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Future MacBook Air could retrieve data a thousand times faster, thanks to new CAM chips from NEC


Above: A top-down view of the MacBook Air’s SSD chips connected via an mSATA connection to the logic board.

Solid-state storage is all the rage these days. Tiny flash-based memory chips connected via a daughter card to the MacBook Air’s motherboard enable Apple’s ultra-thin notebook to boot and respond way faster than the flagship 27-inch iMac equipped with a hard drive. NEC Corporation, a Japanese IT company, has a new technology which promises to obsolete SSDs. Teamming up with Tohoku University, NEC has developed a chip around Content Addressable Memory (CAM) technology that can save data without power and retrieve stored bits as fast as everyday RAM chips. Per official press release:

CAM is a part of spintronics logic integrated circuit technologies that utilize the negative properties of electrons together with the spin magnetic moment. The new CAM utilizes the vertical magnetization of vertical domain wall elements in reaction to magnetic substances in order to enable data that is processing within the CAM to be stored on a circuit without using power. This contrasts to conventional technologies that required data to be stored within memory. As a result, data can be saved on circuits even when power is cut from the CAM.

A jump in performance and power consumption reduction is quite dramatic so you can image what CAM chips could mean for the Air. How dramatic? Think thousand times faster, at least…

We’re talking on average a five nanosecond data retrieval times for CAM chips, which is in the neighborhood of RAM chips. Nanosecond is one billionth of a second. For comparison, solid-state drives typically have access times measured in microseconds (one millionth of a second). The step-up from millisecond-SSDs to nanosecond-CAMs roughly equals to the performance jump experienced when replacing your hard drive with an SSD (access time of hard drives is measured in milliseconds, which is a thousandth of a second). What’s best, CAM chips consumer far less power than the traditional SSDs we use today because CAMs only require electricity when saving data, typically just 9.4mW of power.

For comparison, hard drives require two watts of power and SSDs less than a watt. CAMs are also simpler to manufacture than RAM chips due to only three transistors per two cells versus eight for RAM modules. Apple, which has a penchant for instant-on devices with on-board memory chips, could theoretically speaking use CAM chips in a future MacBook Air revision to extend battery life while making the computer nimbler and speedier than ever before.

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