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Memory will help smartphones boot quicker, save a bit of power

Micron Technology Inc. (MU) endured a rocky 2011, with plunging DRAM prices and the tragic death of long-time CEO Steven Appleton in a plane crash.  Appleton was replaced by Mark Durcan.

This year the Boise, Idaho-based company shows signs of bouncing back.  In May it unveiled DDR4 samples to counter Samsung Electronics Comp., Ltd.'s (KSC:005930) currently sampled designs.  The company also announced its plan to acquire Tokyo-based DRAM maker Elpida Memory, Inc. for $2.5B USD.

I. Micron Air Commercial PCM -- an Industry-First

Now the rebound continues with Micron beating Samsung to the punch, becoming the first to release commercial phase-change memory (PCM).

Phase-change memory is a new kind of storage chip, which offers a superior alternative to the tradition silicon-based NAND flash storage.  PCM is built on chalcogenide glass -- glass that contains one or more of the chalcogenide (sulfur, selenium or tellurium) elements.  When heated, the glass switches from crystalline to amorphous, altering electrical properties.  Modern PRAM also adds two intermediate states, making for four-states per cell.

Micron's phase-change memory will no doubt be pricey, but it promises high volume and a slew of benefits.  It boasts that the memory will cut smartphone boot times, improve application response times (by cutting latency), and even yield small power savings.  The memory is not a major power consumer, so these gains likely will amount to minutes of extra battery life, not hours.

Micron phase change
Micron's phase-change memory is incorporated into a 2-chip design, which incorporates both LPDDR2 volatile memory and PCM non-volatile memory.

Micron is offering its PCM as an all-in-one volatile/non-volatile solution, solution that includes a 1-gigabit PCM chip attached to a 512-Mbit LPDDR2 chip, connected by a custom interface inside a single package.

Tom Eby, Vice President of the Wireless Solutions Group at Micron comments, "Our commitment to innovation and continued development of advanced products to address the voracious demands of the wireless industry is clear and strong.  We are determined to evolve and innovate by continuing to offer the best-tailored solutions for both today's and tomorrow's market requirements." 

The new memory will be built on a 45 nm process.

II. Other Solutions Near Market

The only other driving concern (other than price) when it comes to PCM is sensitivity to temperature.  Given the high temperatures found in many mobile devices, Micron's solution will likely face a tough test to see whether it has worked out these kinks.

Micron may be the first to take the technology commercial, but it's hardly the first to experiment with PCM.  Intel Corp. (INTC), International Business Machines, Inc. (IBM), and Samsung have all sampled PCM chips in recent years.  Phase-change memory is based on the so-called "Ovshinsky effect", a property for quantified and patented by physicist Stanley Ovshinsky in the mid-1960s.

Chalcogenide glass
PCM is built using chalcogenide glass -- a special type of doped glass.
[Image Source: Univ. of Southampton]

The technology is similar to Hewlett-Packard Comp.'s (HPQ) memristor tech.  In fact, some HP Labs research fellows have argued that PCM are memristors, a claim that is debated among industry standard-keepers.

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Not exactly what I was hoping for
By nafhan on 7/18/2012 10:30:35 AM , Rating: 2
a 2-chip design, which incorporates both LPDDR2... and PCM
I kind of remember one of the promises of phase change memory being that a single pool of storage could be used for both primary storage (replacing RAM) and secondary storage (replacing flash or hard disks). Sounds like this is not the case for, at least, first generation PCM.

I'd be interested in finding out if this is due to compatibility reasons (i.e. current SoC's need DRAM, period) or physical characteristics of first gen consumer PCM (i.e. PCM is significantly slower than DRAM, uses more power, etc.). Seems like it could be either or both. Quick Googling doesn't give me much more than what I see here in this article.

RE: Not exactly what I was hoping for
By amanojaku on 7/18/2012 11:29:00 AM , Rating: 2
PCM won't replace DRAM just yet because of performance - current PCM tech is around 50 times slower. PCM is a competitor for Flash NVRAM, due to higher numbers of write cycles and and greater performance. Problem is scaling - PCM is more expensive than Flash NVRAM, is more sensitive to temperature, and manufacturing has not matured enough to scale to large volumes.

Keeping these limitations in mind, mobile devices will probably get PCM first. You won't need large amounts, heat should be significantly less, and mobile devices are inherently expensive, anyway.

By nafhan on 7/18/2012 11:52:07 AM , Rating: 2
Thanks! That would have been my guess. Micron's website was touting advantages like "low pin count" without mentioning anything about performance.

By geddarkstorm on 7/18/2012 12:32:39 PM , Rating: 2
Actually, that's not true anymore (though true for this first gen Micron PCM).

Take a look at this: . They've been able to improve PCM to have a write latency of 500 picoseconds.

For comparison, DDR3-2000 memory has a bit latency of 500 picoseconds, a full cycle latency of 1 nanosecond, and operates at 1 gigahertz command rate.

So, this new PCM they've just developed has the same characteristics of DD3-2000 RAM. I think that qualifies it for PRAM status.

Looks like the phase-change revolution may well be at hand. We'll just have to see. But it's so cool seeing something I've been reading about in labs finally coming to market.

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