The market for next-generation DRAM in graphics applications is dividing into two camps, with Nvidia Corp. championing a version known as GDDR-II and rival ATI Technologies Inc. backing a follow-on architecture known as GDDR-III.
So far, the companies are hedging their bets and say they won't rule out the adoption of both memory types. However, some smaller graphics companies that lack the resources of their larger competitors may be forced to pick a winner early on.
Nvidia, Santa Clara, Calif., is the first vendor anywhere to use GDDR-II in production volumes by designing the memory into its high-end GeForce FX graphics card. GDDR-II is the nomenclature assigned to the graphics-specific variant of next-generation double-data-rate SDRAM (DDR-II), and is so named because it has been optimized for graphics applications through the inclusion of point-to-point signaling.
Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. so far is the sole source for the 500MHz, 1Gbit/s data rate GDDR-II memory. Infineon Technologies A.G. and Elpida Memory Inc. are expected to sample GDDR-II in the first quarter of 2003, while Hynix Semiconductor Inc. is slated to introduce a similar chip in April of next year.
Micron Technology Inc. is virtually alone among top-tier DRAM makers in opting not to manufacture the GDDR-II chips. Instead, the company will begin marketing GDDR-III samples in the second quarter of next year, according to Terry Lee, executive director of advanced and strategic marketing.
"The GDDR-II market will be very short-lived," Lee said. "The transition will be faster if GDDR-III chipsets can be designed to be backwardly compatible with GDDR-II."
GDDR-III is also in the product roadmaps of Elpida, Hynix, and Infineon, with initial production expected in the second half of 2003. Taiwan's Nanya Technology Corp. said it has no plans to make either graphics memory.
Jon Peddie, of Jon Peddie Research, Tiburon, Calif., foresees a race developing between the two DRAM versions to determine which will be the first to achieve cost-effective yields and attractive pricing.
"It's definitely going to be a fragmented memory market for graphics next year," Peddie said.
Matthew Godfrey, a DRAM analyst at Semico Research Corp., Phoenix, said the mixed market will complicate the supply picture for manufacturers of graphics processors that rely on advanced memories.
"And confusion in the market equals customer rejection," said Jim Sogas, vice president of marketing at Elpida's U.S. subsidiary in Santa Clara.
Neil Trevett, senior vice president of market development for graphics hardware designer 3D Labs, Milpitas, Calif., agreed. GDDR-III is the first choice for 3DLabs' next graphics processor coming in 2003, but the company has a fallback position that includes the utilization of GDDR-II.
"There's a potential schism in the graphics memory market," Trevett said. "We would much prefer for the memory guys to be more unified."
Though Nvidia and ATI each has decided which DRAM horse it will ride, executives at both companies said customer demand ultimately will determine which memory type receives their full support.
Nvidia, for instance, is using GDDR-II for its GeForce FX processor. "We'll be ready to ship a product with GDDR-III when it's ready. It all depends whether GDDR-III turns out to be a faster memory than GDDR-II," said Bryn Young, director of memory sales and operations. "Otherwise, it's not that interesting."