TAIPEI, Taiwan Less than two weeks after Intel Corp. officially launched a chip set that supports double-data-rate DRAMs operating at 200 MHz and 266 MHz, there is growing speculation about the prospects for 333-MHz chips.
The near-term prospects for PCs using PC2700 (333-MHz) modules are slim. Though third-party chip set makers and motherboard companies will support DDR333 memories, the devices aren't expected to get their legs this year because Intel and PC makers will be focusing on platforms with 200-MHz or 266-MHz memories.
With the introduction of Via Technologies Inc.'s Athlon/Duron-based KT333 chip set next month, all three Taiwanese core logic vendors will have silicon that supports the faster 333-MHz memory. Silicon Integrated Systems Corp. has its SiS645 and SiS745 and Acer Laboratories Inc. the Aladdin P4. Via will launch its Pentium 4 upgrade, the P4x333, in March.
Motherboard makers predict 30 percent to 40 percent of their designs will enable DDR333 by the end of the year. More importantly, however, they also acknowledge that few PC OEMs, system integrators or clone makers will choose it, settling instead for cheaper cousins with acceptable performance.
"Since Intel just released a 266 chip set, I don't think they will be too anxious to rush into 333. There's not enough market momentum in that project yet to really even consider replacing that with 333," said Stephen Rodriguez, director of strategic marketing at Kingston Technology Co., a maker of memory modules and an early supporter of the DDR standard.
Behind the scenes, DDR333 is also facing another hurdle. There is debate over whether the higher frequency chips should move to new chip-scale packaging instead of remaining in traditional thin small outline packages (TSOPs).
"There are two camps debating the suitability of TSOP versus FBGA DIMMs [dual-in-line memory modules]," said Arthur Sainio, director of strategic marketing at Smart Modular Technologies Inc. "With TSOP, you are reaching the maximum timing parameters of the packaging. This is part of the discussion going on at Jedec right now over [next-generation] DDRII for the CSP package," he said.
"Initially, the target was to go to FBGA for all of DDR333; however, based on die shrinks and so forth people are able to get that die into the TSOP package," Sainio said. "But other suppliers are still doing testing and claiming that you are going to see timing-related issues when you use a larger number of TSOP DIMMs [on a motherboard]."
So far, in standalone testing of signal integrity, both packaging technologies have done well, he said.
At this early stage, most motherboard makers and chip set vendors are still running module compatibility tests. But even though the engineering samples might check out in the labs, there is still reluctance to issue assurances. Gigabyte Technology Co. Ltd., one of Taiwan's largest motherboard makers, has finished qualifying samples from most of the main DDR chip suppliers, such as Micron Technology Inc., Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. and Nanya Technology Corp. "So far they are OK, but we can't guarantee how they will look when they go into mass production," said Darryl Chan, Gigabyte's product marketing manager.
Nevertheless, inquiries for 333-MHz DDR DRAM test modules are starting to trickle in from a few PC OEMs, which may mean that a few platforms will appear this summer, Sainio said. But with chip manufacturers still focused on DDR266, he doesn't expect to see much support.
The chips that do ship will most likely be ones intended as 266-MHz chips but sold for a premium as DDR333 because they can handle the higher frequency during testing. Some chip vendors refute this, saying their DDR333 chips were designed for the higher frequency. Even so, the only chip supplier credited with having decent volume is Taiwan-based Nanya Technology, which has about a 30 percent yield rate on DDR333.
Module makers say they had expected more samples by now and predict that the top manufacturers will have them out in the next three months. Most look set to stick with TSOP packaging because of higher yield degradation and the higher cost of using chip-scale packaging.
"Longer term, if you follow the road map for DDRII, that will require only micro BGA. There is no way you could use a TSOP. You have better electrical integrity with the micro BGA primarily because the signal length is so much shorter," Kingston's Rodriguez said. "But this is becoming the stepping stone to prepare for producing DDRII."
Neither DDR333 supply nor demand are expected to kick in until Intel really gets behind the faster memory. "I don't think if you use DDR333, the performance of your system will increase that much," said Allen Huang, a product marketing manager at Elitegroup Computer Systems, a top-tier motherboard maker. "The better boost will come from the [Pentium 4 processor's] higher bus frequency. The 333 chip sets are more for marketing"
So far, Intel's road map doesn't mention support for DDR333 this year. However, reports have suggested that Intel will upgrade its 845D chip set to handle DDR333 when it boosts its front-side bus to 533 MHz this spring. "Now IBM and Intel have teamed up to submit a revised Jedec spec that is being discussed and accepted by the committee," Rodriguez said. "In my mind, that will be the unifying force that overcomes these other issues."
There is also a hint of speculation that DDR333 may not get much time to ramp up as the industry looks forward to DDRII. "If Intel cannot get the DDRII spec ready soon, I think that DDR333 stands a good chance of getting more market share and eventually that could be a spec that is a must," said Gigabyte's Chan.
Another factor that could counter a leap to DDRII is the reluctance by memory manufacturers, who will hold out as long as possible against shifting to a new manufacturing process for DDRII. "Gradually, almost all of the memory manufacturers will want to use DDR333 or DDR400 because they can keep the same process procedure and just change to BGA packaging," Chan said .