Tales From The Silk Road

Duct tape and cheap electronics: the trials and tribulations of an expat.

Recently I wrote a two-part article on the impact low-cost quad-core and octo-core mobile processors are having on the mobile handset market here in Asia. In it I briefly mentioned that many travelers and expats in this part of the world—this part being Southeast Asia, generally speaking—come here, among myriad other reasons, for the cheap electronics available.

Semi EngineeringWhat prompted me to investigate and write the story is that I’m one of those expats. With the exception of seven months total spent on trips back at home in the States, I’ve lived for the past four years in either Viet Nam or Thailand. Before that I had traveled in both China and Japan. I could give you a lot of reasons why I chose to live here, but we’re talking about semiconductors and the products they go into, so we’ll stick to the topic of cheap electronics.

As I quickly discovered here, if I wanted name-brand, leading-edge devices or PC components, they aren’t so cheap after all. In fact sometimes, as in the case of Viet Nam, they are more expensive than what they would cost at home, thanks to import taxes. And that’s when I could even find that leading-edge stuff. I remember meeting an expat and hardcore PC gamer when I first came to Southeast Asia four years ago. (What are the odds of meeting a fellow Yankee nerd in a rural Thai town?) He used to make regular trips back to the States or to Hong Kong—not to visit friends or loved ones, but to buy leading-edge desktop components. At the the time, he lamented that you couldn’t even get the latest Intel quad-core processor in cosmopolitan Bangkok, and his gaming rig was a good six months behind those of his compatriots in other parts of the world.

Take my tablet…please

What does all this have to do with handsets in 2014, you ask? What about the cheap electronics? Don’t worry, I’m getting there. What I also quickly discovered about the cheap electronics that are available was that they were cheap for a reason. Take my first (of several) tablets that I bought here, here being Thailand (again, because they were cheaper than in Viet Nam, where I was living at the time).

No really, take it. You can have it.

I came to live abroad with my second-generation Kindle, which I absolutely loved, being a voracious reader (it’s a lot easier to travel with your library when your library consists of a few thousand files on a six-inch tablet with a battery that lasts for a week or two).

After years of use, however a couple of years ago my Kindle was really showing its age — duct tape was literally holding the housing together — and I thought I would try an Android tablet as a replacement. Plus, I thought that maybe an Android tablet would cut down on trips to the coffee shop with my laptop in tow.

Off to the electronics mall I went, while on holiday in Bangkok, and I came home to Sai Gon with a “Samsung” 9.7-inch Android tablet for the equivalent of about $100 — at the time, very cheap. Why was it cheap? Why is “Samsung” in quotation marks? Because it was a Chinese white-label device masquerading as a Samsung. It wasn’t even one of the better knockoffs; the firmware didn’t bother with a Samsung logo splash upon boot up, and the letters along the bottom of the screen proclaiming it a “Samsung” were cheap craft-store stick-on letters.

Yes, I knew before I bought it what it was. In fact, most vendors here are quite honest about the so-called “copies” they sell.

Anyway, fortunately for me it was fine for reading or surfing the Internet. Unfortunately, not both. It was equipped with a standard, 1 Gbyte ARM processor and a few gigs of RAM, but ask the device to do any sort of multitasking and it would choke, and choke badly (of course Android is probably a bit more bloated than it needs to be, but that’s a bit off topic). Open a dictionary while reading? Be prepared to wait a minute. Even after flashing it with a known third-party ROM version of Android, the multitasking performance, not to mention the battery life, was dismal. Watch a movie on it? Fine, as long as you didn’t have anything else running in the background and had the charger hooked up to it, too. Did I mention the battery life was nothing to brag about?

About this time, the slide-out keyboard on my beloved old Nokia had bit the dust, or rather the cable that connects the physical keyboard to the motherboard. The cost of replacing it more than covered the cost of a cheap handset here. So once more into the consumer breach, this time with a Chinese white-label Android phone; this time it had a dual-core ARM processor and 4 gigs of ram (for about $150 bucks).

The performance wasn’t brilliant (nor was the screen), but then it wasn’t bad, either; at least it could handle some light multitasking without bogging down; the screen remained responsive with more than one app running. A step in the right direction, but still it wasn’t really an alternative to a brand-name, leading edge device.

Let’s flash forward to several months ago. If traveling for a bit, or even just for an afternoon of work at a local cafe, I was tired of lugging around a laptop, a tablet and a phone. Whatever I could do on my tablet I could do on my phone, it’s true, but reading on that wee dim screen was not pleasant (and I tend to read for a couple of hours at a time, sometimes, on a slow afternoon or evening). Not to mention, I could kiss the battery goodbye after several chapters of Somerset Maugham.

I decided it was time to try a phablet, and once again I reasoned that I should buy one of the cheap knockoffs available here. It wasn’t because three times is a charm. It was to try out the phablet form factor. I figured then I would invest in the real-deal, if I liked it — namely a Samsung Note II. Long story short(er), I found a used Note I for cheap, and within a few weeks I was sold on the phablet, at least as far as Samsung was concerned — a screen large enough and with good enough resolution to make reading enjoyable, and a machine capable of multitasking without nary a lag. I also can get away with charging it once a day, even with several hours of reading thrown in, and it still fits in my pocket.

It’s probably only a matter of time until I trade it in for a new Note III (I’ve almost convinced myself that the improved battery life and the better image sensor are worth it).

But the knockoffs aren’t so knockoff anymore

While I began looking at phablets and phones with larger, four-plus-inch screens, I started noting the latest specs on the local brands and white-label devices with quad-core processors in them. Playing with these in the stores, and canvassing my Thai and expat friends who owned them, it became obvious that these second-tier handset and tablet makers had upped the game. This was thanks in large part to the availability of inexpensive quad-core mobile processors, namely from MediaTek.

The devices are responsive and more than capable of running several apps at once — say messaging, a browser, Facebook (and in lands where being social is a cultural staple, one can’t overlook the importance of social networking), not to mention making/receiving calls. Based on anecdotal evidence the image sensors in these devices are more than capable, as well.

It helps that these devices are literally hundreds of dollars cheaper than those of Apple, Samsung, HTC and Sony. Apple and Samsung still rule the roost here and elsewhere, in important markets like China — but as detailed in those two stories, that might not be the case for much longer.

Editor’s Note: As explained at length elsewhere on this site this is a news story written by me for another publication. This originally appeared on Semiconductor Engineering; it holds the copyright, of course.

Non-Visual Defect Inspection: The Tech of Tomorrow?

The chip industry is conservative when it comes to adopting new metrology and inspection. Will it ultimately see NVD inspection as a wunderkind, or an also-ran?

Remember when it first became obvious that the semiconductor manufacturing industry was going to expect lithography to resolve features smaller than the wavelength of light used in the litho tools themselves?

Semi EngineeringThanks to techniques such as the use of phase shift photomasks, sub-wavelength lithography is standard in chip fabs today. It might even be viewed as “old hat,” although still an expensive old hat.

Whether non-visual defect (NVD) inspection follows a similar trend remains to be seen. This is perhaps especially true in light of the history of metrology and inspection technology. Chipmakers always have been loathe to spend money on these often expensive tools and processes unless it proves indispensable in production. That explains why historical adoption rates of today’s standard metrology and inspection tools tend to have long ramps.

Still, it’s clear that as the industry begins to get serious about the forthcoming 14nm and 10nm nodes, NVDs, such as sub-monolayer residues and contaminants, have the potential to become increasingly problematic. One could argue they already are. But the key words here are non-visual and sub-monolayer, as in “sub-atomic.”

Chip manufacturing in the age of the electron

Generally speaking, device shrinks have proven problematic for years now. That’s nothing new and hasn’t been at least since R&D got underway for the 0.13-micron node. But things are getting really, really tiny now, not to mention complex—so much so that the industry is going to have to start worrying about specific electrons and Heisenberg.

“It hasn’t been uncommon with the 28nm and the 20nm transition where you get a device and everything looks great, but it doesn’t work right. You have, maybe for lack of a better term, a current flow problem,” said Dean Freeman, a semiconductor equipment analyst with Gartner Inc.

Freeman wasn’t talking about NVDs specifically, but commenting more generally on the challenges the industry faces at the 14nm and 10nm nodes and beyond, as the end of Moore’s Law creeps up on the horizon, along with exotic things like single-electron transistors.

The industry is probably going to see more problems like the one he described above, along with the need to be able to detect things that aren’t immediately understood. “We’re getting to the point where our modern measurements are getting past Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle,” Freeman said.

“One of the things people have to realize is, it’s just a lot more difficult to manufacture, even at sub-30nm, than people first thought,” said Bob Johnson, another analyst with Gartner who specializes in the metrology and defect inspection market segments. He noted that even a juggernaut such as Intel, with its deep pockets and advanced R&D efforts, was later than expected with its first sub-22nm chip.

In today’s advanced manufacturing fab line, a defect “can be something as subtle as something like two lines too close together that generate a certain amount of heat, which then throws off a timing circuit,” Johnson said.

As for NVDs, are they going to become more of a problem? Will the industry need NVD inspection tools on production lines, beyond the R&D and pilot lines? It’s too early to say just yet. Nevertheless there is some interesting and even compelling data out there.

So how do you see an NVD?

So if a defect is non-visual, i.e., you can’t see it because it doesn’t reflect or otherwise scatter light, how do you detect it? How do you “see” sub-monolayer contamination?

Currently there is only one company on the market offering NVD inspection tools to the chip industry: Qcept Technologies Inc. At the heart of Qcept’s tools is the concept of a vibrating Kelvin probe, a vibrating capacitor device that measures changes in the work function or potential in surface chemistry — without contacting the surface. Rather than vibrating a probe tip over a wafer surface, Qcept’s ChemetriQ scans the entire surface of a wafer, measuring differentials in work function. Its tools can scan a 300mm wafer in four minutes, according to the company.

Spun out of the Georgia Institute of Technology, the company announced its first beta site projects in 2011, one at a leading-edge logic fab and the other at a leading-edge memory fab; both involved inspection of 3X-nm production wafers. Since then it has placed systems at five of the top six chipmakers as determined by sales (not including fabless companies, naturally).

One of those chipmakers is South Korea’s Samsung Electronics. Samsung and Qcept published a joint paper earlier this year detailing the company’s use of Qcept’s ChemetriQ tool to identify a post-wet clean residue that was ultimately causing pitting defects in a later gate oxide process. The residue defect correlated with a known yield problem at end of line (EOL) test. Notably, while Samsung said it suspected the defect was occurring at the front-end of line gate module process, there was no matching defect pattern identified during optical inspection. The company used ChemetriQ inspection at several process steps in the gate and spacer module process, including post-gate lithography, post-gate etch and clean, post-spacer deposition and post-spacer etch and ash clean.

The resulting inspection data detected spots of increased work function in areas of the wafer that corresponded with the location of die failing at EOL test. Ultimately NVD inspection illustrated that the way a batch clean tool was handling the wafer was leaving unwanted residue on part of the wafer; among the most promising solutions was switching to a linear, single-wafer clean tool which enabled a more uniform post-clean surface and a significant yield increase at final test, according to Samsung.

Problems like the one discussed in the Samsung paper are not uncommon, according to Qcept. The company has had customers with 20 to 30 percent yield problems at end of line with no corresponding defect data, according to Robert Newcomb, executive vice president at Qcept. That’s where a lot of the time NVD inspection helps find the additional yield, when there is no corresponding optical defect inspection data, he said.

In October the company published a paper with Applied Materials Inc.’s Asia Product Development Center in Singapore and the Institute of Microelectronics in Singapore in which the companies used Qcept’s inspection technology to detect surface contamination within a chemical mechanical polarization (CMP) process used to reveal through-silicon vias (TSVs). The fact that Applied Materials turned to Qcept for CMP process development help perhaps speaks volumes, particularly given that Applied has its own optical defect inspection division — detecting NVDs is clearly a new thing.

While residues are one category of NVD, another is process-induced charge, according to Newcomb. “We have found that charge can result in yield failure and yield defectivity in many ways — electrostatic charge, discharge in the wafer — it can blow out the gate oxide fabbed three weeks ago,” he said. “Charge can result in electrochemical defects too.”

Charge problems tend to result from wet process steps, Newcomb noted. “Any process where you are doing a wet process to the surface of the wafer with different chemistries can result in these charge events,” he said. It is one area in which Qcept’s customers are focusing on in particular.

Wafer cleaning is incidentally one of the most common and repeated steps in a fab line. Some 200 steps can be involved with surface prep and cleaning with the fabrication of a complex device. Given the increasing use of exotic materials in semiconductor fabrication, that number is likely to grow at future nodes. “From that perspective, for wet cleans and surface prep, it’s more than just particles,” Newcomb said.

Future inspection tech or perfect future inspection tech?

Nevertheless, to say NVDs are a widespread phenomenon, or will be, or rather that NVD inspection is the wave of the inspection future — it’s too early to make that call. As Gartner’s Johnson noted, 30% yield problems at advanced nodes is hardly unusual. In fact some of the large complex die that appeared at 28nm node were rumored to have production yields in the 40% range.

Again, when it comes to metrology and inspection, chipmakers are loathe to spend money on the tools and add the steps in production. Any time there is a new metrology technology, it goes into the R&D area first before it gets adopted in production. Chipmakers have to be convinced that the problems illustrated in R&D are problems that are not just solved then and there, and instead must be monitored in production, Johnson said. And what if NVDs do prove a recurring problem in the production fab? “Then you would have to put some (NVD) inspection steps at critical points in the fab,” he said.

Johnson noted there have been promising metrology and inspection technologies in the past that failed to find their way into mainstream production, such as integrated metrology. In that case it proved too expensive and not absolutely necessary.

On the other hand, there is the example of optical critical dimension (CD) metrology technology. It had a long road to adoption. Like NVD inspection tech today, at the time optical CD inspection was a brand-new technology and it took the industry a while to figure out how to use it. Today, however, it’s an important part of the fab line and the metrology tool market.

As for NVD inspection technology and Qcept, time will tell. But it would seem that at least for the likes of Applied and Samsung, the evidence thus far is compelling.

Editor’s Note: As explained at length elsewhere on this site this is a news story written by me for another publication. This originally appeared on Semiconductor Engineering; it holds the copyright, of course.

Big Changes Rock Global Smartphone Market

Second of two parts: Battle lines are shifting to eight-core processors with prices expected to plummet quickly.

It’s not just consumers that are benefiting from the proliferation of low-cost mobile multiple-core processors. Chipmakers are reaping the benefits of the booming smartphone market in Asia and around the globe.

Semi EngineeringIn the multicore smartphone applications processor market Qualcomm. leads the way with its Snapdragon processors; it accounted for 43% of the market in the first half of this year, followed by Apple, Samsung, MediaTek and ST-Ericsson, according to market researcher Strategy Analytics.

Apple had been the market share leader coming into 2013. But Qualcomm’s multiple Snapdragon families of chips, covering a range of price points, propelled it to the top spot this year, Sravan Kundojjala, senior analyst with Strategy Analytics, said in statement.

While Qualcomm’s gains came largely from standalone chips—as opposed to multiple-core processors integrated into chipsets, with mobile quad-core processors largely standalone devices—the research firm suggests this is rapidly changing. “We expect Broadcom, Marvell, MediaTek, Qualcomm and Spreadtrum to proliferate the market with low-cost, baseband-integrated quad-core chips,” Stuart Robinson, director of the Strategy Analytics Handset Component Technologies service, said in a statement.

Taiwan’s MediaTek also has benefited greatly, both in terms of its bottom line and its position in the market place. The company reported its Q3 earnings earlier this month. Net profit jumped 25% quarter-over-quarter and 71% year-over-year to $286 million (8.42 billion New Taiwanese dollars).

In a conference call with analysts the company cited smartphone chip demand, namely in China and other emerging markets, as the principal driver behind its recent growth. The fabless chipmaker shipped more than 65 million smartphone chips in Q3, up from 55 million in Q2.

Semiconductor market research firm IC Insights anticipates that for all of 2013 MediaTek will enjoy year over year sales growth of 34%. In 2012 the company posted total sales of $3.37 billion; IC Insights forecasts the company will see 2013 sales of $4.5 billion.

In terms of year-on-year sales growth that would make MediaTek the No. 2 on IC Insights’ forecast list of top-20 chip sales growth leaders for 2013, second only to SK Hynix. Notably, Qualcomm shows up in the No. 4 spot with 30% year-on-year sales growth.

In terms of straight sales for the year, MediaTek’s growth will place it at No. 16 on the list of top semiconductor sales leaders for 2013, IC Insights said.

The research firm stated that MediaTek is “experiencing extremely strong demand for its devices in the booming low-end smartphone business in China and other Asia-Pacific locations. In fact, MediaTek expects its application processor shipments for smartphones to top 200 million units this year, about double the 108 million units the company shipped in 2012.”

Top 20 Semi Firms 2013

Four cores? Try eight, and China gets it first

MediaTek was the first to market with a mobile quad-core processor ahead of Qualcomm, and it looks to be the first to the market with the first fully-functioning octa-core processor as well.

And, perhaps tellingly of the near future, that octa-core processor won’t debut inside a mainstream brand smartphone released for a mature market. Rather, it will be released by a tier-two Chinese handset maker for the Chinese market.

Samsung already hit the market with its Exynos 5 Octa processors in its S4 and Note 3 smartphones, of course, but these processors functionally are quad-core processors. Not all eight cores are active at the same time. The market was rife with rumors that a firmware upgrade would change this, but so far that hasn’t materialized.

In the meantime smartphones built around MediaTek’s octa-core processor soon will be hitting the Asia-Pacific market. The company first officially acknowledged its octa-core product, the MT6592, last June. Local Taiwanese media report that the company will hold an official unveiling and introduction later this month on the mainland.

Furthermore, last month at the 2013 Hong Kong Electronics Fair Chinese handset maker UMI unveiled what will apparently be the first phone on the market — in this case, in China — built around the MT6592, the Umi X2S.

The successor to UMI’s current X2 handset — built around the 1.2 GHz version of the quad-core MT6589 — will feature MediaTek’s 1.5 GHz octa-core processor and reportedly feature 2 GBytes of RAM, 32 GBbytes of internal memory, a 13-megapixel image sensor and a 5-inch high definition (1920 x 1080 pixel) display. No official pricing has been released, but it will likely retail between 1,500 and 2,000 yuan ($250 to $325).

Undoubtedly other handset makers will soon be following suit, as will rival chipmakers with their own octa-core mobile processors.

Big Changes Rock Global Smartphone Market, part one

Editor’s Note: As explained at length elsewhere on this site this is a news story written by me for another publication. This originally appeared on Semiconductor Engineering; it holds the copyright, of course.

Big Changes Rock Global Smartphone Market

First of two parts: The widespread availability of 4- and 8-core processors is driving growth of low-cost-yet-capable smartphones in Asia.

BANGKOK — One of the many draws for Western travelers here in Thailand and throughout much of Asia, including China, is the availability of cheap consumer electronics. Unfortunately many of these electronic goods — little-known off-brands mimicking better-known counterparts, or white-label devices being passed off as name-brand products to unsuspecting consumers — typically are technologically inferior to their leading brand brethren.

Semi EngineeringBut that’s changing quickly. The advent of the mobile quad-core processor — and soon the eight-core processor — is helping not only to drive smartphone sales but to level the playing field in terms of the technical prowess of these off-brand devices, particularly when it comes to smartphones. This is particularly true here in Asia, which encompasses the largest geographical smartphone market: China.

“Everybody’s going quad-core,” said Mark Hung, wireless research vice president at Gartner. “Just to be competitive in the marketplace, (a mobile applications processor) has to be quad-core. It’s going to be the measuring stick for high-end processors.”

Smartphones lead mobile handset growth

Smartphone sales now surpass sales of so-called feature phones in the global mobile handset market. In Q2 of this year mobile phone sales worldwide totaled 435 million units, an increase of 3.6% year over year, according to Gartner. In contrast, worldwide smartphone sales for the period reached 225 million units, up 46.5% year over year. Meanwhile sales of feature phones totaled 210 million units, down 21% from Q2 2012.

Asia-Pacific had the highest smartphone sales growth rate of any geographic region, growing 74.1% year over year, while smartphone sales grew in all regions of the globe, Gartner said.

That growth continued in Q3 with more than 250 million smartphones shipping globally, as the market grew 44% year over year, according to market researcher Canalys. Not surprisingly, Samsung and Apple are the top two smartphone brands, respectively holding 34% and 15% of the market, according to Canalys. Gartner showed Samsung as holding 31.7 percent of the market in Q2, followed by Apple with 14.2 percent.

Of the global market, most market research firms now place China as the biggest geographical chunk, accounting for approximately 40% of the world market.

It’s been big news in the mobile market this year that lesser-known Chinese smartphone suppliers are making inroads in the global market. Of the top five global smartphone suppliers, two of them, ZTE and Huawei, are based in China (South Korea’s LG comes in on the list in the No. 3 spot, behind Samsung and Apple, No. 1 and No. 2, respectively — as figured by market researcher ABI Research. That’s also distinct from handset shipments as a whole, and doesn’t include feature phones). Another Chinese maker, Lenovo, better known for its PCs, is currently the sixth-largest maker of smartphones.

I-Mobile on diplay at Bangkok's MBK

Even more notable has been the stiff competition domestic Chinese smartphone makers have been putting up on their home turf, and consequently elsewhere in Asia as well. Upstart smartphone maker Xiaomi, for example, which only began selling phones two years ago, has staked a claim on the Chinese market — and kept abreast of rival Apple — by providing feature-rich smartphones at a fraction of the cost of newer iPhones or the flagship Samsung models. Xiaomi holds about 5% of the domestic Chinese smartphone market, ahead of Apple’s 4.8%, according to Canalys.

Domestic players Lenovo, Yulong, ZTE and Huawei round out the No. 2 through No. 5 spots in the Chinese smartphone market, respectively; Samsung holds the top spot with 17.6% of the market.

Quad-core processors usher in cheap, capable smartphones

One reason behind this phenomenon has been the availability of multiple-core applications processors, particularly quad-core devices, which has enabled Chinese tier-1 and even lesser known tier-2 players to produce smartphones that are technologically competitive with the iPhones and Samsung Galaxies, yet cost significantly less.

Aforementioned Xiaomi has made domestic waves with its MI1 and MI2 phones; the MI2 shipped with a 1.5 GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon quad-core processor and an Android 4.1 OS. The rest of the phone’s technical specs match what one would expect a quad-core-based smartphone to have, including a 4.3-inch IPS screen with a resolution of 1280×720 pixels.

The phone hit the market in November of last year retailing for 1,999 yuan, or about $320. The company said in September of this year that it had sold more than 10 million MI2 phones in the preceding 11 months. More recently it launched a phone with similar specs in August, the Hongmi, but built around a MediaTek quad-core processor. Priced at just 799 yuan, or about $130, the first lot of 100,000 Hongmi handsets sold out in just 90 seconds, according to Chinese media reports (Xiaomi’s principal sales distribution method is online sales).

I-Mobile at Bangkok's MBK

And it’s not just in China that inexpensive quad-core-based smartphones are appearing. They’re popping up in smaller regional markets throughout Asia. Here in Thailand, for example, Samsung also has the lion’s share of a smartphone market, expected to grow this year in terms of units by 37% to 7.8 million, or about $1.72 billion U.S., according to Thai market research firm GfK Retail and Technology.

Notably, here as in most other markets, the smartphone market is outpacing handset market growth as a whole. Overall, the handset market in Thailand is projected to grow 10% this year, GfK says. Furthermore, one might expect Apple to be No. 2 in the smartphone market, but Sony holds the No. 2 spot behind Samsung in Thailand’s smartphone market.

So not surprisingly, it’s quite common to see Samsung smartphones — leading-edge Galaxy S4s and previous generation S3s, as well as lower-cost models — in the hands of Bangkok’s socially-networked youth and fashionable, status-conscious professionals. Bangkok, incidentally, a city of 10 million people, reportedly has 8 million Facebook accounts; social networking can hardly be underestimated as a driver of smartphone adoption in this part of the world.

Yet here and there one also can see Oppo smartphones as well — Oppo Electronics being a tier-2 Chinese handset maker. In fact, in Bangkok Oppo advertising is ubiquitous, recently featuring A-list celebrity Leonardo DiCaprio hawking its flagship smartphone, the Find 5 (built around a Qualcomm Snapdragon quad-core processor). Even domestic Thai handset makers are taking advantage of low-cost quad-core processors to get into the smartphone market — and into the hands of cost-conscious yet tech-savvy Thai folk.

In Bangkok, the shopping centers, technology malls and market places are legion. Typically those that cater to buyers of electronics are filled with tens or even hundreds of independent vendors selling all types of electronics, from leading-edge, brand-name devices to bargain-basement Chinese white-label tablets. Galaxy S4s, Note 3’s and iPhone 5’s are, of course, shiny, new and for sale everywhere (if not always 100% genuine), along with smartphones from Sony, Lenovo, Huawei and LG. But those Oppo handsets and even MediaTek-based smartphones from indigenous Thai handset maker I-Mobile are starting to appear in smartphone displays alongside those Samsung and Apple models.

Even in upscale shopping venues, such as Siam Paragon in Bangkok’s central business district, one can find Oppo and I-Mobile smartphones on display, something one wouldn’t have seen a year or so ago.

I-Mobile seems to be taking a page from Samsung’s playbook and offering devices spanning a wide-range of price points and technical capabilities. Late last year and continuing this year it began marketing several smartphones based on Taiwanese chipmaker MediaTek’s MT6589 integrated chipset. The MT6589 incorporates an Arm Cortex A7 quad-core processor (with cores typically operating at 1.2 GHz or 1.5 GHz, depending on the configuration) fabricated with 28nm process technology, an Imagination Technologies Power VR Series5XT GPU, and its own MediaTek modem chips. The chipset also boasts a 13 megapixel camera with integrated image sensor pipeline (ISP), high-definition (1080p) playback and recording at 30fps, support for a full high-definition (1920×1080 pixels) LCD, as well as support for 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0, GPS and FM radio. I-Mobile’s MT6589-based smartphones range in price between approximately 5,000 Thai baht and 9,000 baht, or about $160 to $290.

The I-Mobile IQ X2, for example, hit the market in late Q3 and features among the usual smartphone features a 5-inch display with full HD resolution, dual SIM card support — an important feature in Southeast Asia where rural network coverage can vary greatly — 4 GBytes of ROM, 1 GByte of RAM and an 18 megapixel image sensor. It is built around the MT6589T (“T” for turbo; the ARM cores in this version operate at 1.5 GHz). The suggested retail price is 9,490 baht, or about $300, although it can be had for less (bargaining and haggling over price is often still an important part of the retail culture here).

At the other end of the spectrum is I-Mobile’s IQ 5.3. For just 5,800 baht currently (again, give or take, depending on the retailer and one’s bargaining prowess) or $185, one gets a respectable mid-range smartphone. The big difference between the 5.3 and the X2 are the image sensor, which is only 12 megapixels, and the screen resolution, which is only 480×854 pixels. The four CPU cores in this version of the MT6589 clock in at 1.2 GHz, as well.

Those specs aren’t going to make Samsung or Sony nervous, but still, for less than $200 one gets a capable smartphone that, while not leading edge, certainly isn’t trailing edge, either. Moreover, it is more than adequate for all but the most demanding power users or mobile media consumers.

By contrast, one likely won’t find a Galaxy S4 — a real one, at any rate — in Bangkok for less than 19,000 baht, or $600.

While these inexpensive smart phones are available and they are making inroads, they aren’t making any big dents just yet in the markets for Samsung, Sony or Apple.

In Bangkok’s MBK shopping center — a few blocks away from the Siam Paragon but considerably less upmarket — there is one whole floor dedicated to mobile phone and tablet vendors. In an area seemingly occupying an acre or two there must be hundreds of various independent retailers occupying various stalls, counters and shops.

A small, informal survey of several of these handset retailers in MBK would seem to indicate that most people here would rather fork over more baht for the brand names, even if it means a less technically capable smartphone.

“Yes, some people who worry about money will buy an I-Mobile or a Chinese phone,” said one proprietor, whose Thai nickname translates (perhaps somewhat ironically) as Apple. “But most want a Samsung or an iPhone. Most people buy older or used iPhones, Galaxy S3s, or even a Note 1, if they do not have money for a new model. Or maybe one of the cheap Samsung models, like the Duos,” she said. Most of her colleagues agreed when asked about local customers’ buying habits.

Nevertheless, low-cost quad-core processors such as those offered by MediaTek, are leveling the playing field. Smartphones built around the M6589 definitely have started to approach the capabilities of higher end phones, said Gartner’s Hung. In fact, MediaTek-based smartphones could start making inroads even in more mature markets in the future. “That perceived gap (in ability) is shrinking,” he said. “Overall, definitely, MediaTek products are starting to compete against phones in mature markets.”

Big Changes Rock Global Smartphone Market, part two

Editor’s Note: As explained at length elsewhere on this site this is a news story written by me for another publication. This originally appeared on Semiconductor Engineering; it holds the copyright, of course.

Collaborate Or Go Home

Semiconductor architecture is easy. It’s the exotic materials that bring complexity, cost and the need to collaborate, not to mention new ways of doing business.

Technology is hard.

It’s no secret that it’s more difficult than ever to keep devices shrinking while increasing performance.

Semi EngineeringIt’s also old news that it is increasingly costly to be at the leading edge, as semiconductor production technology gets ever more complex — even as a maturing chip industry becomes ever more dependent on low-cost consumer devices.

But it has made for some strange developments in recent years, not the least of which has been IDMs moonlighting as foundries (and consequently Intel making Altera chips with ARM cores).

But it also has brought about a seemingly ever-increasing amount of cooperative research and development efforts throughout the supply chain — not to mention some odd bedfellows — and not just among chipmakers. The financial risk of gambling with technology and making the wrong choice has gotten so big that no one company can go it alone.

To a certain extent that’s due to natural maturation of the industry. But it is also largely because of the increasing complexity that’s become necessary to maintain device shrinks and performance gains. That complexity stems in part from the relatively odd architecture necessary at the leading edge now — metal gates and finFETs come to mind — but in large part stems from the materials necessary to make that odd architecture work.

We can’t just scale anymore

“Ten years ago you just scaled the device,” said Dean Freeman, an analyst and research vice president with Gartner Inc. “For 35 years we just used silicon, oxide and aluminum. That was it. Maybe a little silicon nitride. But we didn’t change the structure or focus of the transistor for 35 years. We changed the way we isolated it — shallow trench isolation — but the basic components and concepts were the same.”

Then, within the last 10 to 15 years, it became necessary to start making changes to the standard semiconductor materials set — that set of materials that hadn’t changed much in decades. Copper interconnects and low-k dielectrics came along about the turn of the century, and that was just the tip of the proverbial iceberg of complexity. After that it was time to tinker with the gates.

Today the industry has metal gates and the requisite high-k materials, strained silicon, finFETs, tunnel FETs, and 3DICs with through-silicon vias. Tomorrow it may be using heterogeneous CMOS devices: III/IV materials in transistor gates on a traditional silicon substrate.

Graphene transistors, anyone? Carbon nanotubes?

“You have this very rapid transition in a very short time frame using materials that we’re not that familiar with,” Freeman observed. While the use of germanium and gallium arsenide is hardly new, he noted, that has always been for other applications beyond the mainstream. “It’s still something new we’re putting into the transistor, and we have to look at parasitics, electron flow — how it all goes together. On top of that our interconnect keeps getting tougher to manage because our RC (resistance/capacitance) keeps going up.”

Generally speaking, it’s a problem spread all along the supply chain. Take wafer bonding and debonding, a key process in the formation of TSVs, for example. “This is certainly an area driven by increased complexity,” said Markus Wimplinger, corporate technology development and IP director of European-based chip equipment vendor EV Group (EVG).

It means that a company like EVG not only needs to work with its materials suppliers, but with its customers as well, gaining access to production volume data, data from conditions that can’t be reproduced in the lab. It’s perhaps a natural development, because more and more chipmakers are expecting their supply chains to take on more and more of the R&D burden.

Thus in this day and age, a lot of the collaboration, be it between companies and consortia, between companies and university partners, or directly between companies, is driven by the need to manage the learning curve so that each player can minimize the risk, not to mention the cost, involved in integrating a new solution to a technological problem.

“It is very important to integrate an optimized solution,” Wimplinger said. “That’s why we collaborate with customers and research institutes — we need access to that technology and data.”

It’s just too costly to try and go it alone anymore. By investing in R&D consortia, universities and collaborative programs with other companies, even competitors, the financial risk is spread and mitigated. Furthermore, with that approach, companies can investigate more than one potential option with a minimum of investment and risk, noted Robert Newcomb, executive vice president of non-visual defect inspection supplier Qcept Technolgies.

And the industry has learned that IP issues aren’t really a competitive issue when it comes to early R&D. As the industry saw with high-k gates and then with finFETs, a lot of that early learning that takes place involves so-called pre-competitive or non-competitive data. As Freeman observed, a transistor is a transistor is a transistor. “It’s how you integrate that transistor into your device, what you do with it, that’s what makes your product unique. How do you tweak that transistor and make it work faster than your competitor’s? I think we’re going to see more and more of that (pre-competitive) R&D, especially as we have fewer and fewer players,” he said.

Chipmakers aren’t the only ones working together for the common good
Another good example of what’s happening these days is the relationship between the aforementioned Qcept and Applied Materials. Applied Materials is the largest chip equipment vendor on the globe, and consequently is a big player in metrology and defect inspection. At first glance it might seem strange that it would work with another small defect inspection company — until one considers the type of defects Qcept finds: sub atomic monolayer defects, defects that don’t reflect light: non-visual defects (NVDs).

Applied has been heavily involved in backend packaging for 3D-ICs and related TSVs; the company’s Asia Product Development Centre has been working with the Institute of Microelectronics in Singapore to develop chemical mechanical planarization processes (CMP) to reveal TSVs. Copper contamination as result of the CMP process has subsequently been an issue with this approach.

AMAT recently presented the results of research it conducted with Qcept and the institute, however, which demonstrated that optimization of process conditions and chemistries can significantly lower wafer surface copper contamination from the CMP process. It used Qcept’s NVD inspection technology to characterize wafer surface contamination and consequently optimize the CMP process.

So here is a case of the largest chip equipment vendor in the world working with a research institute and a relatively small equipment vendor that began shipping production tools with its new inspection technology just a few years ago. “You are seeing a lot more company-to-company and company-to-university cooperation like this, as well as cooperative research with consortia,” Qcept’s Newcomb said, citing work on advanced packaging, advanced gate structures and the adoption of 450mm wafers.

“It’s interesting because you take all the logic guys, the foundries and the IDMs, and at some level they all compete for the same business,” he said. “But they realize to get to 450mm wafers, for example, they have to work together along with the equipment guys in order to achieve the most cost effective approach.”

Essentially competitors have to cooperate early on in order to be successfully competitive down the road. Thus a Goliath like Applied doesn’t hesitate to turn to a David like Qcept with unique technology to help solve what is at its core a materials integration problem.

Not just collaboration. New business models, too.

It would seem that the bar for startups is high in this market. Pre-competitive R&D is a necessity in part because the industry is maturing and there are fewer players left to deal with the complexity of the technology, and the costs involved are considerable, if not astronomical.

As Qcept has shown that in this late stage of CMOS development, however, there is still room for startups that can bring enabling technology. NVD inspection might not have been a necessity in the past, but it is proving so now.

Even this continually growing need for collaboration and cooperation itself is spawning new ways of doing business — and new businesses. Case in point is Intermolecular Inc. The company is nine years old and its business model is based on managing collaboration and the data that comes out of it. As the company states, its “partnership-based business model is most often implemented in collaborative development programs (CDPs), which focus on jointly solving specific technical problems.”

Dealing with those specific problems is what differentiates Intermolecular from research consortia such as Sematech or Europe’s IMEC, says Raj Jammy, senior vice president and general manager of the company’s semiconductor group. “They deal with solutions to complicated problems and how to apply them to the semiconductor supply chain, sharing them where it is directly applicable,” he said. “We help a company decide if a given solution is implementable and cost effective … we make sure the solution is aligned with their specific internal needs.”

Pre-competitive, collaborative research can generate a number of potential options for companies facing the same problem. As Gartner’s Freeman observed, the competitive trick lies in how you apply that data to a specific product. This is what Intermolecular specializes in, Jammy said.

“Which billion dollar option should I bet on? Today’s companies need to know that,” he said. “They are taking risks, working towards making that solution the best that they can.” In short, companies need what EVG’s Wimplinger characterized above as that “optimized solution.”

Take the example of the exotic materials often in use in fabs today. Typically what has happened previously is that research consortia have developed a class of materials that address a given problem. “Once you have a class of materials, a company can identify a solution; each company must decide which specific material it needs, how to incorporate it into product designs and production flows,” Jammy said; this is where his company comes in.

Is Intermolecular’s business model one that would have existed within the chip industry in years past? Even a decade ago?

“It would have had a very different context in the 1990s; what the company would be doing would be different back then,” Jammy said. Just 15 years ago, the industry didn’t have to deal with the plethora of materials employed to make leading edge semiconductor tech work. “That problem has become much more complex and acute of late,” Jammy said.

Editor’s Note: As explained at length elsewhere on this site this is a news story written by me for another publication. This originally appeared on Semiconductor Engineering; it holds the copyright, of course.