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Toshiba plans faster flash memory

Staying one step ahead

Toshiba is planning to double the read/write speed of its NAND flash memory chips in the next year, the company said today.

NAND flash memory is used as the basic storage in devices such as digital cameras, music players and memory cards. Faster chips could mean faster data transfers between computers and the devices.

At present, Toshiba's flash chips can read and write data at 6MB per second but this will be doubled to 12MB per second some time next year when the company begins producing chips on a new manufacturing line, said Hiroko Mochida, a Toshiba spokeswoman.

The company currently makes most of its NAND flash chips on a 90nm production line but plans to start up a state-of-the-art 52nm line in 2006 on which the chips will be made.

The nanometer measurement refers to the size of the smallest feature on the chip and is a standard gauge of the manufacturing line. Smaller numbers mean a more advanced line and these are typically capable of producing physically smaller chips that are both cheaper and use less energy.

Initial chips will have a capacity of 16Gb (2GB), said Mochida.

Toshiba's new chips are coming as competition in the flash memory chip market is increasing. Apple's launch of the iPod nano, which uses NAND flash memory, has increased demand for the chips and also expanded the potential market size, so chip makers are battling each other to increase their sales.

"Hynix increased capacity from the second quarter of this year," said Hiroyuki Shimizu, an analyst at Gartner in Tokyo. "[Its] production went up sharply to close to Toshiba's so Toshiba had to increase its production [to maintain market share]. Maybe at the end of this year Hynix will be the number three in the market."

Toshiba was the second ranked company in the flash memory market by revenue last year, according to Gartner estimates. Samsung led the market and Toshiba was followed by SanDisk, Renesas and then Hynix.

The competition is good news for consumers as prices are falling, said Shimizu. But some worry that demand will outstrip supply leading to a shortage.

"At this moment NAND flash [price] is still going down but if there is a shortage of NAND flash memory [the manufacturers] will be trying to raise prices. Now they are trying to get market share so they still have to reduce prices."

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