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Samsung: PRAM to push mobile battery life

Will flash eventually give way to phase-change random access memory? Samsung is hopeful as it begins manufacturing, but there's still a ways to go.

Samsung has begun producing a new chip that one day may replace flash memory and that is expected to increase cell phone battery life by more than 20 percent.

Samsung PRAM chip
Samsung PRAM chip Samsung

The world's largest maker of memory chips said that it is now manufacturing phase-change random access memory (PRAM) in 512-megabit (Mb) capacities.

Phase change memory has been discussed for decades. Intel co-founder Gordon Moore, for instance, wrote an article about the technology that was published in the September 1970 issue of Electronics magazine. And the basic way the technology works hasn't changed. In phase change memory chips, a medium called chalcogenide--the same stuff as used in CD-RW rewritable disks--gets heated up to very high temperatures, the heat changes the physical state, and the two resulting states become the ones and zeros used by computers for data storage.

PRAM has promise because it can read and write data at lower power than conventional flash memory and single bits can be changed to either 1 or 0 without the need to first erase an entire block of cells--a shortcoming of flash.

Phase change memory is also "executable," which is particularly useful in cell phones for handling application code.

"By using PRAM, the battery life of a handset can be extended over 20 percent," Sei-Jin Kim, vice president of the mobile memory planning and enabling group in the Memory Division at Samsung Electronics, said in a statement. "We expect it to become one of our core memory products in the future."

The 512Mb PRAM chip can erase a small memory segment more than 10 times faster than NOR flash memory. In data segments of 5MB, PRAM can erase and rewrite data approximately seven times faster than NOR flash, Samsung said.

The chip is produced using 60-nanometer manufacturing technology, the same process technology used in NOR flash production today. Finer technology nodes will be applied in future generations of PRAM to accelerate wider commercial adoption, Samsung said.

Market researcher Gartner said in a research note published Monday that it is taking a wait-and-see stance. "Samsung said that the PRAM samples it provided to chipset and phone makers have shown much-better performance than NOR flash," Gartner said. "However, before a final judgment can be made, Gartner is waiting for the reactions of...chipset makers and the first commercial product to confirm the practical advantages that PRAM offers."

Gartner continued. "Samsung has also demonstrated that the power consumption of its mobile DRAM + PRAM is 22 percent lower than that of mobile DRAM only. If Samsung can show such power savings and other benefits in final products...the company will find itself in a commanding position in the memory segment for the entire mobile handset industry."