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Memory makers move to match Intel

Memory manufacturers are shifting gears to boost production of a high-speed version of double data rate DRAM, the result of a shift in the Intel product line.

Michael Kanellos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.
Michael Kanellos
3 min read
Memory makers are shifting gears to boost production of a high-speed version of double data rate DRAM, the result of a shift in the Intel product line.

The majority of double data rate (DDR) DRAM,

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the most common form of memory found in computers, typically runs at 266MHz or 333MHz. Manufacturers, though, are now increasing production of a 400MHz version of DDR, memory executives say. The companies weren't planning on the shift, but Intel changed the specifications on Springdale, an upcoming desktop chipset, and 400MHz can wring more performance out of the revamped Springdale than the slower versions of DDR.

"We're doing more DDR 400 this year," said Jun Kitano, director of technical marketing at Elpida, a memory manufacturer. Before the shift, the 400MHz version of DDR was the sort of product that had parentheses around it when listed as part of the company's product plan, meaning that it would be in limited production. "Now the parentheses are off," he said.

Memory giant Samsung also expects to make more DDR 400MHz, said Mueez-Ud Deen, director of DRAM marketing for the company.

Shifting to faster memory likely won't impose huge manufacturing burdens and may even help pricing a bit in the beleaguered memory market. Once again, memory prices are on a downward trajectory due to sluggish demand, Deen said. In the end, the chief effect may be better PC performance.

The speed changes are largely the result of component synchronization. The chipset, among other tasks, connects the microprocessor to main memory through a system bus. In years past, the system bus, memory and the microprocessor all ran at close and even multiples of each other. A computer with a 333MHz computer might come with a 66MHz system bus and 66MHz memory.

Recently, however, the balance has gotten way out of whack. Chips run at 3GHz while system buses run at 266MHz to 533MHz, and memory comes in a wide variety of speeds. As a result, processors are often waiting for data from memory or the chipset. While engineers can compensate for many of the effects of the imbalance, speeding up the memory and the bus always helps.

"It usually is a little cleaner with synchronization and more bandwidth," said Dean McCarron, principal analyst at Mercury Research.

Springdale, due in March or April, was originally set to run at 667MHz, making it a good match for 333MHz DDR. Intel, though, upped it to 800MHz late last year, prompting the push to 400MHz DDR.

Springdale will also come with other new features, including Serial ATA, a more efficient connection for hard drives. Many companies will use Springdale as a launchpad to tout Intel's hyper-threading technology. Currently, IBM and Dell Computer ship with hyper-threading turned "off" on their corporate computers, said representatives at both companies. Corporate customers want to digest all the changes at once, according to Howard Locker, chief architect of the PC division at IBM.

Intel rival Advanced Micro Devices will also benefit from the shift. The bus that accompanies its Athlon processors currently runs at 266MHz or 333MHz, but the company is expected to boost it to 400MHz soon. Nvidia CEO Jen-Hsun Huang inadvertently tipped off the shift when, joining AMD CEO Hector Ruiz during a keynote speech at LinuxWorld last week, he said that Nvidia's upcoming Nforce 2 chipset will be capable of going up to 400MHz. Sources close to AMD and Nvidia acknowledged it was an unscripted moment.

In the second quarter, AMD will come out with the Opteron, a new processor for servers. Opteron chips are connected to each other, and to memory, across an 800MHz HyperTransport link.

One potential downside of the shift to 400MHz memory may be heat, Elpida's Kitano said. The faster memory consumes more energy than its slower counterparts, which produces warmer temperatures.

While volumes of DDR 400MHz are increasing, memory makers are also gearing up production of a new version of DDR, called DDR II, that will also run at 400MHz. DDR II will likely move toward volume production in 2004.