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AMD, Intel fight wars using memory chips

DDR and Rambus tools of a bigger battle

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Yes, we know that AMD will use Rambus memory "if the market demands it" and we know that Intel will use DDR (double date rate) memory if "the market demands it".

But, behind the scenes, these two firms have little intention of getting out of their trenches and meeting in no-man's land for a little festive footer like the Germans and the Brits in World War One.

And when they say "if the market demands it" they both mean "if we're forced to".

That fact is underlined by AMD's decision, last month, to trademark the logo "Powered by DDR Memory" (US trademark application serial number 76204636).

An AMD representative explained to The Register: "This logo is not an AMD logo but is owned by a DDR consortium (for want of a better word). We encourage our OEMs to use it as well as our logo to show that the PC uses high performance memory and therefore is faster than an equivalent PC that only uses standard SDRAM."

Further, DDR memory, which is based on synchronous memory, is cheaper and faster than Ramboid memory. "The cheap nature of manufacturing DDR is the reason why Intel have a hard time with Rambus and why they are madly developing a DDR chipset (Brookdale I think) so that they can get to use the cheaper DDR memory. The fastest Rambus memory available now is actually slightly slower than the slowest DDR memory (PC1600) and it uses more power - Intel really did bet on the wrong horse this time."

What is true is that it took intense pressure from its own PC customers, some meory manufacturers (the so-called Dramurai), a battery of analysts, and the press, before it would agree to support firstly PC-133 memory and then DDR memory at all. Intel used to be in a position to virtually dictate which kind of memory was used in PCs, and indeed did so when the PC-100 SDRAM standard was introduced.

However, it would be disingenuous to think that Intel's rivals in the CPU business, AMD and Via, are looking dispassionately at what customers need, and for that noble reason have decided to put their weight behind DDR and not support the cohorts of the Evil Empire of Rambus.

In reality, Via and AMD are engaged in marketing which could be regarded as deeply cynical as anything Intel can manage, and which ultimately benefits their bottom line.

That, of course, is good for shareholders in both firms and has also had a knock-on effect in being good for consumers. Via, in particular, by pushing chipsets which supported PC-133, allowed Taiwanese OEMs to have a choice when designing motherboards, and, in so-doing, eventually persuaded Intel of the errors of its ways.

AMD, which doesn't really want to be in the chipset business at all, is very happy that Via is flying the PC-133 and DDR flag for it and its customers.

Intel's deep cynicism on the subject of Rambus and the Dramurai is well-documented in the cyber pages of this organ.

So is Rambus memory any better than DDR memory, as far as your average punter is concerned? This is where things get murky. Techies will pound on about latency, about graphics bench tests, about bottlenecks and what have you, and, if you're non-technical, eventually your head will begin to slowly gyrate and your knees get weaker.

The price and availability of Rambus appears to be getting better, but that is true for DDR memory too. Intel is still committed by inclination, by contract and by obstinacy to push Rambus for all it is worth. AMD and Via will take the opposite view. As consumers, we may well benefit from the ding-dong battles that ensue.

Finally, the law suits over whether Rambus owns patents on DDR and synchronous memory begin this month, and by the end of this year we should have a better idea where we are on those. If Rambus wins these cases, all bets are off. ®

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