Samsung retakes lead from Intel and Micron in flash memory

Samsung unveiled flash memory chips made with 20-nanometer production technology

A battle over chip manufacturing prowess in the flash memory chip industry appears to be brewing between Samsung Electronics and IM Flash Technologies, a joint venture operated by Intel and Micron.

Samsung, the world's largest memory chip maker, unveiled NAND flash memory chips produced using advanced 20-nanometer production technology on Monday, just months after IM Flash Technologies said it had started producing the first commercial NAND flash chips made using 25nm technology.

A competition between the companies for chip manufacturing supremacy would be good for users. In general, smaller production processes lead to lower-cost, speedier and more power-efficient chips, which are exactly what's needed for today's mobile devices.

Intel is the world's largest chip maker, while Samsung ranks second. Prior to a few years ago, the two companies had not been direct competitors. Intel specializes in microprocessors, while Samsung is the biggest maker of both DRAM and flash memory in the world. Early in 2006, Intel teamed up with Micron to form IM Flash, a direct competitor to Samsung in flash memory.

IM Flash announced its 25nm technology in January, about a year and a half after it started using 34nm technology. Samsung, by comparison, first announced 30nm flash memory chips in October of 2007, making its trip to 20nm a two-and-a-half year journey.

Advances in chip manufacturing are vital in the memory chip industry because the smaller technology not only reduces costs, but also improves the chips themselves. Samsung said SD cards with flash chips made using the 20nm process have write-speeds 30 percent faster than those made with its previous generation 30nm technology. Flash memory chips store songs, photos, documents and other data in a range of devices, from iPods and smartphones to some laptops.

The nanometer measurement describes the microscopic size of transistors and other parts on a chip. A nanometer is a billionth of a meter, about the size of a few atoms combined.

Samsung's new 34 gigabit (4 gigabyte) MLC (multi-level cell) NAND flash memory chip is aimed at memory cards and embedded memory for devices such as smartphones. The South Korean company is already shipping sample SD cards with 20nm chips inside to customers and expects to expand production later this year. The company will make memory cards ranging from 4GB to 64GB available with 20nm flash.

Intel's chip revenue last year reached US$33.3 billion for a 14.6 percent share of the global chip market, according to market researcher Gartner. Samsung took a 7.7 percent share of the market on chip revenue of $17.7 billion.

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Dan Nystedt

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