America's last remaining DRAM maker looks to jump on the latest technologies like NGFF/M.2 and DDR4

Micron Technologies Inc. (MU) endured a rocky 2012 after losing its long time chief executive in a tragic plane crash.  But the company -- America's last major DRAM (memory) manufacturer -- has forged ahead with a revamped leadership.

I. Meet Crucial's Drive Trio 

In our 2013 Consumer Electronics Show conversation with Micron, the semiconductor company emphasizes that after a bit of mixing it is sticking with a cohesive (and sensical) branding solution.  Lexar will be the official brand for flash drives, memory cards, and peripherals.  Crucial will be the brand for memory and SSDs targeted at consumers.  And Micron will sell under its own brand name SSDs and memory to corporate consumers.

Among the major product launches for Micron at CES 2013 is a trio of new solid state drives dubbed M500.  Built on true 20 nanometer (not be confused with "20 nm-class" a term sometimes used to refer to 22 nm, etc.) MLC NAND chips, the lineup looks to leverage Micron's years of expertise in both NAND chipmaking and building first-party SSDs.  (Micron hit 25 nm in early 2011.)

Crucial M500
[Image Source: Jason Mick/DailyTech LLC]

The biggest member of the new family is the 2.5-inch drive, which measures a slender 7 millimeters thick.  Micron is including an adapter bracket for both consumers which will increase the effective thickness to 9.5 mm to provide a tighter fit in larger bays.

The 2.5-inch version will be available in February, with pricing still being worked out (but expect below $1/GB on most models.  THe drive will be available in 120, 240, 480, and 960 GB capacities.

About 30 to 45 days after the 2.5-inch drive launches, it will be joined by a pair of smaller form-factor drives for laptops or embedded applications.  The first uses mSATA, while the second uses the M.2 specification (also known by the name NGFF).  This technology is the pending replacement to SATA, which lands this summer with Haswell-related Intel Corp. (INTC) chipsets.  M.2 uses a PCI-Express slot, essentially paring two standards (PCI-Express, SATA) down to a single standard (PCI-Express).
Crucial Drive products
The mSATA and M.2 drives are expected to be priced similarly and be available in 120, 240, and 480 GB versions.

Read and write speeds are identical between the mSATA, M.2, and 2.5-inch drives.  They range from 500 MBps reads, 400 MBps writes, and 80k IOPS in the 480/960 GB drives down to 500 MBps reads, 130 MBps writes, and 62k IOPS on the 128 GB side.

Micron is using a Marvell 88SS9187 SATA 6 GB/s controller with customer firmware for error checking, error correction, and optimizing performance.  The true drive capacities are actually slightly larger (for example the 960 GB drive is really 1 TB), but Micron reserves a buffer of NAND (it "overprovisions" the drive) in order to handle garbage collection, performance enhancements, and other tweaks.

The drives incorporate some key advances.  The active average power consumption has been reduced to 150 milliwatts, while the sleep power consumption has been reduced by 93 percent to 5 mW.  

The drives also include a special thermistor, which talks to the microcontroller and downclocks the I/O speeds and power use when the temperature goes over 65° Celsius.  The drive returns to normal operation when the temperature drops to 55° Celsius.  Micron suggests this feature is particularly attractive when the drives are deployed in outdoor embedded applications, where they may be exposed to beating sunlight (and thus high temperatures).  It also may come in handy in slim form-factors like Ultrabooks.

The drives also include extra capacitors, which protect against data loss if the user performs a hard reset, by giving the drive enough stored power to wrap up pending writes.  The drives feature across the board 256-bit AES hardware-accelerated encryption compatible with Microsoft Corp.'s Windows 8 eDrive encryption technology.

Customers who opt to downgrade to Windows 7 will take a performance hit when using encryption, as Windows 7 only supports software-based encryption (BitLocker).

II. Prepare for Fourth Generation DDR RAM

Micron also showed us its latest memory (differentiated under the "good" -- Ballistix Sport; "better" -- Ballistix Tactical; and "best" -- Ballistix Elite) modules.  It's offering up a very low profile Sport line module (Sport VLP) and a low profile Tactical module (Tactical LP).  Pricing to these units is identical to their full-size counterparts; Micron's product managers tell us they expect to eventually see an erosion of the larger form factors as customers gravitate to the sleek low-profile packages.

Crucial DDR4
[Image Source: Jason Mick/DailyTech LLC]

In the more intriguing news, Micron gave a more specific timeframe for its upcoming DDR4 product, announcing that it would be shipping memory modules based on its upcoming 4 and 8 gigabit DDR4 chips before the year's end.  Not to be confused with GDDR4, the chips will be manufactured on a 32 nm process.

Micron's initial product will be sold (under its Crucial brand name) for server use.  

Crucial DDR4
[Image Source: Jason Mick/DailyTech LLC]

The new modules drop the voltage from 1.35 volts (DDR3) to 1.2 volts, in turn saving about 20 percent of the power used on the modules.  The new modules are also clocked higher, with a base speed of 2133 MHz versus the 1066 GHz base for DDR3.  Micron suggests that binned DDR4 modules may hit as high as 3 to 3.6 MHz without exotic extremes like liquid nitrogen cooling.

The JEDEC spec for DDR4 allows for up to 16 gigabit modules, but Micron explains that a die-shrink will be needed to hit that extreme size.

Micron DDR4
A DDR4 infographic [Image Source: Micron via Legit Reviews]

In other DRAM related news, a Micron manager confirms DRAM pricing remains painful, remarking, "It's always tough."

However, he was optimistic about tightening of supplying, pointing to roughly a 37 percent jump in spot prices on a 2 gigabit part over the last month.  That's good news for DRAM sellers like Micron, and not so great news for consumers wallets.

Micron hopes to see cost savings via the extra capacity it gained when acquiring Elpida Memory Inc. (TYO:6665).  Elpida owns several large fabs worldwide, including a fab in the Hiroshima area.  With regulatory hurdles considered, Micron expects to complete the acquisition in the first half of 2013.

Sources: Micron [1], [2]

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