Freescale Semiconductor Inc has made a leap for memory technology by announcing the first commercial magnetoresistive random access memory, or MRAM, chip. And it’s ready for volume shipping.
The company, which spun off from Motorola Inc in 2004, is now shipping the industry’s first fast, non-volatile magnetic memory that has an unlimited life. Indeed, MRAM may well become the first universal memory chip, that is, a single chip that can do the job of three different chips.
MRAM promises tremendous possibilities and profound implications, said Semico Research analyst Bob Merritt. Competition to become the first company to market MRAM technology was fierce, he said.
Freescale’s 4 Mbit MRAM may one day replace flash and RAM memories as a cheaper, faster and more reliable memory source for various electronic devices, including notebook computers, cell phones and PDAs.
Unlike other memories that use electric charges to store data, MRAMs use magnetic technology. This enables it to read and write data much faster than DRAMs, or dynamic RAM, and some SRAMs, or static RAMs
Unlike SRAM, MRAM has unlimited life and can be produced as a single chip that would be smaller in size. A major benefit of MRAM is that it is able to retain data without electric current. DRAMs, on the other hand, do not retain information once the power is switched off.
However, Flash, DRAM and other mainstream memories are currently cheaper than MRAMs
Saied Tehrani, Freescale’s director of MRAM technology, said that it likely would be another 10 years or so before MRAM could be produced cheaply enough to be used in notebook computers, for instance.
However, Freescale is currently targeting applications in which MRAM would be a more cost-effective, higher-powered and more reliable alternative to other memory technologies, he said.
Office printers are one such immediate application for the technology. MRAM’s ability to immediately recall a system’s configuration after a power outage or once a machine has been unplugged would be a boon for such devices, Tehrani said. Plus, MRAM would be cheaper than existing printer memory technologies, he said.
Another target application for Freescale’s MRAM are networking storage systems, where they could act as a buffer to larger density memories, he said. Flash, hard drives or disk drives have very high density, but the speed for programming them are very slow, Tehrani said. MRAM is much faster and when used as a buffer could improve overall system performance, he said.
In other words, rather than waiting for another type of memory to slowly load this information, while other processing tasks may be ignored, MRAM could load it quickly and then move on to other tasks, Tehrani explained.
You could approximately see a 2x improvement in a system, he said, referring to storage components within networking equipment. MRAM is actually more affordable than existing technology and has a higher level of reliability.
MRAM also has immediate application in data logging, in which functions could continuously flow through the memory. So, if there is a system failure, MRAM would provide a system history and also enable users to start the system where it left off before the failure, Tehrani said.
Austin, Texas-based Freescale currently has customers for its MRAM, Tehrani said, but he declined to give any details. We have a number of customers that have qualified this part in their systems, so are ready to launch their products, he said. We would expect them to hit the market this quarter.
Other applications that Freescale’s MRAM device, called MR2A16A, would be suited for today include gaming and home-security systems, he added.
Looking ahead, Freescale expects its MRAM, which is protected by more than 100 Freescale patents, would be integrated with microcontrollers or microprocessors to create unique systems-on-a-chip, Tehrani said.
We believe they would have applications from a variety of consumers electronics to automotive systems, he said.