Rambus believes PS3 will drive faster memory

Rambus' high-speed memory will help the PS3 achieve blistering graphics performance, but the company's technology may prove too expensive for mainstream PCs.

Memory technology developer Rambus hopes the widely-anticipated graphics performance of the upcoming PlayStation 3 (PS3) games console will push PC makers to adopt the company's technology, Rambus CEO (Chief Executive Officer) Harold Hughes said in an interview last week.

The PS3 will go on sale next year and is widely expected to set a new standard in gaming graphics. The PS3's ability to render realistic images will raise peoples' expectations of their PCs, and vendors will have to respond by boosting PC graphics performance, Hughes predicted.

"That's where the next generation of PCs will go," he said.

New processors by Intel and Advanced Micro Devices will help deliver this performance but memory will need to match the faster processors and that's where Rambus comes in with its XDR technology, said Hughes.

XDR will be used with the PS3's very powerful Cell processor, which has 8 cores, and which will perform about 35 times faster than the processor in today's PlayStation 2s, console maker Sony Computer Entertainment hopes. The Cell uses 256M bytes of Rambus' XDR DRAM (dynamic RAM) running at 3.2GHz, according to the company.

Competing high-end GDDR3 (Graphics Double Data Rate 3) memory chips run half as fast at 1.6GHz.

Unlike GDDR3, which is based on industry-standard DRAM technology, Rambus' XDR technology is proprietary and that could hinder its adoption in the marketplace, according to Kim Soo-Kyoum, program director for semiconductor research at market research company IDC.

If memory chip makers want to produce XDR chips they will have to pay royalties to Rambus, something many of them will be reluctant to do, Kim said.

That's mainly because the memory industry is the toughest in the chip business. Prices are highly cyclical -- for example, prices for the most popular types of DRAMs fell by more than 40 percent in the first four months of this year due to a market glut -- so extra costs like royalty payments can quickly impact sales and profits. In general, memory chip vendors tend to prefer slightly lower performing memory that's less expensive to make, Kim said.

This means that while XDR will find a home in games consoles and high-end PCs used by gamers, it may prove difficult for XDR technology to push into the mainstream PC market, he said.

Nevertheless, IDC does think XDR will find a market niche. Global XDR DRAM shipments could exceed 800 million 256Mbit-equivalent units by 2009, and this growth might include some XDR memory in PCs after 2006, Kim said.

"But that's only about one or two percent of the (total DRAM) market," he said.

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