The steady increase in PC capabilities that has justified the upgrade cycle and fueled 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.
Annual growth in the average DRAM usage per shipped PC has been slowing dramatically since peaking in 2007, according to an IHS iSuppli DRAM Dynamics Market Brief from information and analytics provider IHS. Following a 21.4% increase in 2012, the average growth of DRAM content per PC will decline to a record low of 17.4% this year, as presented in the attached figure. This compares to the high point of 56.1% in 2007, and 49.9% 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—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—namely smartphones and media tablets.”
The growth in DRAM loading in PCs is expected remain in a low range in the coming years, rising by 21.3% in 2014 to and then continuing in the 20.0% range until at least 2016.
Notebooks slim down on DRAM
Notebooks increasingly are adopting ultrathin 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.
Desktops feel their age
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.
Post-PC era realities
“All told, PCs no longer need to add DRAM content as much as they did in the previous times, when failure to increase memory content in either desktops or laptops could have resulted in a direct impediment to performance,” Leimbach said. “The new normal now calls for a different state of affairs, in which DRAM PC loading won’t be growing at the same rates seen in past years.”
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 development also illustrates the diminishing dominion of PCs in the electronics supply chain—and represented another sign of the post-PC era.
“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 center 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.”