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Samsung overtakes Numonyx in PRAM race

Exceedingly slow contest warms up slightly

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Samsung is starting production of 512Mbit Phase-Change Memory (PRAM) giving it a lead on rival Numonyx's 128Mbit chip.

Like Numonyx, the other PRAM developer, Samsung is optimistic that PRAM will replace NOR and NAND flash in mobile phones and similar battery-powered devices when those technologies run out of steam. It reckons that mobile phone handset battery life could be extended by 20 per cent by using PRAM instead of existing flash and expects - hopes - PRAM to become one of its core product technologies in the future.

Numonyx hasn't supplied performance data for its technology, but Samsung proudly boasts that its 512Mbit PRAM die, built with 60nm process technology, can erase 64 Kilowords (KWs) in 80 milliseconds. That's more than ten times faster than NOR flash. Samsung says that its PRAM can erase and rewrite data about seven times faster than NOR, using 5MB data segments.

PRAM technology development is a slow race between Numonyx and Samsung: it's like watching tortoises trying to sprint. Samsung announced its prototype 512Mbit PRAM die three years ago. Numonyx announced an early access programme last month, having introduced its first 128Mbit PRAM chip a year previously, using 90nm technology. This came from preceding Intel PRAM activities, with Intel having said back in March 2007 that it would/could deliver its first 128Mbit PRAM chips in the first quarter of 2008.

In the event it donated its PRAM technologies to Numonyx when that firm was set up in March 2008 by Intel and STMicroelectronics.

Samsung and Numonyx are working together on common pin-for-pin PRAM die specifications, both seeing such commonality helping PRAM adoption. The two are in a slow race to get mobile handset manufacturers to test and qualify their PRAM chips.

With this announcement, Samsung looks to have leap-frogged Numonyx in both capacity and process terms. However Numonyx has said it has taped out a 1Gbit PCM die using 45nm process technology. Samsung assures people that it will shrink its process technology to develop more cost-effective dies. The PRAM technology leapfrog game is set to continue.

El Reg's guess is that we shouldn't expect any serious PRAM activity by the handset crew until 2011. If they can get their engineer's hands on cost-effective 1Gbit, 45nm PRAM dies, then they could start getting excited. ®

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