Texan chipmakers face slow recovery from power crisis as demand rises

Chipmakers, such as Samsung Electronics, will need a couple of weeks to resume production in Texas after shutdowns caused by severe weather, and customers could face knock-on effects in several months’ time, a representative of a trade body said.

Samsung, NXP Semiconductors and Infineon Technologies were ordered to shut factories in Texas last month after a winter storm killed at least 21 people and left millions of Texans without power.

The shutdown threatens chip supplies to customers, when the industry is scrambling to meet demand, which is rising especially from the auto sector, but also for laptops and other products as economies recover from the impact of the pandemic.

Chipmakers now have the power, water and gas they need to operate, but they need time to restart tools and clean the factories, Edward Latson, CEO of the Austin Regional Manufacturers Association, said.

He said the process was slow and “very expensive”.

The plant suspension would have an impact on automakers five months later because that is the time needed to make chips, he told Reuters.

There is also an impact now, Risto Puhakka, president of VLSIresearch, said.

“The impact is almost immediate, as the chip inventories are low and customers need them as soon as possible,” he said. “We are now looking at about one month of lost production.”

Samsung supplies chips for Tesla and other customers and NXP and Infineon are also automotive chip suppliers.

Tesla Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk said the electric vehicle company’s Fremont, California, plant shut down for two days last week, without elaborating further.

NXP, which has two factories in Austin, said in a statement on Tuesday: “We are diligently working through equipment, system and product assessments to resume our operations as soon as possible.”

Samsung had no immediate comment.

U.S. ITC to probe some cellular devices made by Samsung & Motorola Mobility

The U.S. International Trade Commission on Tuesday said it was probing certain LTE-compliant cellular devices made by Samsung Electronics Co Ltd and Lenovo Group Ltd-owned Motorola Mobility following a complaint.

The agency said it was launching the investigation following a Feb. 1 complaint filed by Austin, Texas-based Evolved Wireless LLC that alleged patent infringement.

Huawei Mate X2 folds flatter than Samsung’s rival phone

Huawei has unveiled a revamped foldable smartphone, which it says has a much smaller internal gap when closed than that of its main rival Samsung.

Huawei Mate X2
image captionThe Huawei Mate X2’s large screen folds inside the device, unlike its predecessors

The Mate X2 marks a major redesign for the Chinese firm. When shut, the large display is now hidden inside the device rather than exposed over its exterior, as was the case with past generations.

But its price – about £2,000 ($2,800) – is likely to limit demand.

And US trade bans also threaten the firm’s ability to produce them.

The company’s consumer devices chief acknowledged the challenges it faced in his opening remarks about the new phone.

“US sanctions have posed great difficulties to our business operations and day-to-day work,” Richard Yu said in a video recorded at the firm’s headquarters near Shenzhen.

“However, thanks to the solid support of our partners, suppliers and in particular consumers around the world, we survived 2020.”

Richard Yu
image captionConsumer devices chief Richard Yu hosted the launch event

Unlike many of Huawei’s past high-profile launches, this event was hosted in Mandarin Chinese rather than English, reflecting the fact that its sales are still growing in its home market and falling elsewhere.

But the firm has posted a subtitled version on YouTube.

Water drop cavity

Huawei says it developed a new robust hinge mechanism to safeguard its tablet-like display.

When closed, part of the flexible screen folds into a “water drop-shaped” cavity to prevent it coming under strain at the crease.

Hauwei Mate X2 hinge mechanism
image captionHuawei says its design incorporates high-intensity steel and a carbon fibre support

Mr Yu said an added benefit of the patented innovation was that the crease was also less visible when the screen was opened.

By contrast, the Samsung’s Z Fold 2 angles its two halves to create an intentional gap along its spine.

Mr Yu also highlighted that Mate X2’s 8-in (20.3cm) main screen was larger than its rival’s 7.6-inch (19.3cm) equivalent, and claimed the dimensions of its exterior display – for when the phone is closed – was better suited for apps than its competitor.

In addition, he claimed the use of a new “nano-optical layer” meant the display was much less reflective.

Mate X2 v Z Fold2
image captionHuawei’s design reduces the risk of objects sliding inside the closed flexible screen

But one company watcher said it was an unavoidable fact that Huawei had followed its rival’s design lead.

“The original Mate X looked phenomenal with its soft flexible screen wrapped around the outside of the device, but it was instantly apparent that it was going to be extremely vulnerable,” commented Ben Wood from CCS Insight.

“And all the ones that I saw failed early in their life.”

He added, however, that the high cost of both companies’ foldables meant neither would be bestsellers.

“This is more about technology bragging rights, but it signals a real desire to find a new disruptive form factor.”https://emp.bbc.com/emp/SMPj/2.39.19/iframe.htmlmedia captionWATCH: Samsung’s Z Fold2 was released in September

Sales slump

The launch coincides with a report from market research firm Gartner that indicates Huawei sold 41% fewer handsets in final three months of 2020 than the same quarter of the previous year.

This is, in large part, down to it being unable to offer either the Play store or several of Google’s other apps – including YouTube, Maps and the Chrome browser – as a result of US trade sanctions.

Huawei's smartphone sales sink. October-December 2020 period.  .

Huawei offers similar software of its own, as well as the means to “side load” third-party products not listed in its App Gallery marketplace.

Even so, it has seen consumers switch to rival Android handsets, including those of Xiaomi.

“Outside of China, Google services are crucial to end users, and offering alternatives is not really going to work,” explained Gartner analyst Anshul Gupta.

“But in China, people don’t use Google services, and Huawei has a much stronger distribution network and brand there.

“And it’s been able to take share from competitors in its home market.”

Huawei screens
image captionHuawei claims the dimensions of its large and small screens are superior to Samsung’s

But even in China, Huawei faces a problem – it only has a dwindling number of its Kirin processors left to power its phones.

Huawei designs its own chips, but had been reliant on a Taiwanese firm, TSMC, to manufacture them. 

Only TSMC and Samsung have the expertise and equipment to manufacture the microprocessors involved. 

But the US has banned both from doing so on the grounds that Huawei poses a national security risk – something the Chinese firm denies.

Last week, Nikkei Asia reported that Huawei had notified its suppliers that its orders of other smartphone components would be more than 60% lower in 2021 than last year.

Kirin 9000 chip
image captionHuawei’s press materials boast of its chip’s prowess, but it cannot currently produce more of them

Huawei has already sold off its Honor brand.

But the company has denied reports that it is considering a similar move for its flagship brand, with its founder and chief executive Ren Zhengfei telling the press he would “never” sell the division.

“Unless the restrictions are lifted or loosened, or Qualcomm and other chip-makers are given permission to supply Huawei, then I think it will run out of processors in a quarter or two,” said Mr Gupta.

Mr Yu said during the launch the firm had enough production capacity to meet demand for the Mate X2.

And when pressed about its wider smartphone business, a spokesman said: “We remain confident about the future.”

By Leo Kelion
Technology desk editor

Lee Jae Yong: Samsung heir gets prison term for bribery scandal

Samsung heir Lee Jae Yong has been sentenced to two years and six months in prison by a high court in South Korea.

The case is a retrial of a bribery case involving the country’s former President Park Geun-hye who was also jailed for bribery and corruption.

Lee has been the de facto head of Samsung Electronics since 2014.

The ruling is likely to have ramifications for the future of his role at the tech giant. 

He assumed leadership of the company in 2014 when his father Lee Kun-hee was hospitalised with a heart attack in 2014. The elder Lee died in October, but the chairmanship he held has yet to be formally filled. 

Lee was first jailed in 2017 for bribing one of Park’s associates. But the sentence was reduced and suspended on appeal, before a retrial was ordered. 

Second court battle

For years, Lee faced legal troubles, even as he stood on the cusp of becoming the leader of the global tech giant.

He was first arrested in February 2017 over his alleged role in a political and corporate scandal linked to South Korea’s then-president, Park Geun-hye.

Samsung was accused of paying 43bn won ($37.7m; £26.7m) to two non-profit foundations operated by Choi Soon-sil, a friend of Parks, in exchange for political support. 

The favours were alleged to include backing for a controversial Samsung merger which paved the way for Lee to become eventual head of the conglomerate, a deal that needed support from the government-run national pension fund.

Charges against Lee included bribery, embezzlement, hiding assets overseas and perjury.

Lee denied the charges. He admitted making donations but denied Samsung wanted anything in return. 

In August 2017 a court convicted him of the charges and sent him to prison for five years. 

In February 2018, that sentence was halved, and the Seoul High Court decided to suspend the jail term, meaning he was free to go.

The Supreme Court then sent the case back to the Seoul High Court, which issued Monday’s ruling.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra: Does stylus spell end of the Note?

Samsung’s new flagship Galaxy S smartphone works with its stylus for the first time.

The S Pen is an optional add-on for the Galaxy S21 Ultra. But the move will fuel speculation the firm will phase out its separate Note handset range.

Samsung told the BBC it had yet to make a decision about this.

The company’s handset sales have declined more quickly than the wider market. One expert said a streamlined line-up might help address this.

“There’s increasing logic for Samsung to converge the Galaxy S and Note platforms, because there’s so little differentiation between the two kinds of devices now,” said Ben Wood, from the CCS Insight consultancy.

“That would align them with Apple, which also has one big phone launch event a year.

“My concern is that every time Samsung has announced its Note products in the past, it has planted a seed in consumers’ minds that the Galaxy S products have become kind of the old ones.”

The benefit of having a stylus is that it is easier to write, draw or annotate notes than using a finger. But to work it requires special hardware under the glass of the phone’s display to pass power to the stylus and to track its tip.

Smartphone shipments. October 2019 to September 2020.  .

‘Expanded Note experience’

The Android-based Galaxy S21 Ultra has a 6.8in (17.3cm) display, which is only slightly smaller than the top-end 6.9in Note.

In years past, the Note phones were known as “phablets”, and their size was the other key distinguishing factor with the S range.

Galaxy S21 Ultra case
image captionUnlike the Note series, the S21 Ultra requires a special case to stow away the pen

Product manager Mark Notton said “we haven’t decided”, when asked whether Samsung planned to continue the Note family.

“It does not mean that Samsung is not committed to the Note category, but is expanding the Note experience across device categories,” the firm said in a follow-up statement.

“We will actively listen to consumers’ feedback and reflect it in our continued product innovation.”

The S21 Ultra will start at £1,149 when it goes on sale on 29 January. The S Pen costs an extra £35 on its own, or £85 when bundled with a case that stores it.

That puts it in the ballpark of the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra’s £1,179 starting price, which comes with a stylus that slots into its body.

Ditched charger

There are also two other lower-cost models in the new range, neither of which works with the S-Pen stylus: the 6.2in S21 and 6.7in S21+.

All three models feature a redesigned camera module on their back.

Samsung Galaxy S21
image captionAll the Galaxy S21 phones feature a redesigned camera module on their back

But while the two lower-end models have three lenses – ultra-wide, wide and 3x-zoom telephoto – the S21 Ultra adds a further 10x-zoom telephoto lens, letting owners shoot action from even further away.

The handsets also benefit from a new Director’s View facility. It lets users film video while getting thumbnail previews superimposed on-screen of what it would look like if they switched to another lens.

All three phones can film in 8K – double the maximum resolution of the competing iPhone 12 range’s native video app.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra
image captionThe Director’s View mode lets users preview how the recorded shot will change in a video if they switch to a different lens while filming

Other benefits over Apple’s latest phones include:

  • screens that can display up to 120 frames per second, to provide smoother visual effects
  • wi-fi 6E wireless connectivity, allowing use of extra radio bandwith with a compatible router
  • brighter screens – the S21 Ultra goes up to 1,500 nits, which should improve playback of HDR (high dynamic range) video

However, the handsets may be more notable for following Apple in two regards.

They have abandoned a slot for a microSD memory card.

And they will be sold without either a charger – a decision over which Samsung had mocked its rival. – or earphones.

Samsung charger ad
image captionSamsung posted this ad in October on social media before deleting it

“We discovered that more and more Galaxy users are reusing accessories they already have,” the firm said.

Early launch

Samsung typically unveils its Galaxy range in late February, but has brought forward this year’s launch to coincide with the CES tech show.

“Samsung needs S21 to be a success given that S20 was launched in the middle of Covid first wave in Europe and didn’t gain many fans,” commented Marta Pinto, from research firm IDC.

She added the earlier launch date could help it compete in the “premium market” with Apple, whose iPhones were released later than normal last year.

The South Korean firm should also benefit from collapsing sales of Huawei’s devices in the West, caused by US sanctions that prevent them offering the Google Play store and some of the search giant’s other services.

But Mr Wood said Samsung was facing growing competition from other Chinese brands including Xiaomi, Oppo and Vivo.

“Samsung’s differentiator is going to be its ability to market its strong brand, and the fact it has a very wide product portfolio,” he commented.

Smarter earbuds

Samsung also aims to widen its appeal with two further accessories.

It has a new pair of £219 wireless earbuds that monitor what the user is doing. 

If they detect the wearer is talking, they automatically turn down the volume of music and amplify the sounds of the nearby environment picked up by their microphones, allowing the owner to have a brief conversation without needing to take them out or manually adjust their settings.

Samsung Galaxy Buds Pro earbuds
image captionSamsung’s earbuds should automatically adapt their audio output according to what the user is doing

Samsung also is launching the £30 Galaxy SmartTag – a Bluetooth-enabled tracker that can be attached to belongings or pets. 

It will allow an app to show their location, so long as the tag is in range of the owner or anyone else’s compatible Samsung device.

The tracker will compete with similar products from the current market leader Tile. 

Galaxy SmartTag and Tile products
image captionThe SmartTag will challenge Tile, which already sells a range of Bluetooth trackers

Apple is widely rumoured to be working on similar devices of its own.

By Leo Kelion
Technology desk editor

Samsung bets on bespoke fridges to lure millennials

Samsung says it plans to offer more bespoke electronics to appeal to younger customers.

The South Korean giant saw a big spike in sales of fridges and cleaners during the pandemic while online sales grew 50% globally during the third quarter.

One area of growth in South Korea were fridges that can be customised according to size, material and colour.

Samsung plans to start selling personalised fridges in the US, Middle East and Europe later this year.

Specialty fridges for kimchi (fermented cabbage) are a popular option and accounted for more than 67% of the South Korean market last year.

“Customers had few options among products made by a traditional manufacturing system,” said Jaeseung Lee, Samsung’s president and head of digital appliances business.

“Our way of manufacturing has to be changed for the personalisation of appliances. And that’s a big transition.”

Samsung, which also offers bespoke wine coolers and dishwashers, wants to include suppliers and furniture studios in its manufacturing process to come up with more design options.

Samsung says it plans to offer more bespoke electronics to appeal to younger customers.

Samsung is one of a few companies offering bespoke electronics, having started with its “The Frame” television which allows consumers to choose their own bezel frame.

Kenneth Liew, a devices expert at market intelligence firm IDC Asia Pacific, said advancements in production line techniques have allowed companies to offer more personalised products.

“Most people including millennials usually like personalised products. From small items like wallets, to high-end bicycles to cars, companies have tried to monetised this, by providing some customisation to generate a bigger margin,” he told the BBC.

“By customising an item, it allows the consumer to feel that their item is more unique and closer to their hearts.”

Smart devices

The electronics firm is also putting more software in its appliances such as artificial intelligence (AI). While Samsung has its own Bixby voice assistant, Mr Lee said it is open to working with rivals Amazon and Google to connect their systems to its gadgets.

Big electronic companies have benefitted during the pandemic as more people worked from home and relied on gadgets and the internet in their daily lives.

Many of these brands will be showcasing their new technology at a digital version of the Consumer Electronics Show this week.

The tech event, which is normally staged in the US gaming resort of Las Vegas, kicked off on Monday.

Samsung showed off its Bot Handy, a robotic waiter and butler that can pour you wine and do the washing up.

Other new gadgets from rivals included a $3,000 (£2,220) pet flap that connects to your smartphone.