Intel Previews Potential Replacement for Flash Memory - Page 2

By John G. Spooner  |  Posted 2006-09-28 Print this article Print

The wafer represented Intel and ST Microelectronics first grasp of the new type of nonvolatile memory chip.

PCM chips use the same material, chalcogenide, thats used inside to store data in a rewritable optical discs.

But instead of using a laser to change the properties of the material and thus create the zeros and ones that make up data, the chips use electricity that flows through a resistor.

The resistor heats up and does the job of the laser, changing the materials properties to represent a zero or a one.

The effort is the "culmination of [work by] some of the smartest materials guys on the planet," Doller said. "Over the years, this has an opportunity to be a very large memory technology."

Indeed, it has the potential to replace both NAND-flash memory designed primarily for data storage-and NOR flash memory designed for executing code with one type of chip, streamlining manufacturing processes.

PCM chips, meanwhile, can be made backward-compatible to NOR flash-allowing them to fit into the same sockets-and also be produced using CMOS (complimentary metal oxide silicon) processes used by Intel and other chip makers in high volume today.

To be sure, "From a technology standpoint, [the 128-megabit chips] are a proof of concept product.

However, Intel can begin sampling them to customers soon, and it could begin selling them in the next couple of years, Doller said.

Intel already is the worlds largest producer of NOR flash memory chips, which are used in cellular telephones and in many embedded applications.

The Santa Clara, Calif.-based company is also a big maker of higher-end NAND chips, although not quite on the same scale as Samsung and Toshiba.

Flash memory microprocessors are becoming ubiquitous, and industry experts expect them to be populating laptops, automobiles and a number of other products in the near future for the next five to 10 years.

Read more here about flash memory microprocessors.

But Intel believes PCM chips can pick up the ball where flash leaves off and go a lot further, due to inherent physical advantages that flash doesnt possess.

"PCM is like a super set of NOR or NAND flash," Doller said. "Its almost nirvana for an engineer. It reads fast, writes fast-it does everything faster."

Doller said that Intel will begin sampling PCM chips to customers over the next several months.

"But were still years away from seeing these things in products," Doller said. "Will we be selling these? Yes. When will the volume start crossing over and above our current flash output? Probably not until 2010 or so."

Meanwhile, the arrival of PCM doesnt mean that Intel will abandon flash memory. The chip maker will continue offering NAND and NOR flash memory as long as possible.

But PCM does appear to be flashs eventual successor for Intel.

Doller said the company wasnt spending any time or money with other flash-related technologies, such as MRAM (Magnetic RAM) at technology that Motorola has been focusing on.

eWEEK Senior Writer Chris Preimesberger contributed to this story.

Check out eWEEK.coms for the latest news in desktop and notebook computing.

John G. Spooner John G. Spooner, a senior writer for eWeek, chronicles the PC industry, in addition to covering semiconductors and, on occasion, automotive technology. Prior to joining eWeek in 2005, Mr. Spooner spent more than four years as a staff writer for CNET, where he covered computer hardware. He has also worked as a staff writer for ZDNET News.

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