Mushkin Interview and Tour
Reviewed by: Makaveli
Reviewed on: May 7, 2007
Mushkin. When most computer enthusiasts hear this name, they think high quality, top-of-the-line and superior performance. What makes this memory and power supply company such a driving force in their respective markets? On Thursday last week, I went to Mushkin’s Denver headquarters to find out everything I could about the company.
I had no idea that Mushkin was located in the heart of Denver, so when I found out I freaked out, because I am absolutely terrible at directions. The directions said they were located in a suite, so I knew I wasn’t going to see a sign on a skyscraper advertising Mushkin. Once I found the building, I proceeded to the 4th floor and saw the famous “<m” logo.
When I opened the door, the green wall with the Mushkin logo and slogan caught my eye because it looks extremely simplistic and professional.
While one of the guys up front went to get Brian, I sat down on the visitor’s couch and noticed some cool artwork with RAM behind me.
After a few seconds of waiting, I met the person I was going to interview. His name is Brian Flood and he’s the manager of product development of Mushkin. He has been working for Mushkin for a few years now and is hands down the smartest person that I’ve ever met on the subject of RAM. His office is huge and has a great view of the demolition going on across the street. You’ll learn more about Brian in the interview.
All of OCC's questions are in orange; all of Brian's responses are in white.
1. Before we start, could you please give us a little background information about you and what your position is?
I just started here two and a half years ago at the customer service just answering phone calls trying to help people out; then I moved to tech support. I’ve always been an enthusiast and an overclocker as a hobby before this. So when I got moved over into product development and research development, it was great to get paid for what I was already doing. There’s definitely a steep learning curve…a lot of studying data sheets and studying general principles on my own. But I feel like now I have an okay grasp on it. This industry changes so fast that you’re just in a continual state of learning and if you don’t, you’ll just fall behind. That’s one thing, on my own time outside of the office, I’ve been studying things: chipset data sheets, SPD data sheets, preparing for DDR3 now and what’s coming in the future and also power supplies, testing video cards to make sure they work with it. You definitely have to be nimble to be in a position like this but I love the job - it’s great.
That was actually the last name of the guy who started the company back in 1994; his name is Bill Mushkin. Most of the other companies just have some name they make up. He was bold enough to name the company after his last name; I actually like the name because it’s unique. They say in marketing and branding it’s good to have an odd name like that, because everyone seems to remember it. I don’t know exactly when, but he sold the company to RAMTron International. They were the pioneers of F RAM, which is ferroelectric RAM. My expertise is not in that, but they bought us just to gain some extra revenue. They owned us for a couple years and then they sold us to our current owner and president George Stathakis. Since (the) middle (of) 2005, we’ve been owned by him. We were a public company before with all the restrictions, a subsidiary of RAMTron International and was traded on the Nasdaq. We had to document everything because of the Enron disaster. It seemed like we were spending more time recording our tracks than getting work done. So now we’re private again, we can be a lot more aggressive and efficient. It’s just been a great experience working under both ownerships but I prefer this current ownership.
3. Do you have an in-house product design team, or do you use consultancies?
We prefer to do everything in house. Some of the builds are somewhat standard, where your basic 1GB 800 MHz part, that you know a good build, is a brain power like PCB. The real kind of art form of developing a product is knowing compatibility, limitations, and getting your costs to where you can sell it and make money and be competitive in that respect. But then offering a basic part like our SP line, it always works with anything; AMD and Intel. We like to have control over that for the most part; we don’t bring in consultants typically.
4. What actually happens at this facility?
We’ll specify the builds and we’ll get the parts in. All the shipping happens here after passing our unique tests. Every memory company, I would think, has their own set of tests that they do. I do a lot of correlation testing here and kind of fun experiments, such as airflow and thermal experiments. But primarily this is a sales office, testing, and shipping office.
5. What method do you use to test for compatibility across the various chipsets?
We work with motherboard suppliers very closely, so you can get an AMD or Intel reference board and that gives you a good idea in general. When ASUS, MSI, Gigabyte, those guys, start implementing their new designs, that’s when we start pushing to get samples, work with them and sharing test results with them. But in general, most chips are fairly compatible out there. PCBs can make a big difference you know with DDR1, certain PCBs won’t work with 1T command rate on AMD. So what you have to do is specify a build of materials and not waver from that. Or you might have an option you know you might have build 1, build 2 because you want to be flexible in that respect. But in general if you use high quality components, high quality PCBS, we try not to use ETT or UTT parts in the DRAM circles that’s effectively tested or untested. So anything we can do to make the parts very high quality, good components, and just use DRAM components that are just known by us through history to be compatible with pretty much everything. We have continual testing, so if something does come up like it doesn’t work with a certain motherboard we can fix the chips.
6. What speed binning methods do you use for your high performance RAM? Does this include hand-picking?
This is kind of when we get into the proprietary information.That’s kind of the secret recipe because we’re very proud of our test methods so we don’t like to typically go into too much detail on that. But I can tell you that we do test over the rated specifications module. So the actual programs that we use to test is confidential but I can tell you that we don’t use MemTest.
7. What happens to the binned RAM modules - are these written off as sunk costs or sold to smaller firms as generic/value RAM?
There are a variety things that we can do. With DDR1 it was fairly easy to rework the module. You could actually take a hot air soldering iron and take off the chip that wasn’t making it and carefully put a new one on. Although that’s not the preferred method, you can salvage the module doing that. With DDR2 it’s a lot different ball game, with the BGA mounting methods it’s much more difficult to rework the chip. So typically what we’ll do is sort down the RAM to HP grade which we will do on occasion if the demand is high enough there. Or we can put it down a few levels.
8. What is the next DDR2 scheduled release and what is the clock speed?
Well, you run into issues sometimes where only a small percentage might make it at some insane speed. And we prefer not to over-bin a certain part. What you do when you over-bin is you make the performance window smaller. I’m not sure how high we’re going to go, but you might see 9600 and you might see higher than that. If and when we do it, we’re going to make sure it doesn’t degrade the performance of the lower speed parts and that’s difficult to do. Typically, with our 8500s, a lot of our users can hit 1200 MHz. Does that mean we need a 9600 part? We’ll see.
9. What is the expected arrival time for DDR3?
We’ve been working on DDR3. It’s going to be fairly soon when you see boards that support it. The life cycle of DDR2 compared to DDR1 is fairly short. There are some benefits with DDR3: lower power consumption, higher transfer rates. I think we’ll start seeing board support in a couple months, if not sooner. It’s definitely going to be a premium item. That’s something we’re going to have to be tight lipped about. There is probably going to be a slow adoption because DDR2 performs strong.
10. What new developments does Mushkin see beyond DDR3?
There’s interesting technologies out there. In the high performance industry, you can’t look too far ahead, in my opinion. I’m sure they’re already planning DDR4 now. The SPD data might change or the number of pins.
11. Moving onto power supplies -- What was the reason for expanding into power supplies?
We saw that you could become known for making a new power supply. If you’re known for quality already, that would follow you. We really wanted to spread out a little bit. The more products you sell, as long as they move, the more customers you can please and more profit you can gain. Sometimes to grow up, you have to grow out. We’re investigating other areas of computing as well. We think that we make nice, high quality products, so if we can provide a better CPU cooler or better power supply and give those benefits to the consumers, we’re going try to do it.
12. Other companies are beginning to offer 1KW+ power supplies - what are your thoughts on this and is Mushkin planning to join the crowd with its own offering?
Yeah we actually we have 800 watt units that will be released soon. We’re working on a 1.2 kilowatt unit as well. Typically when you get up in that range, it’ll be overkill for most people. While we like to push the envelope, we also have to look at what is actually going to be the sale rate.
Beyond 1 kilowatt, you might see 1.2 kilowatt. But 1.2 should probably be enough power for 99% of users.
14. As far as the company goes‚ is Mushkin planning on expanding outside of memory and power supplies? And how about out of Colorado?
We’ve been investigating thermal solutions and a few other areas of computing. We want to provide (products) that enthusiasts love and would use. You can go and expand further than that, but we don’t want to expand too far. We think we offer a good core knowledge of the products we offer now. So we want to continue to provide those high quality products that we do now.
In terms of company expansion, we have an Asia Pacific branch in Malaysia now, a Mushkin Europe branch in Germany and so expansion is difficult because you have to make sure your infrastructure can handle it. If the opportunity presents itself, we’ll look into it and make sure we’re ready before we do that.
15. Mushkin isn't very available in Canada are you planning on doing something about that?
We ship directly to Canada from here. We work with Canada Computers, Netlink, Memory Express, among others. So we do have distribution channels in Canada. I would count on availability in Canada improving.
16. What sets the company above the competition?
I think we built a really strong tradition of quality. We’re the pioneers, really, of overclocking. These days, I think what sets us apart is the unwavering test methods that we have. We run tests where you’ll get an error in normal computing and you wouldn’t notice. That’s not good for us. One error is not acceptable. We set a bar and we stick to it and we don’t change our specs. I think what sets us apart is the build materials and test methods.
17. Does Mushkin plan on sponsoring or hosting any big events coming up such as LAN parties, etc?
We do sponsor LAN parties every once in a while. We sponsor a couple clans like Check Six Gaming. Specific events, I don’t know right now because that’s not really my department.
18. Where do you see Mushkin in the next couple of years?
I see us in a different location. Expanding more and pushing the limits, still being known for quality. We’re a trusted name and with our recent growth, I see us bigger than we are now.
19. What is your current overclock?
ASUS P5WDH with an E6600 at 3.73GHz with water cooling. I have our 800 watt unit in there...I can’t recall the FSB right now but I know it’s up there like 400 or 415 or something like that. I’m running a couple of our 800MHz, 2GB modules in there at 4-3-3 right now. It’s a fast machine…
After the 35 minute interview, it was time to look around the place a little. Their suite is being renovated, so there wasn’t too much to photograph. There were some things that I was not allowed to take pictures of because Mushkin doesn’t want their recipe for success revealed. So, the first room we went into was the testing room. They had at least 50 different computers set up in racks testing their different products. Their racks had wooden shelves that had motherboard stand-offs screwed into them. Most of the motherboards were different brands, types, and colors. Each of the computers are hooked up to a KVM unit allowing the tester to click the switch through each computer making sure that they all passed the tests and posted correctly. The room was pretty hot and maintains a room temperature of 83.3 degrees Fahrenheit. He said the air conditioning hasn’t kicked in but the room is about as hot as a normal case temperature would be. There was a rack that held a ton of RAM that I was not allowed to take a picture of, but other than that, you can see what was in the testing room.
After the testing room, I went to the RMA section of the suite. This portion of the suite had stacks of RAM piled high, that was undergoing testing to diagnose the problem and to see if it’s repairable. Brian said that they get back about 2% of what they sell through RMAs. He mentioned that most of the RMA cases are just people who bought the wrong RAM for their system.
The only other part of the suite to tour was the shipping area. I was not allowed to go into this room or take any pictures. I did get a picture of Brian next to the Mushkin sign outside of the suite.
Wow, what an adventure! I had so much fun interviewing Brian and taking a tour of the Mushkin facility. I learned so much about the company, its products, and their future. I am pumped to see what products Mushkin will be releasing over the next couple of years to add to their already outstanding line-up of high-quality products. After getting a first-hand look at their high-quality products, I know where I’ll be getting my next set of RAM and my next power supply. I have always been an OCZ fan, but after this interview, I’m swayed to join the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of users who use Mushkin products in their machines. How can you go wrong with the best? I would also like to thank Brian for his time because without him, this wouldn’t have been possible. Next time you’re in the market for RAM or power supplies, take a look into the high quality, performance boasting and knowledgeable company of Mushkin; you won’t be disappointed.