Freescale first to market with new memory chips

Freescale introduced the first commercial memory chips that use MRAM technology.

Freescale Semiconductor is commercially offering a new type of memory chip, in hopes of spurring the development of applications and devices that can capitalize on the inherent advantages of the technology, the semiconductor company said on Monday.

Freescale is the first semiconductor company to begin selling memory chips based on MRAM (Magnetoresistive RAM), a technology that uses magnetic attraction to create resistance that is identified in the chip as a one or a zero.

The technology has been in development by researchers in the field for decades and while this first product doesn't meet some of the original expectations, it could have some interesting applications.

The new chips could be used by computer makers to enable instantaneous startup, said Andreas Wild, director of technology solutions in Europe, Middle East and Africa for Freescale. The technology would replace the active memory that is currently used to speed up the startup process, he said.

MRAM also could replace some other types of memory like flash and EEPROM (Electrically Erasable Programmable ROM) that suffer from limited endurance, he said. Those technologies use an insulator within the chip that sustains damage through use and so the chips can only support reprogramming a limited number of times, he said. MRAM, however, doesn't sustain that same type of damage with use so it can support unlimited reprogramming, Wild said.

Other applications could develop, now that the chips are commercially available. "Nobody wanted to engage in the development of applications and products if there would not be the security of supply," Wild said. "In order to solve this circle, we decided we will put something on the market that would be mature and reliable to stimulate development."

Still, the initial product falls short of some expectations. It has just 4M bits of storage. While that may suffice for some applications, it wouldn't come close to serving the needs of an iPod or a cell phone, noted Richard Gordon, an analyst with Gartner.

Also, in recent years it has become clear that cost would prevent MRAM from fulfilling one of its original promises, namely that it could serve as a single memory solution in devices that typically rely on several, Gordon said.

For example, cell phones might use as many as four different memory technologies, each one ideal for storing different things such as the operating system, files like photographs and working memory, said Gordon.

Using MRAM as a single memory device to do all of those things didn't quite work out as planned, however. "The reason we have so many different technologies in the market is because they all do something very well," said Gordon. "When you try to do everything together, you end up with compromises."

The low memory capacity in the new Freescale chips may be one example of such a shortcoming. Gordon says it's unlikely that MRAM can catch up to the gigabytes of storage supported by other memory technologies and required by many consumer electronics. Wild, however, says that Freescale has demonstrated that the memory capacity is scalable and that with each new generation of the chip capacity will double, allowing MRAM to catch up with other available memory technologies.

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