Semiconductor-equipment manufacturers based in North America logged a slight increase in orders in April. The performance continued the year's see-saw pattern, as a key industry ratio remained at a 17-month low, according to new data released Thursday.

"We are in a stasis period where we have yet to see a significant change in business for North American-based providers of new semiconductor manufacturing equipment," says Stanley Myers, chief executive of trade group Semiconductor Equipment and Materials International.

The industry's book-to-bill ratio, which measures orders received against product shipped, was 0.8-to-1 for April, based on preliminary data compiled by SEMI. For March, the final ratio was 0.78-to-1; for April of last year the ratio was 1.13-to-1.

A ratio below 1.0 implies fewer orders than shipments, generally a bearish indicator of future sales. The ratio has been below 1.0 since September and February's reading of 0.77-to-1 marked the lowest reading since November 2003. SEMI's data is based on three-month moving averages of orders and shipments.

Thursday's data echoed results announced earlier this week from

Applied Materials

(AMAT) - Get Report

, the world's largest maker of semiconductor manufacturing tools. Applied Materials issued

disappointing financial targets for the current quarter.

The malaise surrounding chip equipment isn't a shock, but investors have been wondering when conditions are going to improve. Most are banking on an improved second half of the year. In anticipation of that, chip and chip-equipment stocks

have been moving higher in the past two weeks.

Analyst Patrick Ho with Legg Mason Wood Walker says he's still expecting positive momentum in the second half of the year. He says Applied Material's financial targets still indicate to him that a bottom is forming.

"Generally this is the slower time of the year anyways," says Ho, who is long Applied Materials shares. "People who were expecting rambunctious things to happen in the June quarter are being overambitious."

The coming weeks could be tough on stocks, as the earnings season has passed and the market begins its choppy summer period in earnest. But for the chip-equipment industry, July is action-packed, holding its largest trade show, Semicon West, in the San Francisco Bay Area, followed by the next round of earnings.

"It seems like Semicon West is always a good platform for launching an upturn or a peak that sets up a downturn," says Ho. "Semicon West could be the event that supports my belief that we've hit a bottom and are set up for a second-half recovery."

Since the start of May, chip stocks have been advancing strongly, and that momentum has carried over to the equipment players. Already this month,

Novellus Systems

(NVLS)

shares are up 7.5%,

KLA-Tencor

(KLAC) - Get Report

is up 10%, and

Teradyne

(TER) - Get Report

is up 19%. Even Applied Materials has tacked on 5.7%, despite a stumble in the past week.