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This 22-year-old builds chips in his parents’ garage

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Enlarge / Sam Zeloof completed this homemade computer chip with 1,200 transistors, seen under a magnifying glass, in August 2021.

Sam Kang

In August, chipmaker Intel revealed new details about its plan to build a “mega-fab” on US soil, a $100 billion factory where 10,000 workers will make a new generation of powerful processors studded with billions of transistors. The same month, 22-year-old Sam Zeloof announced his own semiconductor milestone. It was achieved alone in his family’s New Jersey garage, about 30 miles from where the first transistor was made at Bell Labs in 1947.

With a collection of salvaged and homemade equipment, Zeloof produced a chip with 1,200 transistors. He had sliced up wafers of silicon, patterned them with microscopic designs using ultraviolet light, and dunked them in acid by hand, documenting the process on YouTube and his blog. “Maybe it’s overconfidence, but I have a mentality that another human figured it out, so I can too, even if maybe it takes me longer,” he says.

Zeloof’s chip was his second. He made the first, much smaller one as a high school senior in 2018; he started making individual transistors a year before that. His chips lag Intel’s by technological eons, but Zeloof argues only half-jokingly that he’s making faster progress than the semiconductor industry did in its early days. His second chip has 200 times as many transistors as his first, a growth rate outpacing Moore’s law, the rule of thumb coined by an Intel cofounder that says the number of transistors on a chip doubles roughly every two years.

Zeloof now hopes to match the scale of Intel’s breakthrough 4004 chip from 1971, the first commercial microprocessor, which had 2,300 transistors and was used in calculators and other business machines. In December, he started work on an interim circuit design that can perform simple addition.

Zeloof says making it easier to tinker with semiconductors would foster new ideas in tech.
Enlarge / Zeloof says making it easier to tinker with semiconductors would foster new ideas in tech.

Sam Kang

Outside Zeloof’s garage, the pandemic has triggered a global semiconductor shortage, hobbling supplies of products from cars to game consoles. That’s inspired new interest from policymakers in rebuilding the US capacity to produce its own computer chips, after decades of offshoring.

Garage-built chips aren’t about to power your PlayStation, but Zeloof says his unusual hobby has convinced him that society would benefit from chipmaking being more accessible to inventors without multimillion-dollar budgets. “That really high barrier to entry will make you super risk-averse, and that’s bad for innovation,” Zeloof says.

Zeloof started down the path to making his own chips as a high school junior, in 2016. He was impressed by YouTube videos from inventor and entrepreneur Jeri Ellsworth in which she made her own, thumb-sized transistors, in a process that included templates cut from vinyl decals and a bottle of rust stain remover. Zeloof set out to replicate Ellsworth’s project and take what to him seemed a logical next step: going from lone transistors to integrated circuits, a jump that historically took about a decade. “He took it a quantum leap further,” says Ellsworth, now CEO of an augmented-reality startup called Tilt Five. “There’s tremendous value in reminding the world that these industries that seem so far out of reach started somewhere more modest, and you can do that yourself.”

Computer chip fabrication is sometimes described as the world’s most difficult and precise manufacturing process. When Zeloof started blogging about his goals for the project, some industry experts emailed to tell him it was impossible. “The reason for doing it was honestly because I thought it would be funny,” he says. “I wanted to make a statement that we should be more careful when we hear that something’s impossible.”

Zeloof’s family was supportive but also cautious. His father asked a semiconductor engineer he knew to offer some safety advice. “My first reaction was that you couldn’t do it. This is a garage,” says Mark Rothman, who has spent 40 years in chip engineering and now works at a company making technology for OLED screens. Rothman’s initial reaction softened as he saw Zeloof’s progress. “He has done things I would never have thought people could do.”

Zeloof’s project involves history as well as engineering. Modern chip fabrication takes place in facilities whose expensive HVAC systems remove every trace of dust that might trouble their billions of dollars of machinery. Zeloof couldn’t match those techniques, so he read patents and textbooks from the 1960s and ’70s, when engineers at pioneering companies like Fairchild Semiconductor made chips at ordinary workbenches. “They describe methods using X-Acto blades and tape and a few beakers, not ‘We have this $10 million machine the size of a room,’” Zeloof says.

Zeloof had to stock his lab with vintage equipment too. On eBay and other auction sites he found a ready supply of bargain chip gear from the 1970s and ’80s that once belonged to since-shuttered Californian tech companies. Much of the equipment required fixing, but old machines are easier to tinker with than modern lab machinery. One of Zeloof’s best finds was a broken electron microscope that cost $250,000 in the early ’90s; he bought it for $1,000 and repaired it. He uses it to inspect his chips for flaws, as well as the nanostructures on butterfly wings.

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New USB-C dock triples M1 Mac external monitor support, Anker says

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If you have an M1-based Mac, Apple says you’re limited to just one external monitor. But Anker, which makes power banks, chargers, docks, and other accessories, this week released a dock that it says will boost your M1 Mac’s max monitor count to three.

The 4250 Anker 563 USB-C docking station, spotted by MacRumors, connects to a USB-C port on your computer (which doesn’t have to be a Mac) and can also charge a laptop at up to 100 W. Of course, you’ll also need to plug in the dock’s 180 W power adapter. Once connected, the dock adds the following ports to your setup:

  • 2x HDMI (version not specified)
  • 1x USB-C (3.1 Gen 1): charges devices at up to 30 W
  • 1x USB-A (3.1 Gen 1): charges devices at up to 7.5 W
  • 2x USB-A (2.0)
  • 1x 3.5 mm headphone jack
  • 1x Ethernet
Port selection.
Enlarge / Port selection.

You’ll need the two HDMI ports and DisplayPort to add three monitors to an M1 MacBook. There are some notable limitations, though.

If you were hoping to use a trio of 4K displays, you’re out of luck. The dock can only support one 4K monitor at a time, and the output will be limited to a 30 Hz refresh rate. Most general-use monitors and TVs run at 60 Hz, and monitors can reach up to 360 Hz. 4K monitors will even hit 240 Hz this year. Running 4K at 30 Hz may be fine for watching movies, but for fast-paced action, things may not appear as smooth to keen eyes used to 60 Hz and beyond.

If you add a second external monitor via the Anker 563, a 4K screen will still run at 30 Hz via HDMI, while the DisplayPort will support up to 2560×1440 resolution at 60 Hz.

There are more disappointing caveats when looking at a tri-monitor setup. The 4K monitor will run at 30 Hz, but you can no longer use another monitor at 2560×1440. Instead, the additional two monitors are limited to 2048×1152 resolution and 60 Hz refresh rates. If the display doesn’t support 2048×1152, Anker says the monitor will default to 1920×1080.

You also have to download DisplayLink software, and you must be running macOS10.14 or Windows 7 or later.

Apple says that “using docks or daisy-chaining devices doesn’t increase the number of displays you can connect” to an M1 Mac, so don’t be surprised if there are hiccups during operation.

Anker isn’t alone in trying to do what Apple says can’t be done, as noted by The Verge. Hyper, for example, offers options for adding two 4K monitors to an M1 MacBook, one at 30 Hz and one at 60 Hz. That list includes a $200 hub with a similar port selection to the Anker 563 and a two-year limited warranty (the Anker dock gives 18 months). It works via DisplayPort Alt Mode, so you don’t need a DisplayLink driver, but it still requires the pesky Hyper app.

Plugable offers docking solutions that claim to work with M1 Macs for a similar price to the Anker dock, and they also limit 4K to 30 Hz.

Some docks have even more limitations when it comes to the M1, though. CalDigit notes that for its dock, “users cannot extend their desktop over two displays and will be limited to either dual ‘Mirrored’ displays or 1 external display depending on the dock.”

Alternatively, and for several hundred dollars more, you could buy a new MacBook and upgrade to an M1 Pro, M1 Max, or M1 Ultra processor. Depending on the device, those chips can support from two to five external displays, Apple says.

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Qualcomm’s Snapdragon “8+ Gen 1” salvage operation moves the chip to TSMC

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Qualcomm

Qualcomm’s mid-cycle “plus” chip refresh—the Snapdragon 8+ Gen 1—has been announced. As usual, Qualcomm is promising some modest improvements over the existing 8 Gen 1 chip. The company said the chip will provide “10 percent faster CPU performance,” thanks to a 200 MHz peak CPU boost (up to 3.2 GHz now) and a 10 percent faster GPU. The real shocker is a “30 percent improved power efficiency” claim for the CPU and GPU.

For the Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 Plus, Qualcomm is moving the chip from Samsung Foundry to TSMC, which is apparently where the power improvements are coming from. That’s a serious slam against Samsung’s 4 nm process versus TSMC’s 4 nm process, but it lines up with earlier reports of troubles at Samsung Foundry.

Swapping foundries as part of a mid-cycle upgrade is not normal, and it seems that Qualcomm has a bit of a salvage operation on its hands with the Snapdragon 8 Gen 1. The chip has not fared very well in the real world, with the CPU regularly turning in lower benchmark scores than 2021’s flagship Snapdragon 888.

Qualcomm doesn’t do all that much for phones year over year to begin with, and it is regularly years behind Apple’s SoC team. Usually, the one reliable upgrade Qualcomm can deliver is some measurable percentage of benchmark improvements. The GPU managed to improve for 2022, but to see the CPU horsepower decrease after Qualcomm claimed it would be 20 percent faster is a major disappointment. After a foundry change and a CPU MHz boost, Qualcomm’s 2022 CPU might finally be faster than its 2021 counterpart.

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The same phone for 25 years? iFixit on right to repair’s remaining obstacles, hope

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The fight for the right to repair remains an active battle as various companies and lawmakers claim worries around safety, cybersecurity, and design innovation. But with concerns about e-waste, device quality, and the health of independent repair shops mounting, advocates like iFixit CEO Kyle Wiens are keeping their gloves up. In the lead up to Ars Technica’s first annual Ars Frontiers event in Washington, DC, last week, we held a livestream with Wiens exploring this critical tech issue.

Making a federal case of it

Tech repairs got complicated in 1998 when Congress passed the Digital Millennium Copyright Act [PDF]. Section 1201 of the copyright law essentially made it illegal to distribute tools for, or to break encryption on, manufactured products. Created with DVD piracy in mind, it made fixing things like computers and tractors significantly harder, if not illegal, without manufacturer permission. It also represented “a total sea change from what historic property rights have been,” Wiens said.

This makes Washington, DC, the primary battleground for the fight for the right to repair.

“Because this law was passed at the federal level, the states can’t preempt. Congress at the federal level reset copyright policy. This fix has to happen at the US federal level,” Wiens told Ars Technica during the Road to Frontiers talk.

The good news is that every three years, the US Copyright Office holds hearings to discuss potential exemptions. Right to repair advocates are hoping Congress will schedule this year’s hearing soon.

Wiens also highlighted the passing of the Freedom to Repair Act [PDF] introduced earlier this year as critical for addressing Section 1201 and creating a permanent exemption for repairing tech products.

Apple’s promising, imperfect progress

Apple’s self-service repair program launched last month marked a huge step forward for the right to repair initiated by a company that has shown long-standing resistance.

Wiens applauded the program, which provides repair manuals for the iPhone 12, 13, and newest SE and will eventually extend to computers. He emphasized how hard it is for iFixit to reverse-engineer such products to determine important repair details, like whether a specific screw is 1 or 1.1 mm.

Apple’s program also offers repair tools, particularly benefiting independent repair shops, Wiens noted. But that doesn’t mean Apple can’t be more repair-friendly.

“What Apple is doing wrong in this case is they continue to embark on this strategy where they have paired specific parts to the phone,” Wiens explained.

“If you take two brand-new iPhone 13s and you swap the screens, you’re not necessarily going to get all the functionality that you would expect, which is strange because if you take two cars and you swap the engines, they work just fine. … You take two Samsungs, and you swap the screens, they work just fine.”

The exec worries that despite Apple claiming it wants to provide a detailed service history, this tactic can result in the banning of aftermarket parts.

“The repair economy, the circular economy around iPhones, is significant. … It creates a lot of jobs,” Wiens said. “Apple could easily short-circuit that economy by employing these cryptographic locks to tie parts to phones. Then this would tie into Section 1201 because it might potentially be illegal to circumvent those locks to make an aftermarket part work again.”

A repairable future

Wiens envisioned a world where gadgets not only last longer but where you may also build relationships with local businesses to keep your products functioning. He lamented the loss of businesses like local camera and TV repair shops extinguished by vendors no longer supplying parts and tools.

“I think it’s incumbent on all of us to say, what kind of economy do we want? Do we want a main street where we have local people that know how to fix and maintain our things? Or do we want a factory assembly line where we manufacture stuff in Asia, we dump it here, use it for however long it works, and then there’s no maintenance plan for it,” Wiens said.

He also discussed the idea of giving gadgets second and even third lives: An aged smartphone could become a baby monitor or a smart thermostat.

“I think we should be talking about lifespans of smartphones in terms of 20, 25 years,” Wiens said.

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