Memory Lights the Corners of Your PC

Memory Lights the Corners of Your PC

With personal computers, taking a stroll down memory lane isn’t for the nostalgic. The world of random access memory, or RAM, is future oriented, with significant changes in the works. Change brings both opportunity and threat, and court battles are blazing.
The outcome of these legal skirmishes may determine whether you’ve made a good purchase decision with your next computer, or a bad one.
The big fight is between Rambus and DDR. Computer manufacturers spew out acronyms like paper from a laser printer, and it’s easy to get lost here.
Rambus memory, sometimes called RDRAM (Rambus dynamic random access memory), is the invention of a small Mountain View, Calif., company named Rambus Inc., <http://www.rambus.com>. It’s backed by computer mammoth Intel, the world’s largest manufacturer of CPUs (the central processing units that power PCs).
DDR (double data rate) memory, sometimes called DDR SDRAM (double data rate synchronous dynamic random access memory) or similar names, is backed by Intel archrival Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) and other companies.
Rambus is a proprietary technology, and memory manufacturers must pay royalties to Rambus Inc. for using it. It’s consequently expensive. DDR is based on an open standard that anybody can use and is thus more affordable.
One way to look at this is Rambus as the Republican, DDR as the Democrat.
Acting like George W. Bush, Republican Rambus Inc. doesn’t want Democrat DDR to succeed and has gone to court. Rambus Inc. contends that DDR infringes on its patents.
Not so fast, say DDR supporters. They, in turn, are suing Rambus back, contesting its patents.
Billions of dollars are at stake.
Next-generation memory technology such as Rambus and DDR are needed to keep up with advances in CPU development. With new ultrafast CPUs, current SDRAM creates bottlenecks, slowing down data and preventing a PC from achieving peak performance.
The emphasis on performance, however, is controversial. Both Rambus and DDR claim performance benefits that most people in the near future won’t even notice. Rambus, being the first out of the gate and hyping louder, is the more guilty.
Testing by various computer magazines has shown Rambus will benefit only those doing high-end work such as creating streaming video for Web sites, doing computer-aided design or manipulating large images.
What’s more, testing has also shown that for business users running word processing and other office programs, the less expensive DDR currently is slightly faster than the more expensive Rambus.
Yet Rambus currently is more widely available, and because it’s ahead of DDR in development, it may be less prone to bugs, says Richard Gordon, an analyst who specializes in memory research for the Gartner Group, a technology market research firm in Stamford, Conn.
Right now Rambus comes only with PCs using Intel’s new Pentium 4 CPU.
DDR comes only with PCs using AMD’s Athlon CPU.
If Rambus Inc. is successful with its legal actions, DDR manufacturers may have to pay Rambus Inc. royalties, increasing the cost of AMD’s high-end, but value-priced, PCs.
Meanwhile, though you can’t buy a Pentium 4 PC today without Rambus, Intel is hedging by planning to provide Pentium 4 support for both Rambus and DDR in the future.
What does all this mean if you or your company is planning a computer purchase? Unless the legal situation changes dramatically, you shouldn’t go wrong with these guidelines:
n If you’re a power user planning to spend $2,000 or more, go with an Intel Pentium 4 system and Rambus memory. This is particularly true if you use high-end software such as Photoshop, AutoCAD, or RealProducer.
n If you’re a home user looking to optimize performance while minimizing costs, an AMD system with DDR memory makes sense.
n If you want to spend as little as possible to do word processing, Web surfing, and e-mail, go with an AMD system with SDRAM.
n If you’re a corporate buyer outfitting high-end users, Pentium 4 and Rambus is the way to go. If you’re outfitting typical office users, Pentium III and SDRAM is more cost-effective.
Much here also depends on your comfort level, your politics, and your prior buying experiences. Business people, rightly or wrongly, often feel that you can’t go wrong with Intel. Some individuals, however, are anti-Intel because of its market dominance. If you want to buy a system from a particular vendor, all this may be academic. It may not give you a choice between Intel/Rambus or AMD/DDR.
Whatever your situation, if you make the right PC buying decision, you’ll say thanks for the memory. 

— Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at reidgold@netaxs.com or http://members.home.net/reidgold.



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