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Samsung demos future memory chips

It's getting harder to shrink chips, but Samsung has prototypes that show that the relentless pace of the industry continues.

Samsung Electronics this week showed off two prototype memory chips that demonstrate that the company can continue to shrink the size of its circuits.

The Korean electronics giant unveiled an 8-gigabit flash memory chip Monday based on the 60-nanometer process, as well as a 2-gigabit DDR DRAM chip based on the 80-nanometer process. Flash chips, which retain data after a host computer is turned off, are used in flash cards and cell phones, while DDR DRAM is used inside PCs.

Both chips hold far more data than current chips in their respective markets and are smaller, which should make them cheaper and more powerful than existing chips. The flash chip is designed to let consumer electronics designers put up to 16 gigabytes of data on a single memory card. That 16GBs of memory translates into storage of up to 16 hours of DVD-quality video or 4,000 MP3 audio files (at 5 minutes per song). Current flash cards max out at 4GB.

Both chips, however, are prototypes. Companies just began this year to make chips on the 90-nanometer process. (The nanometer measurement refers to average feature sizes on the chips). Eighty-nanometer chips may not come for at least another year, and 65-nanometer chips won't debut until at least the end of 2005.

Still, the results show that Samsung, which leads both the flash and DRAM markets, will continue to push manufacturing advances in a way similar to how Intel exploits its manufacturing prowess to dominate the processor market. Overall, Samsung has grown to become the second-largest chipmaker, after Intel, and the two compete vigorously in the flash market.

Samsung is also making a push to produce more processors for handheld devices, which will further increase competition between the two.

The density in the flash chip was partially achieved through the use of a 3D cell transistor structure. Other companies, such as Matrix Semiconductor in the United States, have also adopted 3D circuitry.

Flash chips have doubled in density every year since 1999, pointed out Chang Gyu Hwang, CEO of Samsung Electronics' semiconductor business. Inside Samsung, the ability to increase density this fast is known as "Hwang's Law."

Global sales growth for semiconductors should come in slightly below 10 percent next year, following estimated growth of 20 percent in 2004, Hwang estimated.

Morgan Stanley last week reduced its estimate for 2005 growth in semiconductor industry revenue to a range of 8 percent to 12 percent, from its previous range of 13 percent to 18 percent.

Myung Seung-eun of ZDNet Korea reported from Seoul. CNET News.com's Michael Kanellos contributed to this report from San Francisco.

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