Samsung bets on controversial memory standard

The semiconductor maker has begun sampling DDR400, which could lead to faster memory for PCs - or may never see the light of day

Samsung has begun shipping engineering samples of 200MHz double-data-rate (DDR) SDRAM memory, or DDR400, in spite of doubts over whether the PC infrastructure industry will ever widely adopt the standard. If DDR400 does become usable in PCs it would offer significantly faster memory speeds for high-end PCs, but industry observers say interest from system manufacturers in more advanced memory types has been less than earth-shattering.

The Korean semiconductor maker said late last week that it had released DDR400 samples to chipset makers Via Technologies, Nvidia and Silicon Integrated Systems (SiS), and said the SDRAMs are available in 128-megabit and 256-megabit densities. Samsung said its memories were three times faster than PC 133 single-data-rate SDRAMs, and 50 percent faster than DDR266 memories. Demonstration motherboards with DDR400 compatibility are expected from the three chipset makers in the second quarter, Samsung said.

The future of DDR400 is far from clear, with PC makers resisting building faster and more expensive memory capabilities into their systems, because of general sluggishness in demand. Motherboards are now available for DDR333 SDRAM, but some semiconductor makers complain that DDR266 is barely trickling into the market.

When memory manufacturers want to move beyond DDR333, however, many predict they will simply jump to a next-generation standard called DDR II, which is expected next year. DDR II allows the manufacture of speeds beyond 400mbps at a lower cost than the current DDR I specification, and could render current DDR400 memories less attractive.

However, DDR II has problems of its own: it will require manufacturers to redesign their motherboards, and it doesn't achieve the performance of Rambus' RDRAM standard, which means that DDR I may stick around for the forseeable future, according to some industry observers.

Companies like Samsung are betting that DDR I will remain a force long enough for them to recoup their massive research expenditures, and are hoping that PC makers will begin buying more expensive memory technologies like DDR400 later this year. Micron and Samsung, for example, both predict that demand for DDR333 and DDR400 from system manufacturers will ramp up in the third quarter of this year.

Many manufacturers say that DDR400 is likely to find its way into niche markets like graphics cards, but is simply too expensive to design, test and manufacture for mainstream PC memory. Because of inherent limits in DDR I, the yield is far lower on chips faster than 333mbps. For example, Micron estimates that DDR333 memories can achieve a yield of about 90-95 percent, while DDR400 tops out at about 40 percent.

Graphics hardware can be easier to manufacture and test because far less memory is used than in main PC memory, and the memory load is fixed.


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