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Gigabyte's IRAM

Holiday Buyer's Guide 2005
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Do you find disk-to-disk transfers too slow? Would you like to squeeze a little more performance out of your PC? Gigabyte i-RAM may help you avoid the former, and achieve the latter. While not a new technology, this solid state storage device does have a place at the top end of the consumer-grade storage hierarchy.

As power users keep pushing the envelope on desktop performance, vendors retool existing designs and concepts to cater to demands for more speed. That explains Gigabyte Technology's i-RAM: a DDR200 memory card linked via a Serial-ATA I (SATA I) data link to the motherboard. The key ingredient is the Xilinx Spartan Field-Programmable Gate Array (FPGA), a commonly-used, low-cost bridge interface between high-speed devices. It's a trifecta of functionality, in fact, combining a bridge processor, a DDR200 memory controller, and a SATA I controller all in one petite package.

The i-RAM provides performance that modern desktop drives can't yet beat, at the cost of lower storage capacity and greater expense. Indeed, the i-RAM is best suited to purpose-built systems, such as for home theater (where low noise output and minimal moving parts are essential) or gaming PCs (where speed is of paramount importance). It can also serve as a scratch space for art or 3D rendering programs that make lots of random data requests, a usage scenario that disk drives abhor (they perform best on sequential reads).

To the operating system, the i-RAM is just an ordinary SATA I storage device; no additional drivers are needed. While the i-RAM does support non-ECC DDR modules rated up to 400 MHz (PC3200), DDR200/266 should provide adequate performance, since the Xilinx FPGA sets the pace for all data access. Furthermore, there's no speed benefit for RAM with tight timings, as the FPGA can't be tweaked to exploit them. The i-RAM maxes out at 4 GB, owing to the FPGA's address width and its configuration.

3.3 volt power is drawn directly from the PCI bus in the i-RAM. Data transfers occur across the SATA I physical header interfaces, where surface-mount LEDs signal real-time link activity, as well as power to the circuit board. Auxiliary power comes from a 16 hour / 1700mAh Li-Ion back-up battery, which requires 6 hours to charge completely over the PCI bus, and keeps the card working even when the i-RAM is removed from your PC.

The i-RAM's performance benefits result from how RAM works. With no moving parts to add latency to data requests, transactions complete more quickly on the i-RAM than on most disks. For the truly extreme, the i-RAM could serve as a boot drive for Windows or to store games and other frequently used-programs. This alone is probably enough to appeal to those power-mad PC enthusiasts on your holiday shopping list.

After coughing up $79 (MSRP) for this card online, additional funds are needed to populate its memory slots. If you don't feel like spending $200 or more for at least 2 GB of RAM, perhaps you can team up with a few other elves to complete this purchase?

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