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Freescale goes to market with magnetic memory

MRAM chips promise to be faster than most other types of computer memory, but their high price could hold them back.

Freescale Semiconductor has won the race to get a magnetic form of computer memory to market, but its high price could keep it from appearing in machines in the near future.

On Monday, the Austin, Texas-based specialist in embedded semiconductors released its MR2A16A chip, which the company says is the first commercial MRAM, or magnetoresistive random access memory, device.

MRAM is faster than most other types of computer memory; Freescale's chip promises to read or write data in 35 nanoseconds. In addition, MRAM can hold data even after the computer is turned off. Proponents say it could replace both flash memory, used inside cell phones and cameras, and DRAM, employed inside computers to shuttle data to the processor.

In MRAM, a tiny magnetic field is created inside a memory cell on a chip. The computer then measures the electrical resistance exhibited by the magnetic field at any given moment to determine whether the cell should be read as a "1" or a "0," the binary building blocks of data.

In flash memory, the ones and zeros are generated by the presence or absence of electrons in a cell. These chips typically consume more power than MRAMs.

Freescale's MR2A16A chips, however, aren't cheap. The 4-megabit MRAM part now shipping costs $25 at wholesale and is available in low volumes only. By comparison, someone buying DRAM can get 512 megabytes, or 1,024 times more memory, for $34--and that's retail pricing.

"With the commercialization of MRAM, Freescale is the first to market with a technology of tremendous possibilities and profound implications," Bob Merritt, of research firm Semico Research, said in a statement. "Competition to become the first company to market MRAM technology was fierce. This is a significant achievement that certainly confirms the dedication of Freescale's engineering team."

Freescale is Motorola's former chip unit. The Schaumburg, Ill.-based communications company spun it off in 2004.