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Intelligent Machines

A Chip Worth Remembering

First magnetic RAM product raises hopes for “instant-on” computing

Flip on your PC or laptop, and start waiting. The reason you need to boot up-loading software from your hard drive into your random-access memory (RAM) chip-is that most electronic computer memory requires power to keep data intact. Take away the power, and the memory evaporates. For years, researchers have tried to develop fast and cheap memory that stores data as magnetic orientation, which stays fixed whether or not the power is on. Now, an early version of this technology-called magnetic random-access memory, or MRAM-is moving into production.

The MRAM chip, built by Motorola, holds only four megabits of data and is expensive, which means its first applications are likely to be in high-end security systems and gaming machines, where small amounts of crucial code could be stored without fear of loss. But by the end of the decade, MRAM chips may be suitable for gadgets like digital cameras and handheld computers, says Saied Tehrani, Motorola’s technology director for MRAM in Tempe, AZ. Motorola says it is working with several customers to improve prototypes of its first-generation chip before starting full-scale production late this year.

Researchers, including those at Motorola and IBM, have been working on MRAM for more than a decade but kept encountering the same problem: recording information magnetically on one memory cell tended to disturb the magnetic orientation of its neighbors.

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Motorola’s solution is a two-step data-writing method that effectively isolates bits from one another. Bob Merritt, an analyst at Semico Research in Phoenix, calls the Motorola advance “a substantial breakthrough.”

It might be a decade before the technology is ready for PCs, but one intermediate goal is replacing the flash memory used in digital cameras and cell phones. Unlike RAM, flash memory retains data when the power is off, but it’s expensive, slow, and too bulky to accommodate the memory demands and size constraints of next-generation devices. Motorola’s MRAM chips are 1,000 times faster at storing new information than flash memory, so they could, for example, record digital-camera images more quickly, eliminating the delay before the next picture can be taken. While it remains to be seen whether Motorola will deliver an instant-on computer, its MRAM chip is an important first step.

The Attraction of MRAM
IBM/Infineon Technologies (Armonk, NY/Munich, Germany) Joint venture in France, which has delayed MRAM production until at least late 2005
Motorola (Schaumburg, IL) Commercial MRAM production by late 2004
NEC/Toshiba (Tokyo, Japan) MRAM joint venture, which has prototypes
but no commercialization plans so far
Philips Electronics/STMicroelectronics (Eindhoven, Netherlands/Geneva, Switzerland) Collaboration with Motorola to develop denser, higher-capacity MRAM chips

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