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Intel gives glimpse of latest flash chip

The chipmaker introduces its fastest flash memory yet, aimed at helping manufacturers pump up cellular phones for new uses such as capturing a photo or viewing a video.

Intel on Wednesday introduced a new flash memory chip aimed at helping manufacturers pump up cellular phones for new uses such as capturing a photo or viewing a video.

Called 1.8 Volt Wireless Flash Memory, or W18 for short, the new chip is Intel's fastest, lowest-power flash memory chip to date. Because it is manufactured using the company's 130-nanometer process, the chip can shuffle data roughly four times faster than its predecessor, the 3 Volt Wireless Flash Memory. Meanwhile, it consumes about 60 percent less power and takes up roughly half the area, Intel said.

Flash is used widely in cellular phones and PDAs (personal digital assistants) because it retains data even when battery power is removed. In anticipation of new uses for flash, such as viewing video clips, phone manufacturers are greatly increasing the amount of memory they build into each new phone, analysts say.

Because of its features, the new W18 chip will help manufacturers reduce power consumption, which in turn will allow them to create smaller phones by using smaller batteries. As an alternative, the manufacturers could use the power savings to increase the phone's overall processing muscle, using the lower-power characteristics to make room for higher-performance processors or digital signal processor (DSP) chips.

Intel is also working on technologies that will allow it to stack chips on top of one another to take up less area inside the phone. These stacked-chip packages will also help shrink the size of cellular phones by reducing the area that multiple chips take up inside the phone

Intel will begin shipping the new W18 chip this summer. It should begin appearing in new phones for 2.5G networks from manufacturers in the next six months.

With the new phones coming, Intel hopes to catch the wave of upgrades as cellular phone buyers move to new models to take advantage of a host of new software applications made possible by higher data rates provided by 2.5G and later 3G networks. Because these phones will sport color screens and the ability to view photos or even short video clips, they will require more memory to store data and applications.

The company is also hoping that manufacturer's larger memory requirements should meet up with stronger demand for phones, producing a hot market for flash memory, after disappointment in the market in 2001.

So far, analysts say the market is heading in that direction. While it slumped badly last year, the cellular phone market has already shown signs of a resurgence this year because of the implementations of 2.5G networks in Europe, analysts say. Meanwhile, trials of 2.5G networks using GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) are getting under way in the United States.

The market "is going to be a barn burner in 2003. We see there is a compelling reason for people to chuck their old cell phones and buy the new ones," said Will Strauss, analyst with Forward Concepts, a market research company.

New capabilities
One reason will be to get a phone with the new capabilities made possible by 2.5G and 3G, he said.

Intel's W18 "is going to enable more of those applications--photo capture, for example," said Eric Hanson, an Intel marketing manager for flash memory.

The chip's higher performance will help avoid bottlenecks; faster memory will be required to support the faster processors that the new phones will inevitably also have, Hanson said.

In addition, "not only are the total number of handsets going up, but the (memory) content of each handset is going up dramatically," said Rich Wawryzniak, a research director with Semico Research, a Phoenix-based marketing and engineering research company.

Intel holds the top spot in flash memory, with about 27 percent of the market, according to Semico.

But Intel won't introduce new flavors of flash memory uncontested. Advanced Micro Devices and other manufacturers are eyeing the potentially hot market as well. AMD, Intel's nearest market-share competitor, is expected to begin moving to 130 nanometers soon.

While Intel is looking to stack chips so that a phone maker will be able to triple the amount of memory present in about the same amount of space, other companies are also looking at reducing the space flash takes up.

Matrix Semiconductor, for example, has developed "tall" chips that can record data once. By contrast, Flash can be written to many times. But the Matrix chip's taller technology is expected to make for less-expensive memory, which could greatly reduces the cost of storing digital images.

Intel will likely respond by going taller as well. The company is working on a variety of new chip packages, including one such package that will include four chips and measure 1-millimeter thick. It will begin shipping the chip in small numbers to its customers later in the year.

Intel is also working on packages that will pair memory with different processors, such as its XScale chip. This would allow phone makers to combine several memory chips with a processor in a single package.

Meanwhile, the company has already moved two of its three varieties of flash memory to the 130-nanometer process: W18 and "boot block," which is used when phones power on. The third flavor, the less expensive Strata flash, will switch to the 130-nanometer process later this year, the company said.

W18 chips will cost about $9 for a 32-megabit model and about $15 for a 64-megabit model. A 128-megabit version is scheduled to for availability later in the year.

Intel introduced the W18 Wednesday at its developers' forum in Japan.