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Intel shows off flashier flash memory

As part of its push into wireless, the company unveils a flash memory chip that promises to reduce the time it takes to get information from cell phones and handhelds.

As part of its push into wireless, Intel on Wednesday unveiled a flash memory chip that promises to reduce the time it takes to get information from cell phones and handhelds.

The upcoming chip, called 3 Volt Synchronous StrataFlash, can retrieve data four times faster than standard flash memory, according to Intel. As a result, wireless and other applications will run faster or pop up more quickly on a device.

Flash is used inside devices such as handhelds and cell phones to store applications and other data. Flash memory is used widely because of its low cost and ability to retain data when power is shut off. Engineers have compared how flash memory works to how bumblebees fly: In theory, neither should work, but the proof is there to see.

Technically speaking, the upcoming chip shifts from an asynchronous method of reading data to a synchronous process. The move helps boost performance.

Synchronous flash memory allows data to be read in a continuous stream, as opposed to one chunk at a time in asynchronous flash. Instead of reading a single 8-bit chunk of data every 90 nanoseconds, StrataFlash reads a group of 16 8-bit chunks in rapid succession over 305 nanoseconds, said Greg Matson, Intel's StrataFlash marketing manager.

The increased data-transfer rate--up to 92MB per second in its maximum burst mode--leads to performance increases for software, he said.

"If you were executing Java applications in your cellular phone, a synchronous burst mode would give you a major advantage...so much so that a user would recognize the performance increase," Matson said.

Steve Cullen, director of chip research at Cahners In-Stat Group, said StrataFlash continues Intel's push into the wireless world.

"It solidifies their position in the handheld and portable space," he said.

Although it is synchronous, the new memory also offers an asynchronous mode that reads data in eight 8-bit chunks.

In addition, a new fast-read feature allows applications to execute code directly from the StrataFlash memory, instead of downloading it to random access memory (RAM) before it is executed.

This provides an additional performance increase by eliminating the need to wait for the code to download, Intel said. It also helps save space on the motherboard of a device, eliminates the need for synchronous RAM, and provides some power savings, according to Intel.

Intel is already sampling the 3 Volt Synchronous StrataFlash to customers in 128-megabit densities. Production is planned to begin in April.

Intel will offer densities ranging from 64mb to 256mb. Prices will range from $10 to $35, depending on the density.

The new flash memory is the third generation of StrataFlash, which allows multiple bits of data to be stored in a single memory cell. Intel, which describes itself as the leading flash memory supplier, said it has shipped 2 billion megabits of the StrataFlash brand since 1997.

StrataFlash is an important element in Intel's Personal Internet Computing Architecture, the building blocks for handheld devices.