Embracing Innovation in Smartphone Storage

Article By : Gary Hilson, EE Times

Although automotive and the IoT are targets for emerging memory technologies, the smartphone market leads the innovation charge on the DRAM and flash front.

TORONTO — There’s lots of talk about how emerging memories might address growth markets such as automotive and the internet of things (IoT), but in the smartphone space, it’s still all about the DRAM and the flash.

For the consumer who’s buying the latest and greatest smartphone, it’s the 3D NAND that’s the bigger factor in their decision, says Jim Handy, principal analyst at Objective Analysis. “So far, the NAND size is the key selling point, while only the most technically astute consumers concern themselves with the size of the DRAM,” Handy said.

Because prices are currently collapsing for both of these technologies, he said, we may see a big jump in memory capacity and phone performance this year.

For now, Handy doesn’t see many opportunities for emerging memories to be adopted in smartphones. “The only place to expect for smartphones to adopt emerging memories is as embedded memories within the baseband processor because these processors are moving to process nodes that don’t support NOR flash,” he said.

If that adoption occurs, the memory could be any of the numerous options available, as outlined in a recent Objective Analysis report. “No single technology has a sizable lead at the moment,” Handy said.

Battery life is also a key selling point in the smartphone market, but it’s still incumbent on the memory vendor to reduce power consumption and improve energy efficiency, not the battery makers, said Handy, and although the memory makers have done a lot to help with partial array self-refresh in DRAM, “the onus today is more on the processor vendors and coders.” He said that battery manufacturers deserve great praise for the advances they have made over the past decade but wonders what more they will be able to do in the future.

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Toshiba recently announced that it's sampling what it says is the industry's first Universal Flash Storage (UFS) Ver. 3.0 embedded flash memory devices using its 96-layer BiCS FLASH 3D flash memory.

On the smartphone storage side, the pressure has always been on the amount available to users, said Stephen Lum, senior product marketing manager for mobile and consumer memory at Samsung Semiconductor. On the DRAM side, it’s about density as well as power efficiency. The latest and greatest smartphones have as much as 10 gigabytes of DRAM, which surpasses the typical laptop. The devices are typically targeted at users who are playing a lot of more sophisticated mobile games, he said, which have the same quality of video as TV and console gaming systems.

“The expectation from users is that they’ll be able to play these cutting-edge games but, at the same time, be able to multi-task," Lum said. "That puts a huge demand on the memory.”

Streaming video, including 4K quality, as well as capturing it with the multiple cameras and doing post-processing in apps such as SnapChat or Instagram also put pressure on the DRAM and flash from a performance perspective. Lum said that Samsung is always working to optimize power efficiency, performance, and density.

“Battery technology evolves very, very slowly," Lum said. "The pressure is actually greater on the memory makers to basically improve the power efficiency to memory but, at the same time, deliver better performance.” Moving from LPDDR3 to LPDDR4 has enabled Samsung to deliver better power consumption numbers while delivering better performance, as does moving from a 20-nm class memory to 10-nm class memory. “With the LPDDR5 coming, that offers even greater power efficiency.”

For the foreseeable future, read and write speed coupled with density is the focus of future flash memory development, said Scott Beekman, director of managed flash memory products at Toshiba Memory America. Although emerging markets such as automotive, augmented reality (AR), and virtual reality (VR) are drivers, he says that for the smartphone, in particular, it’s 5G networks, which enable a device to ingest greater amounts of data at a faster rate. “That will put more demands on the phone and all of the components in it, including the memory.”

Universal Flash Storage

Toshiba recently announced that it’s sampling what it says is the industry’s first Universal Flash Storage (UFS) Ver. 3.0 embedded flash memory devices using its 96-layer BiCS FLASH 3D flash memory, which Beekman said addresses the need for high-speed read/write performance and low power consumption. UFS 3.0, released a year ago, has a theoretical interface speed of up to 11.6 gigabits per second per lane — with two lanes, that’s 23.2 Gbps. It also supports features that suppress increases in power consumption. Toshiba claims that sequential read and write performance of its 512-GB device are improved by approximately 70% and 80%, respectively, over previous-generation devices.

Beekman said that by using its latest BiCS 3D NAND technology, Toshiba is able to take better advantage of the faster UFS interface, which, as predicted, has eclipsed e-MMC. The latter was popular because of its low power consumption and cost, but in the long term, UFS is better-suited to meet the higher performance demands from mobile devices. e-MMC is limited performance-wise because it supports only half-duplexing — either reading or writing between the host processor and an e-MMC device but not both at the same time. UFS, meanwhile, supports full duplexing, wherein reading and writing occur between host processor and UFS device at the same time.

Otherwise, the focus continues to be putting more density in a given wafer space, per die, while also increasing the performance relative to the power consumption. Beyond just the flash, memory makers are combining it with DRAM in a single package. The sizes of these packages are also governed by JEDEC standards. Beekman doesn’t see those package sizes changing as long as more bits can be put on a given die.

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Memory makers such as Samsung are combining flash with DRAM in a single package, the sizes of which are governed by JEDEC standards.

Western Digital is also offering 96-layer 3D NAND options for smartphones, albeit for UFS 2.1, at a time when NAND prices are falling and smartphone sales are slowing. Oded Sagee, senior director of embedded and integrated solutions for Western Digital, said that there remains room for growth in the mid-market as the high-end technology trickles down and more advanced applications such as AR start to take advantage of the flagship iOS and Android devices. “It’s still a lot around gaming,” he said. “We see some retail applications where you can match your augmented reality with reality, whether it’s in the home or fashion.”

In the meantime, other market segments such as IoT and automotive are piggybacking on the mobile ecosystem, said Sagee, which has the efficiency, availability, productivity, and compute characteristics that they’re looking for. Mobile continues to be the lead user of the “next thing,” while IoT and automotive follows. Samsung’s Lum also sees the cross-pollination mainly going in one direction. “If you look at IoT, they’re using a lot of the mobile DRAM technology being used in smartphones.”

Handy said that carmakers still need to figure out which functions belong in the phone and which ones belong in the dashboard. “Right now, a lot of smartphone functions are redundantly performed by the car’s electronics.” And given that smartphones have a faster lifecycle than cars, automotive is not really in a position to push any innovation back.

For now, Handy said that the smartphone is becoming the control panel for everyone’s “things,” and as people monitor more and more things, our phones will have to keep pace, sometimes with video buffering, which likely drives increased demand for flash demand in handsets. “I don’t see it as a big driver for HBM [high-bandwidth memory] or any emerging technologies, though.”

— Gary Hilson is a general contributing editor with a focus on memory and flash technologies for EE Times.

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