by Andy Patrizio
So our motherboards and memory sticks are all going to be obsolete again. What do we get for this mandatory migration?
We're used to CPU and GPU technologies continuing to evolve and iterate at a rapid pace, but let's not forget the memory makers are driving their own innovation as well. Starting later this year and accelerating next year, expect to see a new form of computer memory, DDR4.
The standard isn't official, but the manufacturers are starting to sample it. In early May, Micron announced it had released its first fully functioning DDR4 memory product for testing.
Micron is actually a little late to the party. Samsung started shipping 2GB DDR4 samples in December of 2010 announced it had developed a 4GB module in January of 2011, while Hynix demoed its own DDR4 technology in February of 2011.
Of course, it doesn't matter, since the Joint Electron Devices Engineering Council (JEDEC) in charge of developing the spec is not expected to sign off on a final DDR4 standard until this summer, so these are all lab experiments.
Micron said it was working on a 4-gigabit x8 DDR4 memory unit, which translates to a 4GB memory DIMM. It also plans on x16 and x32 DDR4 memory components, which means very high memory capacity DIMMs in the works, much higher than we've seen for DDR2 and DDR3.
DDR4 will focus on two areas: significantly enhanced power management and increased speed and performance. DDR3 consumes 1.5 volts of power, while DDR4 is 1.2 volts, a 20 percent reduction. That will reduce heat in every device that uses it.
At the same time, it's going to get faster. DDR4 will sport data transfer rates of 3.2 billion transfers per second, double that of the top-end speed of DDR3's memory bus. Micron's initial memory DDR4 units will have transfer speeds of 2.4 billion memory transfers per second, which is still much faster than DDR3.
As it turns out, that won't be much of a benefit for consumer devices. "Almost nothing consumers run right now is memory bottlenecked, so going over 1866 MHz on current DDR3 is barely benchmarkable. New CPU platforms may change that equation though, so DDR4 might be needed then," said Kelt Reeves, president of high-end PC maker Falcon Northwest.
DDR4 will also support deep power down, allowing it to go into a sleep mode that requires no refresh of the memory. At the same time, it will also have the ability to refresh individual chips on a DIMM rather than force a refresh of the whole DIMM when only one chip needs it. The JEDEC spec says that this chip select addresses latency and saves up to 40-50% of standby power.
Because it will be expensive out of the gate, and due to its emphasis on massive densities, expect to see it in servers first, said Sherry Garber, principal analyst with Convergent Semiconductors, who follows the memory market.
"That's pretty much the usual pattern, to start in servers, where they are not as price sensitive, and move into consumer products. Because of power savings, when the price is right, it will get into consumer mobile," she said.
Garber expects to see a lot of activity in the fourth quarter with preproduction samples based on the final JEDEC spec. "The server people are extremely interested in it. Server people want to look at something that will save power, be faster and get higher density are waiting and begging for DDR4," she said.
But first, they will need a little help from their friends at Intel. Until Intel ships a chipset supporting DDR4, it's all moot. The company declined to comment on future product plans surrounding DDR4. The enthusiast site VR-Zone claims Intel will ship DDR4 support in its Haswell-based server processors.
Haswell is Intel's next generation chip architecture, replacing the Sandy Bridge architecture. Leaked roadmaps put Haswell's launch date in the March to June 2013 time frame, although when the server products will ship is unclear.
There's no rush, really, as Garber notes that the price for DDR4 is outrageous. A 1Gbit DDR3 chip is $1.40, while a 2Gbit chip is $1.70, and a 4Gbit DDR4 chip is $30. By December, when volume production kicks in, that will drop to $5 and by this time next year, it will be $2.50, she said.
Garber predicts DDR4 will replace DDR3 as fast as DDR3 replaced DDR2, for one reason: we have no choice. Memory makers will move to DDR4 and motherboard makers won't have a choice but to support it.
"We're down to essentially four vendors in the marketplace. When they turn their production on, they stay state of the art. When they move to DDR4, they will force that price down and force their volume customers into converting as quickly as possible. And they will all convert to DDR4 and try to get as much of the high ASPs as possible from customers before the price comes down," she said.
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