Tablets, smartphones to get speed boost with new memory

LPDDR3 will succeed LPDDR2 and ramp up performance in tablets and smartphones while consuming less power

A new form of mobile DDR3 memory that can speed up tablets, smartphones and laptops could appear in devices starting as early as late next year, with adoption ramping up in 2013, analysts said on Thursday.

Low-power DDR3 memory -- also called LPDDR3 -- will bring a bigger data transfer pipe to tablets and smartphones, which could translate into better performance and longer battery life, analysts said. Standards-setting organization JEDEC (Joint Electron Device Engineering Council) is defining the specifications for LPDDR3, which draws heavily from conventional DDR3 DRAM found in PCs today.

The mobile memory will replace LPDDR2, which is found in current smartphones and tablets like Apple's iPad. Memory maker Samsung Electronics this week said it had developed a 4GB LPDDR3 DRAM unit, which it called the industry's first. The mobile memory can transfer data at up to 1,600 megabits per second, which is 1.5 times faster than LPDDR2, while consuming 20 percent less power.

Tablets and smartphones will need to switch to a faster form of memory as devices and applications become more resource intensive, said Mike Howard, principal analyst for DRAM and memory at IHS iSuppli.

"As far as viewing and recording high-definition content, it's going to be a better experience with LPDDR3 because of the bandwidth available," Howard said.

Mobile memory is key in bringing more multitasking to devices, Howard said. As hardware advances to include faster processors and higher resolution screens, LPDDR3 will keep the ball rolling on switching between videos, phone calls and other applications, Howard said.

In addition to better performance, LPDDR3 memory is designed to consume less power than its predecessor, said Dean McCarron, principal analyst at Mercury Research. A combination of low-power consumption and more bandwidth could prolong battery life on tablets and smartphones, McCarron said.

"It is allowing lower power consumption that has an immediate benefit everywhere," McCarron said.

The memory type will initially be found in tablets and high-end smartphones, where performance matters more, McCarron said. But as is the case with most new technologies, LPDDR3 initially won't be cheap, but as production ramps, LPDDR2 will be phased out and its successor will appear in more devices. As adoption increases, prices will fall and that will be reflected in the prices of smartphones and tablets.

"Eventually all these technologies become a commodity," McCarron said.

Intel has also been pushing the use of low-power memory in ultrabooks, which is being promoted by the chip maker as a category of thin-and-light laptops with tablet-like features. Analysts said that there are still a lot of unknowns about components that may be used in ultrabooks, but LPDDR3 may be in those PCs in coming years. LPDDR3 offers close to a 15 percent power reduction compared to standard DDR3, according to JEDEC.

JEDEC is still developing LPDDR3 specifications, but that could be finalized soon, Howard said. Backing of the mobile memory could ramp once the specification is finalized. The world's top DRAM makers include Samsung, Hynix Semiconductor, Elpida Memory, Micron and Nanya, all of which are members of JEDEC.

JEDEC did not immediately respond to requests for comment on when it would finalize LPDDR3, but analysts estimated that it could be finalized by the end of the year.

In prior renditions of synchronous DRAM such as SDRAM, DDR and DDR2, JEDEC pushed hard on speed without worrying too much about power, said Jim Handy, director of Objective Analysis. With DDR3 and LPDDR3, JEDEC worked to bring the power specifications back down while continuing to increase speed.

But adoption typically depends on other parts of the system, Handy said. For cell phones it's less sudden than it is in PCs, where a single supplier dictates which interface the chipsets are going to support. But the power advantage is a sufficiently compelling reason for device makers to quickly switch over to LPDDR3.

"I would anticipate a quick conversion of cell phones to LPDDR3. In tablets, so far Apple is the only supplier of any significance, so adoption depends solely on their moves," Handy said.

It's hard to predict when Samsung will ramp up production of LPDDR3, Handy said.

"Samsung has announced products lately that don't show up in production systems for over a year," Handy said.

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