Matrix to challenge flash in memory cards

Matrix Semiconductor Inc. has used its write-once 3-D technology to make what it says is the world’s smallest memory chip. The move could lead to cheaper one-use memory cards, the company said.

Matrix increases the density of memory cells on a chip by stacking them in layers, reducing the surface area occupied by the memory chip. This allows more chips to be made on a single wafer and cuts manufacturing costs, Matrix’s Chief Operating Officer Siva Sivaram said at a news conference in Tokyo on Wednesday. “We are building a skyscraper, because the cost of the surface area of silicon is very expensive,” he said.

The Santa Clara, California, company has developed a 1G-bit chip with an area of only 31 square millimeters — double the capacity of the company’s prior generation of technology in the same area, and about a third the size of commercially available rewritable flash memory chips, he said.

Conventional flash memory can be rewritten many times, but Matrix’s chips can only be written once. That’s no obstacle for companies that want to distribute content such as music, video or games on cards, though, said Dan Steere, Matrix’s vice president of sales and marketing. Matrix’s chips can store such content reliably for about 100 years, he said.

For example, Sharp Corp. of Japan has for some time been using the chips to store memory in dictionaries. Last year, Mattel Inc. started using the chips in cartridges for its Juice Box personal media player, Steere said.

As well as being smaller than flash chips of the same capacity, memory cards using Matrix memory will cost between 20 percent and 50 percent less, so Matrix believes its technology can replace flash for consumers who want to buy low-cost cards to archive video, still images, and other content, Steere said.

Matrix chips are already available in MMC format memory cards, and will be available in most of the common card formats, including SD (Secure Digital) and Memory Stick, before the end of the year, according to Steere.

Several thousands commercial sample chips with capacities ranging from 128M bit to 1G bit are being produced by Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. Ltd. Volume production of chips using the new technology will start later this year, Matrix said.

The write-once cards could appeal to music fans and photographers, one market analyst said.

“My feeling is this technology has some excellent potential. If they get their product priced right they could conceivably cut into the market for … memory cards used in other consumer products like cameras and music players,” said Mark DeVoss, a memory analyst with U.S. market researcher iSuppli Corp.

“People may be willing to live with a consumable media and only choose to view or listen to the content they wish but with no editing capability…. A competitive response from behemoths like Samsung, Toshiba and SanDisk could be a problem,” DeVoss said.

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