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Samsung shrinks memory for Vista

Breakthrough should boost availability of DRAM

Samsung has developed the first DDR2 DRAM chips in the world using 50-nanometer manufacturing technology, an important improvement as PC manufacturers gear up for adoption of Microsoft's Vista OS.

Although the world's largest DRAM maker won't use the 50nm technology in mass production until 2008, the development shows that memory chip makers are preparing for the transition to Vista. Market researcher Gartner, for one, expects a gradual shift to Vista by users, and memory chips are going to be a key consideration for systems makers and users.

Microsoft has already offered two sets of guidelines for hardware makers readying Vista-ready PCs and laptops. Systems with 512MB of DRAM will win a Windows Vista Capable PC logo from Microsoft.

PCs with 1GB will gain a Windows Vista Premium Ready logo, which Microsoft says means "an even better" user experience, including real-time thumbnail previews, new 3D task switching, and interface scaling.

PC vendors have already started adding more DRAM to systems to ensure they're Vista-ready, a guarantee to users that purchasing a PC right now won't mean the system will be obsolete soon after the actual launch of Vista.

"Most 'Vista-Ready' PCs have 1GB of DDR2 inside, and the 'consumer PCs' usually have 2GB," said Ben Tseng, a vice president at Taiwanese DRAM maker ProMOS. The move by PC makers to ensure new systems are Vista-capable has already increased the average amount of DRAM per PC to 800MB in the third quarter, he added, and the company expects average DRAM content-per-PC to increase to 900Mb in the fourth quarter.

DRAM is a potential fly in the ointment for a quick ramp up of Vista next year. There may not be enough to go around if users buy new Vista PCs immediately. Memory chip makers have focused on building production lines for more lucrative NAND flash memory in recent years, due to strong user demand for iPods, digital cameras and other NAND-hungry gadgets. Rapid price increases for DDR2 in recent months has helped steer attention back to DRAM, but it's a bit late, since it usually takes more than a year to build a new DRAM factory, and costs billions of dollars.

The best way to increase chip production without an entire new factory is to shrink manufacturing technology, such as Samsung's 50nm success. A nanometer is one-billionth of a meter, and the term describes the size of the smallest features on a chip. In general, making the features smaller increases the number of chips a company can produce per month on one line, as well as improving chip speed and power efficiency.

Samsung says the 50nm technology will increase production efficiency by 55 per cent over its 60nm production process, and lower per-chip costs. Most DRAM makers currently use 90nm technology for the bulk of their chip manufacturing these days, while some have made the transition to smaller 80nm and 70nm sizes.

The key to the vastly improved production technologies at 50nm were several chip design improvements, Samsung said, such as the use of a special 3D transistor, called a selective epitaxial growth transistor (SEG tr), that reduces chip power consumption and increases performance by optimising the speed of each chip's electrons. Samsung also tweaked the design to increase storage capacity and improve storage reliability.

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