Sign of shifting technology markets as DRAM growth in PCs slows

The steady increase in PC capabilities that has fuelled the long-term growth of the PC market is undergoing a historical deceleration, as evidenced by the slowing increase in dynamic random access memory (DRAM) content in notebooks and desktops since 2007. New research from IHS iSuppli suggest that annual growth in the average DRAM usage per shipped PC has been slowing dramatically since peaking in 2007. Following a 21.4 percent increase in 2012, the average growth of DRAM content per PC is set to decline to a record low of 17.4 percent this year. This compares to the high point of 56.1 percent in 2007, and 49.9 percent in 2008.

“For a generation, PCs have steadily improved their hardware performance and capabilities every year, with faster microprocessors, rising storage capacities and major increases in DRAM content,” said Clifford Leimbach, memory analyst at IHS. “These improvements which have been largely driven by rising performance demands of new operating system software have justified the replacement cycle for PCs, compelling consumers and businesses to buy new machines to keep pace. However, on the DRAM front, the velocity of the increase has slackened. This slowdown reflects the maturity of the PC platform as well as a change in the nature of notebook computers as OEMs adjust to the rise of alternative systems.”

The growth in DRAM loading in PCs is expected remain in a low range in the coming years, rising by 21.3 percent in 2014 to and then continuing in the 20.0 percent range until at least 2016.

Notebooks are increasingly adopting ultra-thin form factors and striving to increase battery life in order to become more competitive with popular media tablets. Because of this, DRAM chips must share limited space on the PC motherboard with other semiconductors that control the notebook’s other functions. Incorporating more DRAM bits can limit other notebook capabilities.

Notebook makers have shown a willingness to limit increase in DRAM on their systems, rather than sacrifice the thin form factor or eschew other features.

For desktops, the slowing in DRAM bit growth reflects the maturity of PC hardware and operating system software.

DRAM has become less of a bottleneck in PC performance, tempering the need to increase DRAM bits in each system to ostensibly improve system speed.

Moreover, a change in PC operating system requirements has had the effect of limiting growth in DRAM loading. The latest version of Windows, in particular, has not required a step up in DRAM content, unlike previous Windows system versions where increased DRAM loading was explicitly required for desktops to avail of optimal performance that came with a new OS.

PCs historically have dominated DRAM consumption. However, starting in the second quarter of 2012, PCs accounted for less than half of all DRAM shipments—the first time in a generation that they didn’t consume 50 percent or more of the leading type of semiconductor memory. This is partly due to slowing shipment growth for PCs, combined with the deceleration in DRAM loading growth.

“The arrival of the post-PC era doesn’t mean that people will stop using personal computers, or even necessarily that the PC market will stop expanding,” Leimbach said. “What the post-PC era does mean is that personal computers are not at the centre of the technology universe anymore—and are seeing their hegemony over the electronics supply chain erode. PCs are no longer generating the kind of growth and overwhelming market size that can single-handedly drive demand, pricing and technology trends in DRAM any many other major technology businesses.”


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