Intel samples flash chips for handsets

As the battle rages between the two main kinds of flash memory, NAND and NOR, Intel Corp. said it has already sent samples of its latest NOR flash chip to mobile phone makers.

The chip, code-named Sibley, is Intel’s first 512M-bit device made using a 90-nanometer production technology, which helped it to double reading speeds, triple writing speeds and quadruple erase speed compared to its previous NOR chips, said Edward Doller, chief technology officer for the flash products group at Intel, during a Webcast event late Thursday.

The greater storage capacity is important to help NOR compete effectively against NAND. Some mobile phone makers have turned to NAND flash memory for its greater per-chip capacity, which they need to meet storage demands in newer phones with cameras and music players. The trend has been seen as a threat to NOR flash, traditionally the main type of memory used in mobile phones and Intel’s mainstay offering in the flash market.

In the first quarter this year, revenue from NAND sales caught up with that of NOR sales for the first time, according to research from iSuppli Corp. NOR revenue from the quarter dropped 11 percent compared to the fourth quarter of 2004, to US$2.02 billion, while NAND revenue increased 16 percent over the same period, to US$2.05 billion, the market researcher said.

Flash is a rewritable memory that retains data when power is switched off. The type of flash Intel makes, NOR, runs software faster than other types of flash and is used mainly in mobile phones. NAND, its main rival, typically holds more data and is found in MP3 music players as well as removable memory cards for digital cameras and other gadgets.

The latest NAND chip, announced last month by market leader Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd, can store 4G-bits of songs, pictures and other data, far more than any NOR offering. By comparison, Intel can stack two of its latest NOR chips to make a 1G-bit device.

But concerns about NAND replacing NOR in mobile phones are overblown, according to Doller. He argued that NOR is more cost-effective and puts less power drain on batteries.

Intel’s flash memory plan going forward does not include a NAND equivalent. The company has said it expects to regain its lead in flash memory by continuing with its NOR lines and a new, NOR-type embedded flash memory product.

Intel’s next NOR chip, code-named Capulet and slated for mass production in 2006, will be a 1G-bit chip manufactured using a 65-nanometer production technology, according to Doller. It plans a subsequent 45-nanometer technology flash chip for 2008, and is exploring a 32-nanometer chip in 2010 and a 22-nanometer chip by 2012. The numbers refer to the dimensions of circuitry features on the surface of chips.

Doller overturned a widespread belief that Intel had avoided entering the NAND market because it would require it to gain licenses from either SanDisk Corp. or Toshiba Corp., the inventors of NAND. “If Intel chooses to get into the NAND memory market, there’s no IP that gets in our way to do so,” he said.

However, instead of NAND, Intel is researching “many next-generation technologies,” Doller said. They include phase-change memory technology, which stores and runs software particularly well, and a ferroelectric polymer technology, which has high storage capacity, he said.

In addition, Intel’s venture capital arm has invested in Ovonyx Inc., which claims its phase change memory technology offers significantly faster write and erase speeds and higher cycling endurance than conventional flash memory.

These technologies, if they prove viable at all, will likely take years to develop. In the meantime, Intel sees no credible challenger to NOR or NAND flash emerging before the end of the decade, Doller said.

Any new technology takes time to mass produce and gain market acceptance, he said, noting that it took four years to shift to flash from EPROM (erasable programmable read-only memory), a special type of memory that retains data until exposed to ultraviolet light.

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