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Micrograph of the MR2A16A MRAM device

Schematic of a 1-transistor, 1-MTJ memory cell showing the write lines above and below the bit and the read current path
All the benefits of flash memory and none of the drawbacks... except cost

Freescale Semiconductor Inc. announced the availability of its new memory chips which could possibly make some pretty large waves in the semiconductor industry. The company's magnetoresistive random-access memory (MRAM) is capable of retaining data without power like flash memory chips, but also has the ability to read and write data at much greater speeds. Also, unlike flash memory chips, MRAM doesn't degrade over time. Flash memory cells have been shown to lose integrity after 100,000 to 1 million cycles.

MRAM devices are capable of read and write speeds of 200MB/sec. For comparison, Samsung’s newly introduced 2Gb 60nm OneNand chips are capable of read speeds of 108MB/sec and write speeds of 17MB/sec. BusinessWeek reports:

Sometimes referred to as "universal" memory, MRAM could displace a number of chips found in every electronic device, from PCs, cell phones, music players and cameras to the computing components of kitchen appliances, cars and airplanes. "This is the most significant memory introduction in this decade," said Will Strauss, an analyst with research firm Forward Concepts. "This is radically new technology. People have been dabbling in this for years, but nobody has been able to make it in volume."

Companies like Toshiba, NEC and IBM have announced continued research and breakthroughs in MRAM technology, but Freescale is the first to announce commercial availability of the product. Freescale, which has been producing its 4Mb chips for the past two months in Arizona, was spun off from Motorola just two years ago. While it may be a while before consumers can see the benefits of products based around MRAM designs, it’s good to hear that manufacturers can now get a hold of production quality chips to develop new products.

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By Alphafox78 on 7/10/2006 11:16:27 AM , Rating: 2
I think this tech opens up the door to things much better than just memory sticks. imagine a pc with no boot times and no hard drive needed. or a pocket pc/phone that uses no power when off but comes on instantly. the memory could be shared in a pc between running apps and storage, the way pocket pcs (the older versions) work with memory.

RE: Posabilities
By Martin Blank on 7/10/2006 12:05:39 PM , Rating: 2
There will still be a boot time involved. Testing done with the DRAM-based PCI card that can act as a drive showed that while boot times were significantly improved, the CPU still had to process the information in the files and initialize the devices, and booting still took several seconds to complete.

RE: Posabilities
By Alphafox78 on 7/10/2006 12:37:54 PM , Rating: 2
well ya, I meant kind of like a sleep mode after initial boot. except sleeping would really be asleep since there is no power used.

RE: Posabilities
By dice1111 on 7/10/2006 1:03:38 PM , Rating: 2
The only sleep time i get on my computer at work, is me waiting for the damn thing to boot in the morning. Nothing like a ligitimate 10 min snooze. :)

RE: Posabilities
By TomZ on 7/10/2006 3:24:43 PM , Rating: 2
well ya, I meant kind of like a sleep mode after initial boot. except sleeping would really be asleep since there is no power used

Not all the standby power goes to the DRAM in sleep mode. For example, keyboard and mouse are powered up to allow the computer to "wake."

RE: Posabilities
By Tyler 86 on 7/10/2006 9:38:47 PM , Rating: 2
Good news though, I'm certain that there can be enough force applied to a button press can generate it's own power to wake a device in sleep - though that'd require new keyboards.

Maybe a 'Shake-And-Wake' variation would be good for PDAs.

RE: Posabilities
By Tyler 86 on 7/10/2006 9:51:12 PM , Rating: 2
Suspending session state straight to RAM instead of shutting down is quite doable today.

Some real-time applications had to be re-written to check the clock and obey power state notices and commands, but other than that -- we already have it.

Instant boot & reboot is very possible - the operating system just has to have an effective boot loader, preferably with some sort of incremental system-only state image it can dump to RAM as opposed to having to initialize every OS feature or sub-system from scratch, and the machine has to be able to safely asynchonously power-cycle all devices.

Such device could very forseeably pop on and off in less than 50 milliseconds, with or without greeting, with a full GUI & system state environment. Maybe even a supported application or two.

So far though, such times have only been accomplished with Linux and other proprietary OS's. Vista aims to please, but it's not the same - although since Windows XP Embedded, they do have support for 'suspend-once-resume-many' putting MS atleast in the ballpark.

Cautiously optimistic...
By segagenesis on 7/10/2006 11:03:21 AM , Rating: 3
Yeah, we have seen magnetic RAM in the news in some shape or form for over a decade now but I see a few things will first decide whether it replaces flash or not.

1) Memory density is currently abysmal, but this is expected of first gen technology (I remember 256-bit static RAM's). However, to compete with 2 gigabit flash chips they will have to target markets where 4 megabit non-volatile density is enough (embedded devices?).

2) What happens if you hold a magnet to these things? At least I know flash memory is damn near indestructible and if you leave your flash drive in the wash it will still work afterwards. (Yes, it really does *cough*firsthandexperience*cough*)

3) Licensing and pricing as a result. Do I need to mention more than the word... RDRAM?

RE: Cautiously optimistic...
By GreenEnvt on 7/10/2006 11:07:21 AM , Rating: 2
I'm wondering how durable it is too.
I've also washed my cruzer mini (1gb) about 3-4 times, still works.

RE: Cautiously optimistic...
By saratoga on 7/10/2006 3:48:10 PM , Rating: 2
Densisty and durability of MRAM are strong points. If the technology takes off, it should massively improve over flash in durability because writing to an MRAM cell does not degrade the cell. Its like DRAM in that it can be used trillions of times without any change.

MRAM will also use 10-100 times less power then DRAM by some estimates.

By MercenaryForHire on 7/10/2006 11:12:40 AM , Rating: 2
I don't see this totally replacing regular flash memory, especially if it's much more expensive to produce.

MP3 players, cell phones, and other uses where they don't need hundreds of thousands of write cycles and/or blistering speeds will probably still be using it for some time.

Good points on resistance to magnetic fields + pricing though. Any idea of mfg. costs at all?

- M4H

RE: Cautiously optimistic...
By TSS on 7/10/2006 11:14:15 AM , Rating: 2
denisity will increase as the technology advances, at some point they will discover a method or some other way to increase density by alot. remember, flash chips started small too.

im much more interested in booting up windows with this stuff. if its indeed as fast as DRAM and retains its information, windows shouldnt take more then a second to load. it will get very interesting if its possible to use it as RAM and a HDD at the same time, meaning you can choose what stuff to (pre)load in the RAM. no movie will ever stutter, no game will need to load its maps anymore, you turn your PC on and your monitor takes longer to boot up then the PC....

very exciting times i'd say. it's only a matter of time now before it'll be high density and available everywhere.

and pricing will drop seeing as multiple compagnys are working on it, while RDRAM was rambus exlusive.

RE: Cautiously optimistic...
By TomZ on 7/10/2006 9:57:11 PM , Rating: 2
What happens if you hold a magnet to these things?

Answer: Nothing. While the device is susceptible to external magnetic fields, the field would have to be much, much stronger than can be produced with a magnet.

Boot time?
By bleargh on 7/10/2006 1:10:50 PM , Rating: 2
You guys don't get it, do you? With non-volatile RAM, there will be no boot time. You won't boot your computer anymore.

You'll turn it on and it will start doing exactly what it was doing when you turned it off. Like hibernation mode, but instantaneous.

RE: Boot time?
By TomZ on 7/10/2006 2:29:08 PM , Rating: 2
True, but I would add that this all exists today - standby mode has been in Windows for many years. With standby, your computer just turns on; it doesn't boot the OS.

The only difference with MRAM is that the power consumption could maybe be reduced even more. But not all the standby mode power consumption is due to the memory. For example, the keyboard and mouse are powered up so they can be used to wake the computer.

RE: Boot time?
By masher2 on 7/10/2006 3:23:37 PM , Rating: 2
> "True, but I would add that this all exists today - standby mode has been in Windows for many years. "

Not quite. In standby mode, your computer is still on and using power...just at a somewhat lower rate.

RE: Boot time?
By TomZ on 7/10/2006 10:41:57 PM , Rating: 2
I think you are taking my use of "on" too literally!

Which Semi is Freescale?
By Slaimus on 7/10/2006 3:14:51 PM , Rating: 2
With so many name changes, it is hard to keep up. Who was Freescale again? Texas Instruments? Hitachi? AMD?

RE: Which Semi is Freescale?
By TomZ on 7/10/2006 3:22:10 PM , Rating: 3
Freescale was previously the semiconductor division of Motorola.

Hard Drive
By tk109 on 7/10/2006 11:02:07 AM , Rating: 2
When can I get a Hard drive using this MRAM is all I want to know.

RE: Hard Drive
By BreezyCool on 7/11/2006 1:33:26 AM , Rating: 2
Several years ago I worked for a company trying to capture some of the market for manufacturing equipment that would make these chips. One of the biggest technological hurdles was the need to etch a layer of material down to about 13 microns (or 13 atoms) thick. This would be like trying to use a sand blaster to etch a sheet of glass until it was paper-thin, very smooth and completely uniform. I'm amazed that someone got it to work.

At the time I was working on this project, the theoretical promise discussed by the clients suggested this technology could become fast enough to replace RAM. However I don't know if this will be the reality of MRAM.

what's the big fuss with boat time ...
By cgrecu77 on 7/10/2006 12:44:32 PM , Rating: 2
I mean I'm only booting up my computer once every day and then it takes ~30 seconds for my win xp to start up (on a regular 7200rpm disk) ... When I come from work I boot up and it usually takes 30 minutes before I actually go the computer. Unless you have a really slow computer that crashes all the time I really don't see the benefits of having a faster boot time ... I could see some advantages on a laptop, but as it is now it takes only several seconds for a laptop to come out of hibernation, so even there the benefits would be slight ...

With computers having 2gb or more of ram I can't see big advantages even for running most applications and games and for embedded devices I would guess that reliability is much more important then speed (except for digital cameras maybe).

By cgrecu77 on 7/10/2006 12:45:21 PM , Rating: 2
of course, the title should have been boot time ... :) I still don't know why we're not allowed to edit our own posts (or maybe we are and I can't find the option?).

First I have heard of this
By creathir on 7/10/2006 11:03:39 AM , Rating: 2
This technology really shows some promise...
I remember the good 'ol days of the EPROM... It is a amazing how far non-volatile memory has come... Faster than many hard drives now... Quite amazing indeed.

- Creathir

I remember 64x1 bit memory (TTL)
By swschrad on 7/10/2006 12:56:43 PM , Rating: 2
and I seem to remember articles that MRAM was the next big thing in the early 90s. so this is well due commercially.

the cost is likely to make this stuff a niche product for at least a couple of product years. aerospace, defense, the usual places where nobody wants to wait around for initialization and long cycle times that folks would have killed for when the first microcontrollers came out.

Apps, Too
By bramblecat on 7/10/2006 1:25:24 PM , Rating: 2
Well, if we're talking about what I think we are - creating a non-volitile chip-based hard drive such that RAM becomes unnessecary and programs are read directly from the 'hard drive' during operation - then not only would there be zero load time for the system, there would also be no load time for any applications. This is a lot of time saved.

Even if it was just O.S. load time - it's 30 seconds, man. Think of all the things you can do with 30 seconds. MMmmmm.

"If you can find a PS3 anywhere in North America that's been on shelves for more than five minutes, I'll give you 1,200 bucks for it." -- SCEA President Jack Tretton
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