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Intel, Micron develop flash chips for USB drives

The NAND flash memory, capable of 3 bits per cell, is based on 34-nanometer technology. The chips will be limited initially to flash drives.

Updated at 9:10 a.m. PDT: adding analyst comments.

On Tuesday, Intel and Micron Technology announced the development of high-data-capacity flash memory technology for flash cards and USB drives.

Lexar USB flash drive
Intel-Micron chip will enable high-capacity USB drives Lexar

And in a related announcement, Intel said Monday that it has validated a fix for its new 34-nanometer X25-M solid-state drive, which is based on similar flash memory technology. The bug affects users who set a BIOS drive password. That update is available here.

The two chipmakers, which partner in the manufacture of flash memory chips, said Tuesday that they have developed NAND flash memory capable of 3 bits per cell based on 34-nanometer technology. This allows greater data density than the standard 2-bits-per-cell technology and will result in high-capacity USB flash drives, according to Micron.

While packing more bits into a cell provides greater data densities, it is not as reliable as flash memory based on more standard technology, according to Kevin Kilbuck, director of NAND marketing at Micron. Therefore, the 3-bits-per-cell chips will be limited initially to flash drives, which don't require the data storage reliability of a solid-state drive, which is used as the primary storage device in laptops and servers.

"The chip is not for all markets," according to Jim Handy of semiconductor market researcher Objective Analysis, writing in a research note published Tuesday about the technology. "The companies explained that they need more experience in production volumes before they will be confident to position it as a chip suitable for the high-write environment of the SSD," he said. Handy is referring to the fact that users of solid-state drives typically record data at a much greater frequency than consumers who, for example, buy flash drives for digital cameras.

But Handy added that he expects the Intel-Micron chip by 2010 to "cause snags for the other vendors in the market: Samsung, and Hynix/Numonyx" and potentially be more profitable than the competition.

Micron is currently sampling the chips and will be in mass production in the fourth quarter.

SanDisk and Toshiba disclosed in February that they had developed 4-bit-per-cell technology, which the two companies said was the highest-capacity flash memory technology in the industry.