iXBT Labs - Computer Hardware in Detail






August 2002 Hardware Digest

By Vladimir Romanchenko (lone@ixbt.com)

This August turned out to be a usual summer stagnant month for the semiconductor industry. Despite full stocks, potential buyers preferred to go on vacations.

Well, the fall comes and September will sort things out. But let's now sum up the summer.

Production, technologies, tools

The new-generation 90 nm process technology to be volume-launched next year will sort technological winners and losers out.

First to master the new process will get a significant advancement against rivals - more complex chips, lower price costs, wafer yield. Perhaps, this time processor and logics makers will launch this technology first instead of memory makers.

In August Intel officially announced the full readiness to launch its new 90-nm process technology, additionally reporting its specifications, dates and implementation geography.

As you know, 52 Mbit SRAM chips became the first Intel's experimental products made using 90-nm technology. New process was developed at Intel D1C in Hillsborough, Oregon, where it had been already developed and transited to other fabs.

By 2003 Intel plans to implement 90-nm process to three 300-mm fabs. Besides, it has recently reported about the continuation of Fab 24 construction in Ireland. Occupying over 1 million sq. ft and costing about $2 billion, this object is initially designed for 90-nm 300-mm silicon wafer production.

It's already known that Prescott processor, scheduled to H2 2003, will become one of the first volume-produced components.

Currently we know the following features about this process technology:

  • About 50-nm gate transistors
  • 1.2-nm thin gate oxide layer
  • Strained silicon
  • Only 300-mm wafer production
  • Possibility to create 3 GHz and higher processors, reducing crystal size twice
  • 7 new copper layers
  • New low-permittive CDO dielectric. Two-stage dielectric forming process
  • 193-nm and 248-nm lithographic equipment
  • The new process will use about 75% of tools, required for the current 0.13-micron 300-mm production

AMD is significantly behind its rival. Now the company promises chips with similar transistors only in Q1 2003, however speaking of the current 130-nm process.

AMD will transit to such 90-mm technology only in H2 2003. Here the company is behind the rival as well, as its first 90-nm chips - next-generation desktop Athlon Hammer - will be produced using 200-mm wafers at Fab 30 in Dresden.

By that time UMC, AMD's closest partner, will master 90-nm as well to produce processors for AMD at one of its Taiwanese fabs. UMC experimental 90-nm 200-mm wafer production line will be launched in H1 2003; Fab 12A with 90-nm 300-mm wafer lines will be launched late in 2003.

Texas Instruments plans to qualify its 90-nm process technology by Q3 2003 and launch chip production before the year ends. One of the first 90-nm products will be new-generation Sun UltraSparc. Along with implementing 90-nm process technology to its new 300-mm wafer fab, TI will also use some of its 200-mm wafer lines.

German Infineon Technologies, successfully producing memory and various logics, plans to launch its 90-nm process technology closer to the end of 2003. By the middle of 2003 it will launch 130-nm production lines utilizing 300-mm wafers at UMCi - Infineon and UMC joint venture. Further the company plans to quickly reequip production to 90-nm process technology.

TSMC, known contract maker, plans to launch 90-nm process technology chip production at its new 300-mm Fab 12 late in 2003. The expediency of transiting TSMC's current 200-mm lines to the new process is still questionable.

Answering why complex processor makers and not simple logics manufacturers are the first to move to new process technology, analysts state rather simple arguments. Production of small consignments of simple chips, typical for logics making always results in higher price costs.

At small production, price for lithography photomasks becomes one of the critical factors. For 90-nm process technology they are expected to cost $1 million, that's twice higher than the price of 0.13-micron photomasks. Naturally, this will affect final prices. No need to speak of 90-nm production, if price of some 0.13-micron chips includes up to $50 only for photomasks. Such an "addition" to a chipset or GPU might negate all process technology advancements.

So, such logics makers, as Infineon, UMC and TSMC will inevitably meet some additional problems of using 90-nm process technology, as they'll have to work with small chip consignments, but with a many-item list. Considering production of limited chip consignments, using the new process technology, from the angle of their high cost price. One can understand the skepticism of some analysts about the real benefit of moving to 90-nm process technology. Some of them believe that currently transition to 300-mm wafers would have been better than launching new process technologies.

Yield is another serious problem to solve for all 90-nm chip makers. Many of them faced it, while moving to the current 130-nm process technology. According to VLSI Research, some companies still have about 20-50% yield, when over 70% values are effective. It's hard to tell now how long it will take to tailor 90-nm process technology tools.

Makers themselves agree that moving from 0.25-micron to 0.18-micron process technology was much easier than to the current 0.13-micron. However, now makers have new technologies: 193-nm lithographic exposure tools for working with critical layers, new chip materials, and some of them have 300-mm silicon wafers, simplifying 90-nm process technology implementation.

It's interesting that Toshiba decided to join contract chip makers in August, considering (along with many other semiconductor companies) potential income sources for existing equipment.

In the nearest future it, like TSMC, UMC or TI, plans to offer its own 130-nm copper process technology to third party customers as a production base. Among its advantages Toshiba states very high yield.

New 0.13-micron process technology, featuring 8-layer metallization and standard 110-nm gates, from Toshiba Semiconductor has the adjusted integration technology for 4, 8, 16 and 32 Mbit DRAM, 6T SRAM with 2.48 sq.micron cell size, SoC (system-on-chip) analog modules. Using copper interconnects with double damasking enables to get minimal 034-ckt space between conductors.

Briefly about the September Intel Developer Forum Fall 2002. This time it will start on September 9 to 12 in San Jose, CA, and continue in Taiwan, Japan, Russia, India and China.

San Jose Intel IDF Fall 2002 will include the implementation of new 90-nm process technology. The company will disclose information about fundamental lithography research, new materials, new transistor developments.

It will also report new details about new desktop, mobile, server, and workstation processors. In particular, the company promises to present 3 GHz P4, new data about mobile Banias processor, Madison chip with IA-64 architecture. Intel also plans to announce PCI Express (3GIO) bus as well as the final specifications of AGP 3.0 (8X) and almost compete specs of Serial ATA II.

Several reports will touch the development of new electronic components, including semiconductor radio-frequency, fiber optics, etc.

New Intel department - Digital Home Working Group - specializing in network technologies and PC and consumer electronics interaction, will present additional info about Personal Internet Client Architecture (PCA), based on Xscale and StrongARM. Several reports of Intel representatives will be dedicated to servers and new SAN and NAS solutions.


August rumours about the close release of the new top-end Intel processor finished with the debut of four new 0.13-micron Pentium 4 at once:

  • 2.50 GHz, 400 MHz FSB
  • 2.60 GHz, 400 MHz FSB
  • 2.66 GHz, 533 MHz FSB
  • 2.80 GHz, 533 MHz FSB

Besides, Intel cut prices for most of its processors. Seems that market percents won from AMD in the second quarter, inspired Intel to the further processor expansion.

In August it has been reported that Pentium III is at its end. Intel cancelled the production of box and OEM 1.20 GHz and 1.13 GHz Intel Pentium III as well as 1.00A GHz and 1.10A GHz Intel Celeron.

Naturally, shipments of 1.3 GHz and 1.4 GHz Pentium III will continue for blade server makers, but, perhaps, they are near the finish as well. 2003 will come, Banias processors will be announced and then we'll say Pentium III good bye for good...

By the way, last month Intel has already showed a Banias-based PC. The system worked under Windows XP, CPU was marked "Banias A1 1300/600 #5", i.e. 1.3 GHz Banias, A1 stepping. Low-power clock rate was 600 MHz.

We've also got to know additional Banias specifications, in particular, that the core square will be 100 sq.mm (against 131.4 mm of 0.13-micron Mobile Pentium 4-M), half of which will be occupied by 1MB of L2 cache (SRAM).

AMD has also presented its new processors. The release of Athlon XP 2600+ and 2400+ was timed to the third anniversary of AMD Athlon brand.

As usual, new AMD Athlon XP 2600+ and 2400+ are marked according to QuantiSpeed, having 2.133 GHz and 2.0 GHz actual clock rates. Athlon XP 2600+ / 2400+ are made using 0.13-micron process technology at Fab 30 in Dresden and are designed for Socket A boards. They feature 128KB L1 cache and 256KB L2 cache, support 3DNow! Professional and 266 MHz FSB.

In August the company announced another Athlon MP 2200+ for dual-processor systems - the first of Athlon MP family, made using 0.13-micron technology and copper interconnects.

Other company business is not so great. Despite sales of new 0.13-micron Thoroughbred-based Athlon XP 2200+, the company doesn't hurry to flood the market with Athlon XP 1700+, 1800+, 1900+ and 2000+, still shipping them with Palomino core and 0.18-micron process technology.

There's information that all Athlon XP are almost moved to 0.13-micron technology, and soon we'll see in retail at least 0.13-micron Athlon XP 2000+. However, this is not August news.

August brought new rumours about mysterious AMD plans: they say that despite the promise to leave K7 architecture as is, AMD is going to raise FSB of new Athlon XP 2700+, to be announced on October 7, to 333 MHz. Though it can badly affect ClawHammer market promotion, AMD might do this to save its market share.

Strange that multiple rumours about AMD and its new processors do not touch the joint announcement of AMD and UMC about producing Athlon XP at Taiwanese partner facilities late in 2002. The third quarter is almost finished, but outsourcing doesn't sound anyhow. Will the release of Athlon XP with 333 MHz FSB be a "surprise" for UMC? Well, time will tell...

Apple Computer announced new dual-processor system based on new Motorola PowerPC G4 processors, featuring 867 MHz to 1.25 GHz clock rates.

New PowerPC G4 have 256KB L2 cache. 1MB L3 cache (867 MHz and 1 GHz versions) or 2MB DDR SRAM L3 cache (1.25 GHz version).

Just in several days Motorola has officially announced plans to tailor 90-nm process technology within a half-year and to launch next-generation PowerPC production along with logics.

Currently Motorola together with STMicroelectronics and Philips masters a unified technological platform for 90-nm process technology production. The alliance is expected to launch sample production in Q4 2002, and volume production - by Q3 2003, approximately the same time, as Intel. Perhaps, in a year we'll witness a duel of processor titans...

System boards and chipsets

Main August mobo news were about chipsets, supporting DDR400, that hasn't become a standard yet.

Despite that industry hasn't yet agreed, if it needs a DDR400 intermediate, analysts already forecast bright future to VIA in the AMD chipset market, speaking of timely KT400 shipments.

However, VIA itself says that KT400 shipments will directly depend on the appearance of system boards on this chipset and KT333 stock sales. Though, mobo makers already believe into KT400 bright fate, as they prefer to develop new boards on the new chipset instead of upgrading BIOS for KT333 boards.

Despite that VIA Apollo KT400 has been officially announced only in the middle of the month at QuakeCon 2002, announcements of such board releases started to appear early in August.

New VIA Apollo KT400 chipset features two chips: VT8368 Northbridge and VT8235 Southbridge, interconnected by up to 533 MB/sec 8X V-Link.

Officially chipset supports DDR200/266/333 SDRAM (up to 4GB), AGP 8x and Socket A AMD Athlon XP / AMD Duron with 200/266 MHz FSB. Unofficially it supports not only DDR400, but also unannounced Athlon XP and 333 MHz FSB.

So, VIA now has a nice chance to become a leader while SiS and NVIDIA lag behind with volume production of SiS746 and nForce 2. Though NVIDIA leaves itself a real chance to win due to aggressive pricing: nForce 2, like KT400, is expected to cost $20-25.

ASUS A7V8X was one of the first VIA KT400 boards announced: 266/200 MHz FSB, 3 cota DIMM slots, up to 3GB DDR400 (!), DDR333 or DDR266, RAID (Promise, ATA133), two Serial ATA 150 ports, PCI slots, AGP 8x, 6 USB 2.0 ports, two Firewire (1394) ports, BroadCom Gigabit Ethernet.

Besides, A7V8X is promised to offer the second version of ASUS C.O.P.2 overheating protection.

The release of SiSR658 RDRAM chipset by SiS has become an important event. Coupled with SiS963 Southbridge, the chipset supports up to 3 GHz Pentium 4 with FSB 533/400 MHz, up to 4GB of up to 1066 MHz Dual RDRAM, AGP 8x, 5.1-channel AC'97 2.2 audio, 10/100-Mbps Ethernet, Home PNA 2.0, Dual ATA133/100/66 IDE, up to 6 PCI slots, up to 6 USB 2.0/1.1 ports.

There were no boards announced on the chipset in August (except for SiS samples). The slightly lower price of R658 comparing to i850E is a doubtful advantage for expensive hi-end systems. Though, let's wait for several months and see what happens to R658.

Intel didn't present new chipsets in August. According to provisional data, three new chipsets are to be announced in September: 845GV - improved 845GL supporting 533 MHz FSB, 845GE and 845PE - improved DDR333 versions of 845G and 845E, respectively.

The launch of such boards volume production won't be a problem, according to messages from Taiwan: despite new names, chipsets just slightly differ from previous models.

Meanwhile Intel prepares to release its chipsets, extending certified DDR333 memory modules. In August several DRAM makers at once reported passed Intel qualification tests and joined the list of validated memory modules.

EpoX made an interesting and currently unique announcement, having released EP-4T4A+ board on... i850E and ICH4 chipset bundle.

EPoX EP-4T4A+ has 5 PCI slots, AGP 4x, two 232-pin RIMM sockets, i.e. it supports 32-bit PC600/PC800/PC1066 RDRAM (64MB to 2GB modules).

Pity, there's no information about the realization of i850E + ICH4 bundle: whether EpoX got some new version of FW850E Northbridge with integrated RMC2, or there was some additional logics released...

If you remember, in spring i850E was presented coupled with old ICH2 without USB2.0 support. Actually, FW850E wasn't meant for ICH4, but - surprise.

VIA announced its improved EPIA 2 Mini ITX platform on VIA CLE266 chipset.

Unlike EPIA, the second-generation platform features chipset with integrated 128-bit 2D/3D graphics, supporting hardware MPEG2 encoding and external AGP 8x (8/16/32/64MB frame memory). The chipset supports video capture (1 x VIP 2.0, 1 x BT.656), Picture in Picture, Dual View output.

So, DVD will be processed by Northbridge's video module, solving DVD latency problems. (See our VIA Eden - a humble low-noise home/SOHO PC). Let's hope that speed and quality of MPEG4 playback will also be good due to higher CPU clock rates (VIA C3 800 MHz and higher).

Memory products

In August DRAM market was still affected by summer stagnancy. The demand was generally dull, except for maybe some unsuccessful attempts to raise prices.

SDRAM slowly finishes its way. Memory makers still often offer "package contracts", adding SDRAM to DDR as a makeweight. Though, due to widespread transition to DDR, the difference in DDR and SDRAM raised interest in the latter of some OEM makers, trying to cut prices for their systems even more.

Distributors agree that these are the last days of SDRAM and there will be no noticeable price variations. At least no one will return to SDRAM from DDR fur sure.

DDR is another thing. Despite that prices are still low, the late August brought rumours that Samsung Electronics and Hynix Semiconductor decided to slightly raise contract DDR prices for large customers, first by 5-10%.

Nevertheless, there are several factors preventing possible price increase. For example, launches of new fabs, reequipment of production lines for DDR, in other words, the competition is expected to grow stronger after mass-moving from SDRAM to DDR production, and customers can just stop ordering, waiting for a better situation.

Samsung has currently signed such memory contracts with Japanese OEM makers. The results of negotiations in North America, Europe, South Korea, and Taiwan are ahead.

Market analysts update their forecasts, reporting that normal memory market evolution will resume in Q4 2002 oa. Gartner Dataquest Korea believes that DRAM world sales in Q4 will make a record $6.46 billion. They expect continuous DRAM market growth in the fourth quarter that might long until the early next year even despite generally weak economics.

Many are now concerned with DDR400 fate: will it be adopted as a standard, or industry will move from DDR333 to DDR-II at once? Naturally, memory and mobo makers risk most.

As JEDEC hasn't yet adopted DDR400, memory, chipset and mobo makers are organizing independent certification programs.

Meanwhile JEDEC actively discusses DDR400. This will be the main theme of September JEDEC conference in Vancouver, British Columbia. Perhaps, September will bring a final answer to the question.

Strange, but August brought mainly flash memory news. Seems that overproduction touched flash as well, traditionally being one of the most stable and profitable.

The growth of digital still camera sales doesn't help. Flash memory offer highly exceeds the demand, and the launch of new fabs, in particular by Toshiba, only intensifies the situation.

Lower limit DRAM price instability also made DRAM makers master the flash market, so prices will continue to drop in the nearest future.

The most interesting thing is that manufacturers themselves are pretty pleased. Lower prices will result in higher sales volumes, and in the market development as well. currently the flash memory has a profit rate reserve, and the prices can become even lower than today.

New xD-Picture Cards (xD - "eXtreme digital") officially debuted In August. Their dimensions resemble SmartMedia, however new products are lighter and smaller. In the future, xD-Picture cards will have up to 8GB capacity.

New cards are compatible with new many todays digital cameras with Compact Flash slots (through a special adapter). Pricing will be similar to SmartMedia.

xD-Picture cards appeared for sale already in August, supplied with Olympus and Fujifilm digital cams. The companies now ship 16, 32, 64 MB cards; in September we'll see 128M versions, and 256 MB cards will be announced in December. 512MB, 1GB and 8GB products are expected in 2003.

In August Samsung launched volume production of 1Gbit NAND flash memory chips using 0.12-micron process technology. They feature 48-pin TSOP1 package, 32-bank organization, and include string decoder supporting 1KB block selection. Besides, chip supports 2KB page organization and 128KB by-block deletion.

According to the company, continuous page writing cache enabled to increase write speed by 70% comparing to the previous NAND flash memory generations. New chips require 1.8 V and feature about 50 ns access time.

August also brought shipments of 64 Mbit low-power flash chips from AMD, optimized for PDAs, 2.5G / 3G mobiles, etc.

New Am29BDS640G chips are made using 0.17-micron process technology, require 1.8 V, are based on FlexBank architecture and support synchronous read/write. Random access time makes 70 ns, synchronous access time - 13.5 ns. New chips are also packaged into MCP casings with 8 or 16 MB of built-in 1.8 V SRAM, enabling designers to simplify their mobile products.

It couldn't have been done without consumer flash memory announcements. Apacer Technology announced the release of 128MB CompactFlash Velox Pro cards, providing 4 MB/sec write speed, that's more than three times exceeds usual 1.2 MB/sec.

128MB CompactFlash Velox Pro are already available for sale. 256MB cards will follow in September.

Hynix Semiconductor announced a prospective novelty in August. Its new 256 Mbit DDR SDRAM chips are designed for desktop, notebook and workstation graphics cards.

New 256Mbit DDR SDRAM chips are packaged into 144-pin FBGA, operate with 32-bit bus (8M x 32 DDR) at 350 MHz. In the nearest future the company plans to release similar chips working at 400 MHz.

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