TAIPEI, Taiwan -- Intel's decision to pull in the launch of its 800-MHz front side bus is breathing new life into DDR400 double data rate synchronous DRAM chips.
Several months ago DDR400 looked like it would be dead on arrival as memory manufacturers debated whether they could make reliable devices with sufficiently high yields to make money or whether they would prefer to jump into next-generation DDR-2.
On Wednesday (February 19, 2003), however, Samsung Electronics, Hynix Semiconductor, Inc., Infineon Technologies AG and Elpida Memory were tripping over themselves to send out announcements that said their DDR400 components and modules complied with Intel's specs for DDR400 to be used in single (64-bit) and dual-channel (128-bit) computer systems.
The news was timed to coincide with Intel's early release at the Intel Developer Forum of two high-end chipsets, codenamed Springdale and Canterwood, that support single- and dual-channel DDR400 and an 800-MHz front-side bus.
In their eagerness, each memory company even used the same canned quote from Intel senior fellow Pete MacWilliams: "We will see DDR400 support the highest performance Pentium 4 processor desktop and workstation systems in 2003. We are pleased that (company name here) will support our roadmap by offering Intel-compliant DDR400 memory for these applications."
Intel changed the timeline on plans for an 800-MHz front-side bus for its chipsets, which wasn't supposed to come out until much later this year, when it looked like competitor Advanced Micro Devices Inc. might launch its Hammer series of processors in March 2003, just before the industry's largest trade show, Cebit in Hannover, potentially making AMD the talk of the town and the industry.
By bringing its 800-MHz front side bus plans forward and making sure Samsung, Hynix, Elpida and Infineon are ready to supply the DDR400 synchronous DRAMs it uses, at least in sample quantities, Intel has tried to create a Cebit that can be dominated by motherboard makers from Taiwan showing off their latest Pentium 4 designs and pointing to the 800-MHz front-side bus and dual-channel DDR400 as clear performance enhancers.
"Dual DDR is a nice boost," said Scott Thirwell, marketing manager at Abit Computer, a Taiwanese motherboard maker. And meanwhile AMD's Hammer is now rumored to be ready for an April release. A doubly good Cebit result for Intel.
The shift in Intel's thinking on DDR400 isn't likely to impact system level players that much in the longer term, and some DRAM manufacturers may find it hard to play in a space that should bring good premiums but a short lifecycle.
Not long ago Samsung Electronics, and to a lesser extent, Nanya Technologies, seemed to be the only companies saying that DDR-1 at 400MHz was a chip that could be done with reasonable yields and reliable system performance. Micron Technology, which will also support that speed, was the most skeptical, even though it did eventually demonstrate a sample late last year. On Wednesday (February 19, 2003), a Micron official acknowledged that the company would still likely have problems getting good yields.
In early testing of systems last year, Micron said the timing was so tight that some computer systems could only handle two single-sided modules -- a restriction the general market would likely reject, forcing DDR400 into a niche. Most users want the flexibility of using double-sided modules and three DIMMs. However, in the intervening months, progress has been made. "We should not have any problems with fully loaded systems," said Charles Kau, executive vice president at Nanya Technology.
Thirwell said timing closure, "was our number one concern" when talk of DDR400 turned serious. It isn't anymore. Abit's boards, for example, can use two or four DIMMS, single or dual-sided, up to a maximum capacity of 4-Gbyte. "This is the first time we are fully confident that DIMMS from different manufacturers will work," he said. "We were maybe 80 percent sure in the past."
With DDR-II, and the move from 184-pin to 240-pin modules, the timing issue will fade. Other factors improving performance will be 1.8 volt signaling and a 4-bit pre-fetch instead of the current 2-bit pre-fetch.
To be sure, DDR400 systems will only sell to a narrow band of the overall PC market, such as workstations and gamer systems. Nevertheless, because of the higher margins in that segment, motherboard manufacturers, system integrators and OEMs will be revving up the marketing juggernaut.
Taiwan's chipset makers will also be busy putting the final touches on their single and dual-channel DDR400 chipsets, including Ali Corp. (formerly Acer Labs Inc.), which had initially said it would not field a chipset.
Industry standards body JEDEC will be racing to catch up, too. Several months ago, dissention within the organization over the need for DDR400 initially prevented it from making meaningful progress on the specification. "It became a competitive stumbling block. That is, those who couldn't do it wanted to prevent JEDEC from standardizing it because they didn't want their competitors to find a premium for products they can't produce. That's why it became a very passionate debate," said Bert McComas, founder of InQuest, a market research firm.
When Intel decided it would push forward the launch of an 800-MHz front-side bus -- in part to compete with AMD's new Hammer series -- the company also took control of the specification. "Intel can say who can play and then do a spec everyone can agree on. JEDEC could not. There were two or three guys who wanted to screw it up because they couldn't do it or they wanted to fatten the spec so much that it's not doable at the system level."
With recent process shrinks, it has become easier to implement, McComas said, and that has taken some of the sourness out of the debate.
At Samsung, volume production started last quarter on 128-Mbit and 256-Mbit chips. Nanya is moving into volume on 256-Mbit chips. Infineon's 256-Mbit samples are available now. For Elpida, 256-Mbit samples are available now and volume parts will run in the third quarter. Hynix is shipping 256-Mbit chips in volume, and is sampling 512-Mbit chips, said Farhad Tabrizi, vice president of worldwide marketing at Hynix. "Hynix projects DDR400 to represent more than 30 percent of DDR demand by Q4 2003," he said.