MEMS win, DRAM lose in ultrabook designs

November 18, 2011 — Ultrabook shipments will take off over the next 4 years, says analyst firm IHS, and various semiconductor markets will feel the effects. Sensors are hot items for ultrabook functionalities, boosting MEMS sales. The thin form factor of ultrabooks will deter DRAM device integration and DRAM use as memory upgrades, according to IHS iSuppli Semiconductor Value Chain.
Less than 1 million ultrabooks will ship this year. Globally, 136.5 million ultrabooks will ship in 2015. This subset of the notebook computer segment is characterized by thin (<0.8" thick) and light form factors and full computer operating systems. Ultrabooks also use features from the media tablet arena, like instant-on, solid state drives, and long battery life. They could be popular enough with consumers to reshuffle chipmaker rankings in the notebook arena.

Ultrabooks need sensors, which could greatly benefit makers of microelectromechanical system (MEMS). This is an area in which ultrabooks resemble media tablets more than notebook PCs, said Jérémie Bouchaud, principal analyst, MEMS and sensors, for IHS. Look for MEMS microphones, accelerometers, gyroscopes and pressure sensors, as well as compasses, ambient light sensors and possibly proximity sensors. With ultrabooks replacing up to 42% of the notebook consumption by 2015, MEMS device integration could see major growth, Bouchaud said. Media tablets in 2011 contain an average of $3.45 worth of sensors, compared to $0.51 for conventional notebooks, illustrating the huge opportunity for these devices in ultrabooks.

Analog semiconductors, particularly power-management devices, will also gain from ultrabook adoption. The power-savings and battery-life requirements for ultrabooks are even more aggressive than those in notebooks, said Marijana Vukicevic, senior principal analyst, power management for IHS. Solid state drives in ultrabooks will also spur demand for sophisticated power management. Thinner power management ICs will command a higher price in ultrabooks. Look for more integration with slimmer packages and smaller footprints.  

Figure. Shipments of upgrade DRAM modules for laptops, with and without ultrabooks. SOURCE: IHS iSuppli November 2011.

The media-tablet-like form factor of ultrabooks spell bad news for dynamic random access memory (DRAM) modules, particularly those used for memory upgrades, IHS reports. DRAM chips are overwhelmingly soldered to the motherboard in today’s ultrabooks, said Clifford Leimbach, memory demand forecasting analyst at IHS, to maintain the sleek device design. Notebook PCs typically use a separate PCB for DRAM modules. "However, this also eliminates the need for a traditional small outline dual in-line memory module DRAM module." As ultrabooks eat into traditional notebook markets, the upgrade DRAM module market will be negatively impacted. The ultrabook in 2015 will reduce the number of upgrade notebook PC modules shipped by 13.5 percent, amounting to some 10.8 million units.

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