Samsung to put PCM for smartphones in chip package

Smartphones with phase-change memory could come next year

Samsung Electronics will ship a multichip package later this quarter for smartphones that will include phase-change memory (PCM), an emerging technology that could ultimately replace memory types like NOR flash, the company said Wednesday.

The 512Mbit PCM multichip package will be backward-compatible with NOR made using the 40-to-49-nanometer manufacturing process. That could allow mobile handset designers to directly implement the new form of memory into existing smartphone designs.

Samsung's announcement is significant because it is the first PCM product to be available as part of a multichip package, said Gregory Wong, an analyst at Forward Insights. Smartphones usually come with multichip packages with different forms of memory to provide data access and storage. One example would be a multichip package with SRAM and NOR components, found in many smartphones today.

Samsung did not respond to a request for comment on whether it was shipping the multichip package in volume.

Research around PCM has been going on for decades, and Samsung and Numonyx until now had announced PCM products as individual components. Last week, Numonyx announced that it would ship PCM products with 128Mbit capacities. Numonyx and Samsung last year agreed to jointly develop specifications for PCM. Numonyx was acquired by chip maker Micron in February.

PCM uses a glass-like material that can change from multiple states to crystalline forms as its atoms are rearranged. The state of the material corresponds to the 1s and 0s in computing, allowing it to be used to store data.

The companies are working together to bring commonality to PCM as customers don't want to be locked into buying products from a single vendor, Wong said. Samsung and Numonyx are developing the technology rapidly, and smartphones with PCM components could reach the market as early as next year, Wong said.

"They're both competing for the same business in the cellular space," Wong said.

The companies have said that PCM has the potential to read and write data at faster speeds while consuming less energy. PCM can write data at faster speeds than NOR, but the relative cell current consumption is higher, which is a big issue, Wong said.

Samsung claimed that PCM provides three-times-faster data storage performance than NOR. The program performance for NOR is in the 0.2MB-to-0.5MB-per-second range, which could translate to performance of between 0.6MB and 1.5MB per second for PCM. But unlike NOR, PCM consumes more energy as it requires more write cycles, for which it requires more electric currents, Wong said.

Wong agreed with Samsung that PCM would eventually replace NOR flash memory in devices such as smartphones. Many top cell-phone makers are rumored to be evaluating PCM for implementation in handsets, and Samsung itself has a mobile-phone business, which bodes well for the future of PCM, Wong said.

Proponents have also envisioned PCM replacing NAND technology. However, Wong said NAND is much cheaper to make, which could make it more economically viable than PCM in the long run. With NAND flash, more data can be crammed on cells, which increases capacity and helps drop manufacturing cost.

NAND chips are also at least two generations ahead in the manufacturing process compared to PCM, most chips of which are being made using the 90-nm process, Wong said.

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