Intel to stick with Rambus strategy

Intel will continue its love affair with Rambus memory, and will boost P4 speeds to keep up with expected RDRAM speed jump

Intel plans to stick with its stated strategy for pairing Rambus DRAM, or RDRAM, with its high-end products such as Pentium 4, the company said yesterday.

While Intel plans to keep the often-criticised RDRAM technology at the top of its product lineup for PCs, it will look to a pair of memory alternatives to help reduce the price of Pentium 4-based PCs and reach its goal of driving that chip into the mainstream PC market.

"We believe that RDRAM is the best solution when the memory costs are comparable" in a PC, said Pete MacWilliams of Intel's desktop platforms group, speaking at the Intel Developer Forum in California.

To help increase performance on its high-end PCs, MacWilliams said, Intel could increase the bus speed on its high-end Pentium 4 PCs from 400MHz to 533MHz. Such an increase in bus speed would match a jump from 800MHz to 1,066MHz in RDRAM expected next year.

But the company is still hedging its bets. Synchronous dynamic RAM, or SDRAM, will remain the most popular type of memory for PCs and will continue to be cheaper than RDRAM, MacWilliams said.

Intel plans to use SDRAM to fill the price gaps between high-end Pentium 4 PCs based on RDRAM and less expensive PCs using Pentium III or Advanced Micro Devices' Athlon chips.

The chipmaker, as previously announced, also said it will offer a PC 133 SDRAM chipset for Pentium 4 later in the year. The chipset is known by the codename "Brookdale". Intel will follow up with a second version of the chipset that supports a DDR (double data rate) SDRAM chip early next year. DDR SDRAM, as its name suggests, increases the peak bandwidth at which SDRAM is capable of transferring data.

Meanwhile, a number of other companies including Acer Labs, ATI Technologies and Gigabyte, are developing chipsets that support Pentium 4 with DDR SDRAM.

With support for the three types of memory -- RDRAM, SDRAM and DDR SDRAM -- "customers are going to be able to make their choices [of memory] and we'll be able to respond," MacWilliams said.

The company is also working up a DDR chipset for servers that use its Pentium 4-based "Foster" chip. Intel will send out samples of the chipset in the second quarter. Foster, a version of the Pentium 4 for workstations and servers will ship later in the year.

Despite the company's commitment to DDR, MacWilliams isn't looking forward to bringing up yet another memory technology on Intel chipsets.

"The reality is, when we look at DDR (SDRAM), we see a lot of the similarities with what we saw when we first looked at RDRAM," he said.

Could those "similarities" include long development times, product delays, and high initial costs? These three elements plagued RDRAM, which was ultimately introduced in November 1999, several months later than planned.

"If you're not extremely careful with how you do the design, there could be problems," he said of DDR SDRAM. "I don't think we've seen the end of the hiccups yet."

A hiccup did occur with Micron Technologies' first DDR SDRAM-based PC, pushing back shipping dates while its motherboard was redesigned. However, the PC's problems had to do with its faster 266MHz bus, not DDR SDRAM. The problems have since been solved.

With DDR facing possible development problems similar to those that plagued RDRAM, could RDRAM be in for a resurgence? The technology has dropped in price since it was introduced, while buying DDR memory remains a pricey prospect.

Although Intel is moving away from a strict RDRAM diet, that memory will still play a huge part in Pentium 4 computers, said Paul Otellini, general manager of the Intel Architecture Group.

Brookdale, Intel's non-Rambus chipset, is "important mostly because of the price points", he said. Still, he added, "the price of DDR today is not terribly attractive."

Analysts say that prices on DDR SDRAM will drop. DDR's price tag is relatively high now, but 2001 will be a good year for memory bargain hunters.

"The price for DDR DRAM will drop in the second half," said Linley Gwennap, principal analyst at The Linley Group.

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