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As TSMC invests $100bn to address chip shortage, where does that leave the rest of the industry? • The Register

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Analysis Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co., also known as TSMC, plans to spend $100bn over the next three years in response to chip demand and has advised its customers to expect to pay more.

Word of the firm’s investment plan comes from Nikkei Asia, which claims to have seen a letter from TSMC CEO C.C. Wei outlining the investment plan. It follows closely on the heels of Intel CEO Pat Gelsinger outlining Intel’s foundry strategy and spending plans.

The demand for semiconductors reflects the lack of supply, which Falan Yinug, director of industry statistics and economic policy for the Semiconductor Industry Association, in February attributed to pandemic-related demand – IT purchases to support remote work – and the increased use of semiconductors in vehicles.

“The shortage is a reminder of the essential role semiconductors play in so many critical areas of society, including transportation,” said Yinug in a blog post. “This trend will only continue as demand for electronics and connectivity grows.”

The drought in Taiwan, where TSMC is based, hasn’t helped.

Yinug argued that the shortage should be addressed by more federal support for chip manufacturing in the US and attributed the declining US share of the global semiconductor market – from 37 percent in 1990 to 12 percent today – to foreign government subsidies of foreign competitors that have gone unanswered.

Micron Technology HQ in Boise, Idaho

Micron chief warns ‘severe shortage’ of DRAM expected to continue this year

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A week later, the US-focused trade group sent a letter [PDF], signed by the CEOs of AMD, Intel, and other US chip makers, to US President Joe Biden asking for “substantial funding for incentives for semiconductor manufacturing.”

Biden on Wednesday rewarded the industry by asking Congress, as part of his American Rescue Plan, “to invest $50 billion in semiconductor manufacturing and research, as called for in the bipartisan CHIPS Act.”

If Biden’s plan gets approved, chipmakers may also see a halo effect from adjacent spending contemplated under the economic stimulus program, like $20bn for regional innovation hubs and community revitalization, $14bn for NIST “to bring together industry, academia, and government to advance technologies and capabilities critical to future competitiveness,” and $50bn for the National Science Foundation (NSF) to create a technology directorate focused “on fields like semiconductors and advanced computing, advanced communications technology, advanced energy technologies, and biotechnology.”

Another piece of US legislation proposed last year, the America Foundries Act of 2020, would offer as much as $25bn in grants to US states to fund fab facilities if it becomes law.

US chipmakers have already made comparable commitments, with Intel last month promising $20bn to build two new fabs in Arizona as a part of its planned foundry business.

But Intel will have competition there. Last year, in May, TSMC also tapped Arizona as the location of a planned $12bn semiconductor fab it plans to build. And Samsung Foundry as of January was casting about for government subsidies to build a new fab site in Arizona, New York, or Texas [PDF], a deal estimated to be worth $17bn and part of its plan to spend $116bn on its foundry and chip business over the next decade. Both projects aim to be operational in 2024.

The EU in March, as part of its Digital Compass plan, said it wants to double its chip output to 20 per cent of the global market by 2030. The following day, Apple, a TSMC customer, said it would invest over €1bn in a European chip design center based in Munich, Germany.

In November, trade group SEMI projected that the semiconductor industry will add 38 new 300mm fabs by 2024, and more recently forecast a surge in fab equipment spending.

According to a Congressional Research Service report published October 26, 2020, “Semiconductors: US Industry, Global Competition, and Federal Policy” [PDF], Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan accounted for two-thirds of the world’s semiconductor fabrication capacity in 2019, and China was responsible for 12 per cent of global fabrication.

The report notes that US legislators have become increasingly concerned about the concentration of chip manufacturing in East Asia and the implications that has on the semiconductor supply chains in the event of trade conflict or warfare.

The federal government appears to be ready to pay to shift the center of chip-making gravity to more accurately reflect US interests. But other countries and foreign competitors have their own ideas about where chips should be made. ®

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Surface Duo 2 review: Microsoft’s dual-screen Android needs work | Microsoft

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Microsoft’s second attempt at its interesting dual-screen Android smartphone corrects some mistakes of the original, but falls short of a revolution due to a series of oddities created by its physical laptop-like form.

Looking more like a tiny convertible computer than a phone, the Surface Duo 2 starts at £1,349 ($1,499/A$2,319), a lot for a regular smartphone but slightly cheaper than folding-screen rivals.

It opens like a book, with each half just 5.5mm thick, and a hinge that allows it to fold all the way over.

Microsoft Surface Duo 2 review
There is no screen on the outside, but the time and some basic alerts for SMS and calls can be shown down the spine of the hinge. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

Inside are a pair of 90Hz OLED screens each measuring 5.8in on the diagonal. They can be used on their own or combined as one display measuring 8.3in – a similar size to an iPad mini. Both screens are covered in traditional scratch-resistant smartphone glass and have large, old-fashioned bezels top and bottom.

Having two separate displays rather than one that folds in half creates a major drawback: a gap in the middle of the screen big enough that you can see through it, which is much harder to ignore than the crease in the middle of a flexible display as found on the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3.

Microsoft Surface Duo 2 review
The gap between the screens sits right in the middle of the combined display, which makes full-screen reading, scrolling and watching video awkward. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

You can use two different apps at the same time on the two screens. The theory is sound, but I found few pairings were useful beyond simple messaging apps and a browser. More useful was using one screen for a note-taking app and the other for a full keyboard like a mini laptop.

Some apps spanned across both displays, like Outlook, can put different information on each screen, such as your inbox on one side and an open message on the other. Some games, including Asphalt 9 and Microsoft’s Xbox Game Pass streaming service, put controls on one screen and the action on the other. But there are very few apps and games optimised for this setup.

microsoft surface duo 2 review
The two screens can be folded into various configurations, including just a single display, both combined into one large display, propped up like a tent or open like a mini laptop. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

Specifications

  • Screens: two 5.8in AMOLED 90Hz displays

  • Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon 888

  • RAM: 8GB of RAM

  • Storage: 128, 256 or 512GB

  • Operating system: Android 11

  • Cameras: 12MP wide, 16MP ultra-wide, 12MP 2x telephoto; 12MP selfie

  • Connectivity: 5G, USB-C, wifi 6, NFC, Bluetooth 5.1 and location

  • Water resistance: IPX1 (dripping water)

  • Dimensions closed: 145.2 x 92.1 x 11.0mm

  • Dimensions open: 145.2 x 184.5 x 5.5mm

  • Weight: 284g

2021’s top Android chip

microsoft surface duo 2 review
It takes two hours 15 minutes to fully charge the Duo 2 hitting 50% in 45 minutes, using a 45W USB-C charger (not included), which is pretty slow compared to rivals. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

The Duo 2 has last year’s top Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 chip with 8GB of RAM, matching the performance of top-flight Android smartphones from 2021 and capable of running two apps running side-by-side without slowdown.

Battery life is more variable than a traditional phone. It lasts about 32 hours between charges, with both screens used for about four hours with a variety of messaging, browsing and work apps. It lasts about a third longer if you mostly use only one screen. That’s a considerably shorter battery life than a regular smartphone and behind the Z Fold 3.

Sustainability

Microsoft Surface Duo 2 review
The camera sticks quite far out of the glass back stopping it from sitting flat on a desk. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

Microsoft does not provide an expected lifespan for the Duo 2’s battery; those in similar devices typically maintain at least 80% of their original capacity for in excess of 500 full charge cycles. Microsoft charges an out-of-warranty service fee of £593.94 to repair devices and £568.44 to replace the battery. The previous generation Surface Duo scored only two out of 10 on iFixit’s repairability scale.

The phone contains no recycled materials, but Microsoft operates recycling schemes for old devices, publishes a company-wide sustainability report and a breakdown of each product’s environmental impact.

Android 11

Microsoft Surface Duo 2 review
The single screen mode is hard to use one-handed and most Android apps and websites are designed for longer screens, not short and fat ones, so you end up having to do a lot more scrolling than you would on a regular phone. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

The Duo 2 runs Android 11 – not the latest Android 12 – and generally behaves like a standard Android smartphone or tablet with a few small additions that make it easier to use each screen separately. One of the best is the ability to drag the gesture bar at the bottom of an app to move it between screens or to drop it on to the gap between the screens to span it across both displays.

The software can be a bit unpredictable at times, such as opening the keyboard or text box of an app on another screen or hiding a second app from the screen when you try to type. But it is generally a fast and responsive experience given how unusual the device is.

The Duo 2 will receive three years of software updates from release, including monthly security patches, which is disappointingly at least a year short of what rivals, including Samsung and Apple, offer. Microsoft’s last planned update for the Duo 2 will be 21 October 2024.

Camera

Microsoft Surface Duo 2 review
Because the camera is on the back of the device, it would be blocked if you fold one of the screens over, meaning you have to shoot photos with both screens open – which is unwieldy. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

The Duo 2 has a triple camera on the back and a 12-megapixel selfie camera above the right-hand screen.

The rear main 12MP camera and 2x telephoto cameras are good, capable of producing detailed shots in a range of lighting conditions. The 16MP ultra-wide camera is reasonable, but a bit soft on detail and struggles with challenging scenes. The camera app has most of the features you’d expect, such as portrait mode, night mode and slow-mo video, and can shoot regular video at up to 4K at 60 frames a second.

The 12MP selfie camera is capable of shooting detailed photos even in middling light, and has access to the dedicated night mode when it gets dark.

Overall, the camera system on the Duo 2 is solid, but it can’t hold a candle to the best in the business.

Observations

Microsoft Surface Duo 2 review
The camera lump on the back stops the device folding fully flat, creating a wedge shape when using one screen only. The shiny power button is also a fingerprint scanner, which was fairly fast and reliable. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian
  • The Duo 2 supports Microsoft’s Slim Pen stylus, which can be magnetically stored and charged on the back of the device when not in use.

  • The stereo speakers are decently loud but a bit tinny, fine for watching YouTube videos.

  • The width of the device makes it a challenge to fit into smaller pockets.

Price

The Surface Duo 2 costs £1,349 ($1,499/A$2,319) with 128GB, £1,429 ($1,599/A$2,469) with 256GB or £1,589 ($1,799/A$2,769) with 512GB of storage.

For comparison, the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3 costs £1,599 and the Galaxy Z Flip 3 costs £949.

Verdict

The Surface Duo 2 is an improvement on its predecessor, but is still a very odd proposition that’s neither a good phone nor a good tablet.

The individual screens are short and stout, forcing lots of scrolling in apps when using it like a phone and making one-handed use very difficult. The gap at the hinge makes combining them into one big tablet screen awkward too.

Using two apps side-by-side works well, but few combinations proved useful or faster than just quick switching between two apps on one screen on a normal phone. There is more potential in apps like Outlook that provide a multi-pane view, but few apps or games are optimised for the dual-screen system.

Microsoft is only offering a disappointing three years of software and security updates from release for the Duo 2, too, losing it a star.

It is good to see Microsoft trying something different. But ultimately the Duo 2’s two screens are just not yet as good or useful as either a single phone screen or a bigger folding screen, making it an expensive halfway house.

Pros: two screens, two apps side-by-side, multiple modes, top performance, hardened glass screens, decent camera, head-turning design.

Cons: gap between screens, few optimised apps, average battery life, bulky camera lump, chunky in pocket, hard to use one-handed, no real water resistance, only three years of software updates from release.

Microsoft Surface Duo 2 review
The outside of the device is smooth glass front and back with quality-feeling plastic edges and a metal hinge. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

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VMware fixes buggy vSphere release – and Log4J, too • The Register

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VMware has restored availability of vSphere 7 Update, a release that it withdrew in late 2021 after driver dramas derailed deployments.

Paul Turner, Virtzilla’s veep for vSphere product management, told The Register that the source of the problem was Intel driver updates that arrived out of sync with VMware’s pre-release testing program. When users adopted the new drivers – one of which had been renamed – vSphere produced errors that meant virtual server fleet managers could not sustain high availability operations.

Turner said around 30,000 customers had adopted the release, of which around eight per cent encountered the issue. That collection of around 2,400 impacted users was enough for VMware to pull the release before the other 270,000 vSphere users hit trouble. That level of potential problems, Turner admitted, was considered a sufficient threshold to justify a do-over and the embarrassment of a pulled release.

VMware has since reviewed its testing program and procedures in the hope it will avoid a repeat of this error. Doing so, and repairing the release, meant a busier-than-usual holiday period for VMware developers. Turner said those who put in the extra hours will be compensated with extra time off in the future.

VMware also used the time needed to get the release ready to ensure that vSphere 7 U3 thoroughly addresses the Log4j bug. It took the opportunity to update to the latest version of the tool – which is free of the critical bug that allowed almost any code to execute without authorisation.

But VMware decided not to add anything new to vSphere while it addressed Log4j and sorted out the driver drama. Users will have to wait a few more months for another dose of VMware’s usual concoction of security updates and feature tweaks.

There’s more interesting stuff on the way, too. VMware has promised a full vSphere-as-a-Service offering is in the works, and the Project Capitola software-defined memory tech that will pool RAM across hosts. The company has also dropped hints that its plan to run its ESX hypervisor on SmartNICs is nearing release.

VMware has detailed the new/old release here and made downloads available here

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Facebook given EU go-ahead to pursue controversial Kustomer acquisition

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The EU’s antitrust chief Margrethe Vestager said she was satisfied for the company now known as Meta to pursue its Kustomer acquisition after it struck a deal for rivals.

Meta, the company formerly known as Facebook, has secured antitrust approval from the EU to pursue its acquisition of US customer services software start-up Kustomer.

The social media giant’s decision to acquire the start-up attracted EU scrutiny last April, months before its rebrand. Then known as Facebook, the company planned to integrate Kustomer’s products, including a chatbot, into its service.

Now, Meta has assured the European Commission that it will provide rivals free access to its messaging channels for 10 years.

The EU was satisfied that this addressed competition concerns which previously arose from the company’s decision to acquire Kustomer.

“Our decision today will ensure that innovative rivals and new entrants in the customer relationship management software market can effectively compete,” EU antitrust chief Margrethe Vestager said in a statement.

Last December, Vestager’s Digital Markets Act was passed by EU lawmakers as part of the body’s plans to tighten the monopoly large multinationals hold in Europe’s digital space.

Facebook had initially announced its acquisition plan in November 2020. In February 2021, the Irish Council for Civil Liberties wrote to the European Commission outlining its concerns over data that Kustomer had gathered and what might happen to that data under Facebook’s watch. The Commission also received a referral request from Austria flagging concerns over the Kustomer deal.

Other Meta acquisitions have also attracted the scrutiny of competition regulators. Last November, the UK ordered Meta to sell Giphy after its acquisition of the GIF making company was found to have breached competition rules. In the US, it is facing an antitrust suit that could force the company to sell WhatsApp and Instagram.

The EU’s decision to allow Meta to pursue the acquisition of Kustomer comes following a recent vote in the European Parliament in favour of the Digital Services Act, a companion of the Digital Markets Act. The act represents the EU’s attempt to shift the balance of power away from Big Tech in favour of ordinary people.

The long-debated act was hailed by Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen as a “gold standard”.

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