Mobile DRAM–The Smartphone Component You’ve Never Heard Of–Is Big Business

Published on March 16, 2011
by Ina Fried

If you have a new PC, there is a reasonable chance you know how much memory it has. It’s one of the things we have been taught to ask about when we buy a new computer. More memory means the thing runs faster.

However, even most hard core techies can’t tell you how much DRAM is in their phones or tablets. They might know about the flash memory that is used to store apps and music. But most would shrug their shoulders if asked how much memory is in there to power things like video playback and multitasking.

Crack open any smartphone or tablet, though, and you will find significant amounts of DRAM (an acronym that stands for Dynamic Random Access Memory). It is that memory that, as with a PC, allows a computer to handle multiple tasks quickly. On the cell phone side, it also has to perform its task while using as little power as possible. That has created a market for low-power chips–so-called mobile DRAM.

“I call it the silent enabler,” said Mueez Deen, a director in Samsung’s mobile memory unit (pictured above). “Nobody asks for it but you need a lot of it.”

Indeed, the market for such memory has been exploding. Mobile DRAM shipments this year are seen reaching 2.9 billion gigabits, up from 1.7 billion gigabits last year, according to IHS iSuppli. Some of that is due to the rapid growth in the number of smartphones being shipped, while another chunk is due to the fact that the amount of memory needed in each phone is growing. By 2014, smartphones are seen consuming 36 times as much memory as they did last year.

“Mobile DRAM, up until 2009, was kind of a sleepy backwater of the DRAM (market),” said iSuppli’s Mike Howard. “Phones weren’t really doing a lot back then.”

That is clearly changing–and quickly. Today’s smartphone is trying to juggle between desktop-caliber Web browsing, video chat and even 3D gaming–all of which demands ever more memory.

Not that long ago, it was considered ample if a phone had 512 megabits or a gigabit of flash memory. Now, four gigabits isn’t uncommon for high-end smartphones. Some, like the Atrix, pack eight gigabits of flash and smartphones with 16 gigabits are on the horizon, Deen said.

At the beginning of 2009, DRAM chips that were customized for mobile devices accounted for about five percent of the overall market, in terms of number of bits. By the first quarter of last year, its share had tripled. Its share is poised to grow even further as smartphones continue their rapid growth, while PCs tend to grow 10-12 percent a year at best.

Tablets will increase the mobile DRAM market even further. Although smaller in number than smartphones, tablets tend to use even more memory per device. And given the need for good battery life, mobile memory chips are still a requirement. Slates are seen accounting for 3.5 billion gigabits of DRAM in 2014–ten times what they accounted for last year.

For the memory chip makers, mobile DRAM has been a bit of a respite from the roller coaster of the PC memory market, which sinks or swims based on how much capacity is out there. On the mobile side–at least so far–handset makers have been dealing directly with chipmakers, with most of the chips being built to forecast demand, meaning much more stable pricing. Currently, chipmakers are getting anywhere from two to two and a half times as much for mobile DRAM as they would for the same capacity PC chip.

Roughly speaking, Samsung has about half the market for mobile DRAM, according to iSuppli, while Hynix has a quarter of the market, Elpida about 20 percent and Micron around 5 percent.

So, if mobile DRAM is such a big market, why does it never get talked about. In large part, it is because it is invisible to the consumer. It’s not something that gets talked about and handset makers simply choose the amount they think is appropriate for the device they are building. And, unlike a PC, it’s not like users can crack open their phones and add more if they like.

Apple, for example, doesn’t even say how much DRAM is in its new iPad. However, tear-downs reveal it to be 512 megabytes (UPDATE: I initially had my bits and bytes confused here). Interestingly, that amount is half of what is crammed inside rival tablets from HP, Research In Motion and Motorola.

Howard figures that Apple is probably somewhat better able to use its memory given its hardware-software integration and also says the company also is aiming to provide just enough performance while still hitting key price points. (Most iPad rivals tend to have a higher bill of materials than Apple has for the iPad.)

That said, Howard also said that the added memory is giving the other tablets a boost.

“It hasn’t gone to waste,” he said. “The DRAM is definitely adding a lot of performance.”

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