IBM is planning the 2004 release of an MRAM (magnetic random access memory) prototype that promises to reduce battery consumption and turn PCs into 'instant-on' boxes, just as PDAs (personal digital assistants) are today.

According to June Namioka, public relations manager of the Technology Group at IBM Asia Pacific, IBM's prototype could pave the way for a new kind of memory, replacing DRAM (dynamic RAM) and SRAM (static RAM) to become the universal random access memory technology.

IBM isn't the first firm to do this. Motorola announced in February that it had not only worked out to make MRAM but it could now make working, practically sized chips.

In MRAM, capacitors that are found in DRAM are replaced with a thin magnetic film. Instead of storing information by charging up the capacitors, MRAM magnetises the film, explained Chong Tow Chong, director of the of Data Storage Institute in Singapore.

One of the key benefits is that MRAM is non-volatile. This gives it an advantage over DRAM which stores charges into the capacitor and leaks if the power is switched off. Data therefore has to be saved into the hard disk, which is a magnetic medium.

MRAM will be able to overcome this because it is a non-volatile device, so even if you switch it off there is no worry that the information bits will be lost, explained Chong.

The use of magnetic polarity instead of electrical charges to store data also means that MRAM does not have to be periodically refreshed, thus eliminating boot time for PCs. This creates an 'instant-on' process similar to when a television is turned on.

Another benefit of MRAM is that it can help to significantly reduce battery consumption because it does not need to be constantly powered like SRAM and DRAM, said Namioka of IBM.