Samsung Semiconductor DDR4 memory

Hefty price premium awaits early DDR4 memory adopters

With new DDR4 memory, computers will be faster next year but users will likely pay a premium on the price of the technology.

DDR4 will first go into servers early next year and then into clients like laptops and desktops in 2015, said Mike Howard, principal analyst at IHS iSuppli. DDR4 will succeed DDR3 SDRAM, which ships with most computers today.

Laptops will get longer battery life and be faster with DDR4 memory. DDR4 has 50 percent more bandwidth than its predecessor, and also provides 35 percent power savings. The voltage supplied to DDR4 memory is 1.2 volts compared to 1.5 volts for DDR3. The DDR4 bus clock speed will top out at 3200MHz, an improvement from 2400MHz for DDR3.

Buyers will pay a 30 percent or higher premium for DDR4 memory compared to DDR3 next year, though the price differential is expected to decline to around 10 percent in 2015, Howard said. Starting in 2016, DDR4 shipments will outpace DDR3, which will ultimately fade away just like the older DDR2 memory.

The adoption of DDR4 has been delayed due to the decline in the PC market and price stabilization this year of DDR3 memory, whose prices had been falling by double digits in previous years. Happy with DDR3 margins, companies like Samsung and SK Hynix shifted manufacturing capacity to make mobile memory for smartphones and tablets, which are growing markets.

Chip makers like Intel also delayed support for the new memory, though Howard said chipset manufacturers' support for DDR4 could be announced as soon as next year's second quarter.

The first DDR4 test samples shipped in 2011 from manufacturers Micron and Samsung, which have been pushing Intel and Advanced Micro Devices to add chipset support for the new memory. The DDR4 specification was published by JEDEC Solid State Technology Association in September 2012.

Intel has, however, already taken steps to validate DDR4 for its server platform, and a number of companies have shown memory modules. Kingston demonstrated a system with 192GB of DDR4 memory with a bus speed of 2133MHz. Another memory supplier, Crucial, has said it will introduce DDR4 memory at the end of the year. Validation kits and controllers for DDR4 have already shipped from semiconductor makers to memory suppliers.

High-end servers running in-memory database applications are among the many systems that will benefit from the improved performance of DDR4. DDR4 is also more reliable than earlier DRAM because more debugging and diagnostic tools to prevent errors have been created for it. The first servers with DDR4 will have customized memory slots on motherboards until chipset support is added.

A low-power LPDDR4 specification for tablets and smartphones is also under development, though it may be many years before it reaches mobile devices. Most smartphones still come with LPDDR2, and only a few high-end tablets have been equipped with LPDDR3 memory.

But DDR4 for servers, laptops and mobile devices will be around for a long time as no successor is under development, Howard said.

"It will be the last DDR iteration," Howard said.

Technologies like phase-change memory, RRAM (resistive RAM) and MRAM (magnetoresistive RAM) are under development, and one of these technologies will eventually replace DDR. Meanwhile, 3D memory chip stacking may bridge the gap until a successor emerges, Howard said.

Three-dimensional chip stacking improves memory bandwidth and power efficiency is by piling DRAM chips on one another, as is being done in NAND flash and microprocessors. Micron earlier this week shipped its Hybrid Memory Cube product, which is a 2GB memory module with four 4GB, DDR3 DRAM stacked chips. The stacked memory is closer to the CPU, which speeds up data transfer.

Nvidia also plans to use stacked memory in a future graphics processor code-named Volta, which the chip maker says will offer faster graphics performance.

The excitement around DDR4 may be muted, but laptop users will see benefits of the memory in the coming years, Howard said.

"All users care about is the performance going up and the prices going down," Howard said.

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