Team Group's VULCAN TUF Gaming DIMMs, an early 2018 review
When reflecting on 2018, it’s no surprise that the market that appeared to exhibit the least change was memory, specifically DRAM. Advancements in this field typically coincide with major CPU platform updates, as with the introduction of DDR4 memory alongside Intel’s Haswell-E architecture in 2014. Manufacturing improvements are far less heralded than equivalents in the CPU and GPU market, often going unremarked on outside of trade publications despite the enormous expense incurred by opening up new fabs. But we shouldn’t underplay its importance to the PC market as a whole.
The year began with DRAM maintaining historic cost highs seen in 2017, a status reflective of constrained supply and heightened demand from smartphones diverting supply away from the mainstream PC segment. In 2017 the price per bit of DRAM increased by almost 50%, a rise that was surely unsustainable. Coupled with GPU pricing, the consumer PC market hit a rough patch which seriously hamstrung attempts to implement system upgrades or complete new purchases. Many were limited to the minimum expected 8GB system configuration as 8GB DIMMs refused to budge, which will potentially have lasting effects as software requirements climb.
As 2018 progressed price issues eased slightly, but not all may have been due to market conditions. It was revealed in May that Samsung, Hynix, and Micron were facing a class action lawsuit for DRAM price fixing, allegedly conspiring to inflate DRAM pricing and thus increase profits. The trio are responsible for as much as 98% of DRAM production worldwide, so it’s no wonder that regulators took notice.
Investigations are currently on-going, but in November Chinese anti-monopoly investigators alleged that their probe into these companies’ actions had ‘made progress’ and uncovered ‘massive evidence’; evidence of exactly what they will not say. US authorities meanwhile claim that the Chinese investigation is a shake-down for access to foreign technologies and to use as a bargaining chip in the on-going trade fracas between the two nations.
It must be said that the big three make for easy targets. In the early 2000’s five DRAM manufacturers entered into plea agreements with the US Government on charges connected to international price-fixing, including Samsung, SK Hynix and Micron.
While RAM is still relatively expensive, performance continues to rise based on improved manufacturing processes and binning. DIMMs rated at DDR4-4600MHz are now available at retail for real enthusiasts, and the popularity of AMD’s Ryzen and Threadripper platforms have allowed users to leverage high speed DRAM to a greater degree for real-world gains.
As for next year, reduced pricing is what everyone is expecting (and possibly demanding). That said, JEDEC has specced out the DDR5 standard, and SK Hynix have announced the production of chips operating at DDR5-5200 (a data transfer rate roughly 60% faster than mainstream favourite DDR4-3200) and Registered DRAM modules running at that speed. We wouldn’t bet against DDR5 making an appearance, although not until 2019 is in its twilight.