Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. this week set the tone for the emerging DDR-II SDRAM market by introducing a validated 533Mbit/s chip. But what the company didn't disclose was that it also has a 1Gbit/s DDR-II device that will actually begin shipping much sooner as a specialty memory for graphics.
Samsung executives told EBN this week that samples of the 1Gbit/s (1GHz) DDR-II chip will be available this fall and could be in production in the first half of 2003. That would be at least six months earlier than initial production of the 533Mbit/s DDR-II chip, which the company unveiled with some fanfare as the PC market's next mainstream memory.
Samsung this week rolled out what it claimed is the industry's first 512Mbit 533Mbit/s DDR-II, working in conjunction with IBM Corp., Armonk, N.Y., which developed the memory interface and a new registered DIMM. The device was validated using DDR-II interface software from Denali Software Inc., Palo Alto, Calif.
Rival DRAM vendors surveyed this week were quick to claim that Samsung was prematurely hyping its DDR-II validation because it will still be more than a year before the next-generation memory enters production. Elpida Memory, Infineon Technologies, and Micron Technology all maintained that they, too, will be producing DDR-II for PC main memory alongside Samsung in the third quarter of 2003.
The companies also claimed they will have higher-speed versions of the chip for graphics applications in the first half of next year to compete with Samsung's 1Gbit/s part. Micron in particular said it will have a 900Mbit/s device in that time frame.
Slow to grow
Even though DDR-II will first be used in graphics, a few analysts still expect a slow takeoff in this area. Lane Mason, an analyst at Denali Software's research group, said the most aggressive graphics companies "still have some learning to do in trying to cope with the highest-speed DDR-I chips, now at 750 to 800Mbits/s. This involves load factors, signal integrity, and board design. They will have their hands full when they start working with the new DDR-II graphics memory," he said.
Nevertheless, Mason expects that major DRAM producers will introduce DDR-II memory to the graphics market well before the PC because high-volume capacity is not required. As memory chipmakers shrink their dice and improve processing, larger production runs will bring output and costs in line with the PC market's demands.
"As soon as enough yield is achieved [at DDR-II frequencies], we get enough quantities to start serving the graphics market," said Peter Schaefer, vice president of memory products at Infineon Technologies A.G.'s U.S. subsidiary in San Jose. "The graphics market is small enough that it doesn't need great yields at high frequencies."
Mueez Deen, Samsung Semiconductor Inc.'s director of memory marketing, San Jose, added that because graphics memory is mounted to the circuit board using a point-to-point connection, chips don't have to wait for DDR-II modules, chipsets, or PC motherboards to be developed and validated.
"We can work closely with graphics customers in cooperative engineering efforts to validate DDR-II on their products," Deen said.
Graphics is a growing market, but still a niche when compared with the huge volumes the PC sector consumes. Terry Lee, director of advanced technology and strategic marketing at Micron Technology Inc., Boise, Idaho, estimated that graphics constitutes 5% to 10% of the total DRAM market.
"Graphics is growing at the same rate as the DRAM market, so it should hold at this ratio for the next five years," Lee said.
Infineon's Schaefer said the high-performance graphics market, including DDR-II, will become even more important to DRAM suppliers as integrated graphics chipsets increasingly take away sales of low- and midrange external graphics cards and their buffer memory.
"Eventually, we'll end up with high-performance graphics being the basic market for external memory," he said.
While graphics will garner the initial DDR-II action early next year, a wide industry effort is already under way to create the chip infrastructure to support DDR-II for PC main memory in time for a late 2003 or early 2004 ramp.
"DDR-II will take new controller logic, a new chipset, new boards, and all this will take time," said Jim Sogas, vice president of sales and marketing at Elpida Memory Inc., San Jose. "Customers aren't going to commit to DDR-II designs until they can get their hands on validated samples and play with them."
To our readers
In recognition that the DRAM industry is using a new nomenclature to describe its device speeds, EBN will cease the use of clock frequency to classify DDR-II SDRAM. Instead, we will adopt a megabits-per-second (Mbits/s) measure when referencing double-clocked DRAM in an effort to more accurately describe the chip's actual data throughput.