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Samsung announces new ’10nm-class’ DDR4

Samsung announced this week that it’s begun production of 8Gb DDR4-3200 chips using its new ’10nm class’ production lines. According to Samsung, these new chips aren’t just a business-as-usual node shrink — the company had to perform some significant additional design steps to bring the hardware to market.

First, a bit of clarification: This isn’t actually 10nm DRAM, though Samsung wouldn’t mind if you thought it was. Samsung’s PR helpfully states that “’10nm class’ refers to 10nm-class denotes a process technology node somewhere between 10 and 19 nanometers, while 20nm-class means a process technology node somewhere between 20 and 29 nanometers.”

The company goes on to note that while its first “20nm-class” DDR3 came to market in 2011, it didn’t actually launch 20nm DDR3 until 2014. We expect something similar to be happening here. This kind of sleight-of-hand has become a bit of a Samsung trait; the company also likes to claim its EVO family of drives use “3-bit MLC” NAND as opposed to TLC, probably because the TLC moniker took a bit of a beating after the 840 EVO had so many long-term problems. But that’s a different topic.

10nm or not, Samsung claims that it had to adopt quadruple patterning lithography for its new DDR4, as well as develop a new proprietary cell design and new methods of ultra-thin dielectric layer deposition. The new DDR4 is expected to clock up to 3.2GHz — we’ll undoubtedly see third-party manufacturers ramping higher than that.

DDR4-4266 is technically already available on NewEgg, provided you’re willing to pay $300 for 8GB of RAM. The performance benefits of that much memory frequency are questionable, to say the least, but we typically see a steady decrease in RAM price and an increase in memory frequencies over the life of any given RAM generation. DDR4 is still relatively young; it wouldn’t be surprising to see DDR4-4266 selling for a fraction of what it costs today in a few more years.

The counter-argument to this, however, is the fact that Samsung is relying on quad patterning to manufacturer this DRAM. Quadruple patterning means that Samsung performs multiple additional lithography steps to manufacture its DRAM. There are multiple ways to perform multi-patterning and Samsung hasn’t specified which it uses, but the important thing to know for our purposes is that multi-patterning significantly increases manufacturing costs. DRAM produced by this method may not hit the same price points as older memory did, or it may simply take longer to decrease in price.

Samsung intends to take what it’s learned from this new ’10nm-class’ product and deploy it in mobile form factors later this year. JEDEC’s LPDDR4 roadmap has a path to 4266 MHz already, and we may see Samsung rolling out high frequencies in the near future. As screen resolutions have skyrocketed, mobile GPUs have often struggled to keep pace, and adding faster RAM is the best way to improve performance in an otherwise-bottlenecked application.

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