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Smartphones Beat DRAM Drum to Meet Performance Demand

Smartphones are getting more performant with each passing day, thanks to the confluence of user demands and technological advancements. One of their key components is DRAM, a high-speed-low-latency memory module that serves as a temporary memory for an application processor (AP). Commonly known as RAM, DRAM stores the OS and running applications’ working data. A larger DRAM enhances a phone’s capability to host more applications simultaneously, enabling users to switch between apps seamlessly without needing to reload them back from the flash.

Like every other smartphone component, DRAM has improved over time in several aspects: capacity, speed and affordability. On average, smartphone DRAM capacity has risen consistently over time. Several reasons can explain this phenomenon: (i) Intense megapixel race in cameras, (ii) Surging performance needs of big apps and games, and (iii) Increasing prevalence of multi-tasking and high-resolution-high-framerate displays. Users now expect razor-sharp photography, high framerate gameplay, and the capability to drive large applications parallelly without any lag.

Currently, the DRAM sizes embedded in smartphones vary greatly, starting from 2GB for the low-cost segment to 18GB for the flagship models. Every two in five smartphones sold in 2020 had 4-6GB DRAM. Therefore, most phones of the day support moderate gameplay along with some degree of multi-tasking. Even though it may seem so, more DRAM is not always merrier. Bigger DRAM consumes more power irrespective of whether it is fully or partially used. So, smaller DRAM is favourable for budget phones from the battery and cost perspective.

Android needs more DRAM than iOS

According to our Mobile Handset Sell-through Tracker, the global average DRAM capacity almost reached the 5GB mark in Q4 2020, touching 4.5GB and 5GB for iOS and Android smartphones respectively, and growing 22% YoY in 2020 overall. The Android smartphones’ average DRAM sustained stable growth in 2019-2020, while the iOS segment had it relatively uneven. For the latter, high growth phases primarily centre around the new iPhone releases, scheduled in the fourth quarter every year.

The Android segment’s growth faced a slump during Q2 2020-Q4 2020 due to the bearish market following COVID-19. For the iOS camp, the release of iPhone 11/Pro/Max and iPhone 12 Pro/Max resulted in a steep rise in Apple’s memory numbers, owing to their 4GB and 6GB DRAMs respectively.

Overall, the DRAM content for iPhones was consistently dwarfed by the other brand families in this list. This disparity stems from the far more efficient memory management approach that iPhones employ. The iOS uses reference counting, a mechanism that needs much lower working memory than Android’s garbage collection approach. Also, iPhone’s higher bandwidth NAND flash reduces the time required to reload data from storage. Therefore, iPhones can typically rely more on flash storage to cope with DRAM overflow compared to their Android counterparts. As per our Component Price Tracker, a significant drop in DRAM prices facilitated the smartphone OEMs’ transition to larger memory units in 2019-2020. The LPDDR4x DRAM prices tumbled by over 20% in the H2 2019-H2 2020 period. By the end of this period, 6GB emerged as the DRAM size variant with the minimum cost per GB.

DRAM Size Ranking by Brand Family

According to our Smartphone DRAM Status Update for Q4 2020, bigger average DRAM numbers signal a greater proportion of high-end phones in a brand’s portfolio, especially in the Android segment. This section compares the growth in DRAM capacities of the top six best-selling smartphone brand families during Q1 2019-Q4 2020.

Apple recorded the highest DRAM growth numbers, followed by Huawei and Samsung. The DRAM content for the bottom three brands grew half as fast as the ones on the top. Early adoption of larger DRAM units justified the lower growth for smartphones under the OPPO and vivo umbrella. The same was the case with Xiaomi’s cash-cow sub-brand Redmi that focuses on the budget segment.

Over half of Huawei’s top three best-selling phones – P30, P30 Lite and P30 Pro – were sold in 8GB variants, while the 6GB variants accounted for another one-third. Among Apple’s top three best-selling model families – iPhone 11, iPhone XR and iPhone 11 Pro Max, the 4GB RAM variants made up for 70% of sales while the 3GB ones took the remaining 30%. Other notable OEMs in this aspect were Black Shark, OnePlus and Razer with their 8.5GB, 8.4GB and 8GB average RAM densities respectively.

Our quarterly report on smartphone DRAM presents a more profound analysis in this direction, featuring (i) quarter-wise DRAM numbers and personalised insights for major smartphone OEMs, (ii) change in market share of smartphone DRAM densities and (iii) correlation heatmap for the primary camera and DRAM capacity.

Conclusion

Growing affordability of LPDDR4x memory, rising user expectations and ballooning memory footprints of modern apps have played a crucial role in driving up smartphone DRAM sizes over time. The increasing prevalence of multi-tasking can certainly inflate the users’ memory needs.

Users invest in large DRAMs, hoping to future-proof their phones. But little are they aware of the raised power consumption of these large memory units — as smartphones in the present need just 4GB DRAM for optimal performance. On the other hand, the gaming-oriented ones need a minimum of 8GB DRAM for smooth multi-tasking alongside heavy gaming. The smartphone DRAM of the budget segment should see good growth in the near term, and it will be interesting to see how far up the premium segment pushes the DRAM capacities.

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