to go to keep Moore's Law going," said Michael Jackson, an associate professor of microelectronic engineering at the Rochester Institute of Technology, referring to Intel co-founder Gordon Moore's observation on steady advances in processor capabilities.

This Toshiba schematic illustrates how multiple layers of flash memory are stacked into a single high-density product.
This Toshiba schematic illustrates how multiple layers of flash memory are stacked into a single high-density product. Toshiba

As with skyscraper apartment buildings, the number of cells you can put in a given area still matters. And so does the number of occupants you can put in each cell. The Intel-Micron approach offers two options for this latter characteristic: two bits per cell initially for chips that store 256Gb total and, later, three bits for 384Gb chips. Toshiba stores two bits per cell for its 128Gb chips, but three-bit technology is "essential" and in development, the company said.

Many of the gains made by flash memory have come by spreading more and more memory cells onto a two-dimensional chip surface. The Intel-Micron approach matches Samsung's with 32 layers of flash memory, and Toshiba goes a little farther with 48 layers. The companies are delivering the first samples today; Intel, Micron and Toshiba all expect to ship final products later this year.

Flash memory is a big and growing market, with spending expected to reach $27.4 billion this year then grow by 6.5 percent to $29.2 billion in 2016, according to IHS analyst Michael Yang. But it's also a tough market in which the cost per gigabyte erodes rapidly.

"To stay competitive, suppliers must invest large sums of capital -- more than $4 billion per fab [manufacturing plant] -- in order to reduce cost and develop products," Yang said.

With flash memory, several chips are mounted into a single package for use in products like SSDs, and SD cards for cameras and phones. Intel wouldn't disclose the size of each memory chip, but it said a 16-chip, 768GB package is the size of a fingertip.

By comparison, today's top-end smartphones come with only 128GB. And Apple's new MacBook comes with two SSD options, 256GB and 512GB. The price difference is $400, though the higher price also covers a slightly faster processor. For a high-end Dell M3800 laptop, upgrading the SSD from 256GB to 512GB costs $434, and going up to 1TB costs $735. No wonder Intel, Micron and Toshiba are eager for a better showing in the market.

And they could all use a better showing.

Intel and Micron banded together to take on flash powerhouses like top-ranked Samsung, which held 28 percent of the flash-memory market in the fourth quarter of 2014, according to Statista. Micron has 14 percent and Intel has 8 percent. Toshiba is doing better with 22 percent, but its share has been slipping.

Flash has been a major success in the computing industry, but there are other contenders waiting in the wings. IBM is among those working on an alternative called phase change memory (PCM), and a startup called Crossbar hopes for 1TB storage chips with its approach, called resistive RAM (RRAM).

Updated at 2:04 a.m. PT March 27with details from Toshiba and comment from IHS.

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