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Thursday, April 09, 2009, 09:00 am PT (12:00 pm ET)

Apple places unusual flash memory order

A recent mass order for flash memory chips from Apple is raising more questions than answers given the chips in question are much lower in density than the electronics maker typically chooses for its handheld multi-touch products.

Citing sources at downstream suppliers, DigiTimes says Apple has asked for delivery of 100 million 8Gb NAND flash chips sometime later this year, with the bulk of that order expected to come from Samsung. The Cupertino-based company's other key flash memory suppliers — Toshiba, Hynix, Intel and Micron — may also factor into the deal.

The order is suspicious, however, given the low density of the chips on order. Contrary to some inaccuracies being reported around the Web, the parts in question are 8 gigabit chips, representing 1 gigabyte of storage each, not 8 gigabytes of storage each.

While this order could theoretically be used to facilitate the production of 6.25 million 16GB iPhones or 12.5 million 8GB iPhones, Apple has historically purchased higher density chips for its handheld offerings due to space constraints. For instance, its believed that the current 8GB iPhone 3G employs a single 64Gb high-density NAND flash chip, while the 16GB version uses a 128Gb chip.

Similarly, Apple is also thought to be using a single high-density 32Gb NAND chip in its most recent 4GB iPod shuffle, though this hasn't been confirmed with any degree of certainty. A tear-down analysis of the player last month found only a single chip inside — a multi-layered stack containing the CPU, RAM, and flash memory — making a face value determination inconclusive. (Update: iFixIt confirmed for us that it is indeed a high-density 32Gb part in the shuffle).

It's also unclear from the report whether the 8Gb NAND parts are finalized chip packages, or bare memory chips that will later be stacked to form a higher density package. Assuming the chips are complete chip packages, the order may signal plans for a new low cost, low storage handheld product in the near future. Another alternative explanation could be that the parts aren't destined for an iPod or iPhone at all.

Their inclusion in future Macs is yet another remote possibility, though rumors of Apple adopting small flash chips for an implementation of Intel's Robson technology — which promised faster startup, application launching, and battery life by caching key pieces of code in the solid-state memory parts — fizzled some years ago. Apple now offers customers the option of configuring a handful of Macs with much larger flash drives, doing away with the need for a traditional hard disk drive entirely.

Regardless of Apple's intentions for the chips, DigiTimes claims the order is likely to cause a supply shortage for the broader market, especially with Nokia and Sony also reported to be building up NAND flash inventories for their own products.