Rambus getting cold shoulder

Despite top billing from Intel as the next-generation memory technology, Rambus is proving to be a hard sell because of its cost, production glitches, and other worries.

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
TAIPEI, Taiwan--Although Intel is putting its weight behind Rambus, cost and other obstacles mean several key companies are lukewarm about the memory technology.

AMD's K7 processor, which rolls out later this month, will not likely be matched with Rambus memory in computers until next year, said Alan Au, AMD's director of sales for greater China. Instead, the K7 will likely be matched with plain 100-Mhz DRAM, then the speedier 133-MHz DRAM, then other, faster versions of that lineage.

In any event, the calendar seems to ensure that the initial flotilla of K7 machines won't use Rambus. The K7 is expected at the end of the month, the same time K7-based computers might also arrive. But the chipsets on the market right now, which serve as the interface between the processor and main memory, do not yet speak the language of Rambus.

Although Rambus has been virtually anointed as the standard bearer for the future of computer memory, the company has been saddled with product delays and technical glitches in 1999, which in turn have delayed the debut of Rambus-based PCs from the middle of the year to the end of the third quarter. But even more critical, the company may start to feel the squeeze of cheaper alternatives and the industry's obsession with keeping desktop prices as low as possible.

Umax chairman Frank Huang and Acer president Simon Lin shared similar skeptical feelings. Right now, Rambus memory costs about $45 more per chip than standard 64MB memory, which considerably hikes the price of a PC, said Lin.

In fact, Lin said that current supply for Rambus processors is outstripping demand. In other words, even with a Rambus surplus, the chips are still too expensive for PC manufacturers to justify.

Huang further added that all the production glitches have yet to be worked out. "It is not 100 percent yet," he said.

Umax, which makes memory along with a number of products, has a license to make Rambus but will concentrate on 100-MHz and 133-MHz memory. The companies that are mainly active in manufacturing Rambus, he added, are Samsung and Micron, both of them recipients of multimilion dollar investments from Intel to manufacture Rambus memory.

"Intel cannot control everything," Huang added.

Rambus stock dropped today on reports that IBM was considering dropping support for Rambus.

Rambus awaits key Intel chip
Intel in many ways is the focus of Rambus. Intel is adjusting its silicon platform to use Rambus memory. The first Rambus chipset from Intel, called Camino, comes out in September. Intel will also release an additional chip with Camino that will allow standard memory to be used. However, Intel executives have characterized this as a transitional element. Intel, like Compaq with its Alpha chip and National Semiconductor, will integrate a Rambus memory controller into a chip next year.

If anything, the big news in Taiwan seems to be about 133-MHz memory. 133-MHz memory allows a peak data transfer rate 33 percent faster than today's standard memory. Companies this week at the Computex computer show are announcing memory modules and other products that can accomodate this faster memory.

Current 100-MHz memory technology allows a peak communication speed between CPU and memory of 800 megabytes per second. 133-MHz memory increases that theoretical peak to 1,033 MB/sec. Rambus offers a theoretical top speed of 1,600 MB/sec.

Some PC stores already are offering 133-MHz memory in build-to-order PCs in the streets of Taipei. As for the K7, sources say that Compaq is readying a K7 desktop computer to coincide with the chip's launch. Other big vendors are expected to announce support for the chip at the time as well. Motherboard makers say AMD is performing the final tweaks on the platform now.

Au would not comment on the release of the K7, but said that, historically, AMD synchronizes a chip launch with product releases from computer vendors and the world should not expect anything different this time.