First Google TV Teardown

October 25, 2010 Hardware, Site News, Teardowns — Miro

The Logitech Revue just came into our possession. It’s the first device on the market that uses the Google TV platform, and we were quite excited to take it apart to see what someone gets for a couple hundred dollars over the Apple TV.

In short, not much. The Revue is a plastic box with a motherboard inside. Its specifications are built up just enough to be slightly better than the Apple TV, but everything about it screams “netbook.” It has netbook processing power, netbook plasticky feel, and even a netbook-style keyboard.

We discovered the true specifications for the Revue, which also confirms our “netbook” impressions. Here’s how it stacks up when compared to the Apple TV:

  • CPU: The Revue has a 1.2 GHz Atom processor, compared to Apple’s 1 GHz A4.
  • RAM: The Revue has 1 GB DDR3 vs. 256 MB for the Apple TV.
  • Flash memory: The Revue has a total of 5 GB NAND flash, split amongst a Samsung and a Hynix chip. Apple chose to simply use an 8GB Samsung NAND flash module.

Aside from the RAM, the Revue offers very little (if any) extra performance when compared to the Apple TV, and is on par with netbooks released back in September 2008 (Dell Mini 9, we’re looking at you).

The Revue did score high marks on repairability: 8 out 10, with 10 being easiest to repair. Opening the case is super-simple — only 4 screws and a bunch of clips stand in your way. All the screws are of the Phillips variety, but it would be good to have a plastic opening tool handy if you choose to peek inside your own unit. The fan’s easily accessible and the motherboard connectors are simple to to disconnect.

Revealing the 1.2 GHz Atom processor

Revealing the 1.2 GHz Atom processor

Final layout

Final layout

Out of the box we had high hopes for this little machine. But as we were carefully taking it apart, we started getting scratches (from a towel!) on the top surface. Post-teardown we reassembled it and spent ~20 minutes setting it up, only to find a just-OK user experience. Unfortunately, the Revue let us down.

Perhaps our parents might like it — who knows.

MacBook Air 11″ Teardown

October 21, 2010 Hardware, Site News, Teardowns — luke

Removing the 64 GB SSD

The new MacBook Air is an exercise of proprietary engineering. While you can easily access everything once you remove the proprietary screws, you can’t really replace any component with an off-the-shelf part, unless you source it from Apple or someone involved in Apple-based repair (*cough*). Most components — RAM included — are soldered to the logic board, preventing them from being replaced. We definitely recommend users to buy the 4GB RAM version of the Air, as the paltry 2GB already borders on obsolete by today’s standards.

The one standout in this proprietary sea is the 64 GB SSD. It’s not locked down like the rest of the components, although it is a very slim and unusual form factor (for a hard drive). It’s attached to the logic board with what appears to be a new mini-SATA (mSATA) connector, which brings hope to super-slim-laptop-hackers all across the globe. This may enable some crafty tinkerers to rig a larger drive inside the Air, provided they can fit everything within the tight confines of the .68″ thick case.

We gave 11″ MacBook Air a not-so-good repairability score of 4 out of 10, with 10 being easiest to repair. Simply put, a plethora of proprietary parts prevents people from painlessly fixing their machines.

Teardown highlights:

  • The flip-open port door has been scrapped and the IR sensor and sleep LED are gone. In exchange, the new model manages to fit an extra USB 2.0 port along its right edge.
  • Apple apparently doesn’t want you inside this thing. They decided to use proprietary 5-point security Torx screws to attach the lower case. Once inside, the Air is held together with more normal 6-point T5 and T8 Torx screws.
  • The battery is comprised of six individual lithium-polymer cells, which combine to form a 35 Watt-hour battery.
  • Although in a different form factor, the new MacBook Air uses the same Broadcom BCM943224 Wi-Fi/Bluetooth chip as the current lineup of MacBook Pros.
  • The back of the trackpad has a Broadcom BCM5976A0K chip on it, likely responsible for the multi-touch capabilities of the the trackpad.
  • The 11.6″ MacBook Air features a resolution of 1366×768. That’s a few more pixels and noticeably more widescreen (16×9 vs 16×10) than the 1280×800 resolution of previous Air models. In a welcome improvement, Apple has substantially enhanced the rigidity of the display assembly.

iFixit’s Red Ring of Death Fix Kit

October 15, 2010 Hardware, Site News — Andrew

Picture this scenario: you’re deep into the seventh hour of a Halo tournament when your Xbox 360 suddenly shuts off. You turn it on again and are greeted by the most unfriendly of messages — a ring of lights, once happy and green, is now red. Since your Xbox 360 is out of warranty, what can you do? (Hint: we can help!)

No wonder it has cooling issues -- look at all that thermal paste!

The red ring of death (RROD) failure is most common on early Xbox 360 models due to their inadequate cooling system. As the console heats up, the motherboard warps slightly near the largest source of heat — the processors. The X-clamps that are used to hold the heat sinks against the processors do not provide enough clamping force, so after many heat cycles the processors desolder themselves from the motherboard. The GPU is most vulnerable to warping due to its large footprint and the demand placed upon it by graphics-intensive video games.

Installing the all-important heat sink machine screws.

iFixit’s Red Ring of Death Fix Kit solves the problem of desoldering chips by eliminating the X-clamps altogether. Instead, the heat sinks are secured to the motherboard by machine screws to provide a firmer-than-factory clamp on both processors. Highly conductive Arctic Silver Ceramique thermal paste is included in the kit to replace Microsoft’s poorly applied factory thermal paste. In addition, we’ve added small stick-on heat sinks to protect two small integrated circuits on the board from future failure caused by thermal cycling, as well as high quality thermal pads to protect the RAM chips on the underside of the motherboard. The kit includes all the tools you’ll need to access and remove your toasty motherboard, as well as the ones you’ll need to install the all-important heat sink machine screws. As a cherry on top, we’ve created an install guide to take the guesswork out of fixing your Xbox 360.

Contents of iFixit's Red Ring of Death Fix Kit

You may also want to consider installing the kit on your Xbox 360 if it’s out of warranty, even if it doesn’t have the dreaded RROD lights on it yet. Xbox 360 failure rates are estimated to be anywhere between 23% and 54%, so chances are quite high that your Xbox will develop the RROD at some point in its life. Our kit allows you to take a preemptive strike on the RROD and ensure a long and happy life for your console.

Purchase the sweet iFixit Xbox 360 RROD Kit for just $29.95!

Nokia N8 Teardown

October 8, 2010 Hardware, Site News, Teardowns — Miro

Following on the tepid success of the N97, the N8 is Nokia’s direct competitor to the iPhone 4 and high-end Android smartphones. Betting the farm on the success of the N8, Nokia packed this phone full of features—but we wanted to see how much awesomeness was really inside.

The big hardware news with this phone—aside from being the first modern phone Nokia has released in nearly two years—is the 12MP camera and its massive flash. This is one of the few phones that has a Xenon flashtube (and associated giant capacitor), and we were blinded by its brightness.

This phone is built tough! The N8’s frame uses more metal than most phones, giving it a rugged feel. In fact, this is the beefiest phone we’ve taken apart all year. We awarded it a coveted 8 out of 10 repairability score for three primary reasons: the glass is not fused to the AMOLED screen, the battery is easily-replaceable, and the phone is overall quite easy to disassemble. Once you know how to take it apart properly, even a Finnish caveman could do it (provided they were evolved enough to handle a Torx screwdriver).

Teardown highlights:

  • The 12 MP camera is a honker. In other smartphones, the thickness of the camera drives the thickness of the phone. With this phone, Nokia chose to protrude the camera outside of the back cover. This will either make it easier to grasp the phone to take it out of your pocket or make it a hassle when returning the phone to your pocket.
  • As opposed to many other smartphones that use either a single or double LED flash, the N8 uses a Xenon flash tube—the same kind of flash found in full-size cameras. A large capacitor on the flash module supplies the high voltage necessary to produce such a brilliant flash.
  • Although it requires the removal of two screws, the battery is quite easy to replace. Thumbs up for no soldering required!
  • Thankfully the glass is not fused to the face of the 640 × 360 3.5″ AMOLED display, so you don’t have to replace both if the glass breaks.
  • There’s nothing cutting-edge in the display—it was manufactured all the way back on February 2, 2010. Its touch screen controller is a Synaptics T1201A, the same chip found in the Microsoft Kin Two and RIM Blackberry Torch—not exactly ground-breaking tech.
  • Nokia got pretty creative with their antenna placement, as this device is primarily encased in aluminum. The main antennas are located near the flat plastic plates on the top and bottom of the phone.
  • The design of the steel mid-plane is genius. Rather than using a discrete EMI shield like every other phone we’ve seen, Nokia integrated the large EMI shield into the mid-plane. (Electromagnetic interference shields protect sophisticated chips from outside interference.)
  • The daughterboard at the top of the motherboard has an interesting design, connecting to the main motherboard via a ribbon cable that is sandwiched between the many layers of the motherboard. On most devices, ribbon cables are attached with ZIF connectors or are soldered to the surface of the board, not sandwiched between layers.

Final layout

The N8's massive flash

The N8's massive flash

How To Fix Your AirPort Express Base Station

October 6, 2010 Repair Guides, Repair Stories, Site News — Miro

Disclaimer: We debated at length whether this writeup should be a repair guide or a blog entry. Given the very destructive nature of the repair, as well as the iffy probability of your device working afterwards, we decided the writeup was to remain a “hey, look what you could possibly do” blog post, rather than a specific set of instructions on how to fix your AirPort Express Base Station. If you still attempt to do this at home, consider yourself gently warned.

One day I came into our office and there were three AirPort Express Base Stations sitting on my desk, all labeled “Non-working.” I couldn’t believe it, so I plugged them in. Alas, they did not work, just like the Post-its instructed.

Word spread around the office regarding my new-found treasure, and one of our mechanically-inclined enginerds, Andrew, took it upon himself to fix a unit or two. After all, our site is called iFixit, not iThrowItAway.

He came across problem #1 very soon: merely opening the plastic suckers. Both of us tried all sorts of tools to neatly open them, to no avail. We kept increasing our force, and finally succeeded with two different methods. Andrew used a heat gun and Dextered the case using Exacto knives and flat-head screwdrivers, while I went the light-saber route and melted through the case seam with a soldering iron*. The method that Apple engineers used to adhere the two halves of the case produced such a strong bond that the plastic surrounding the case cracked, not the seam itself (in Andrew’s attempt, at least).

And this is why we’re not making it a repair guide:

Kind of like opening a clam, but much harder.

Inside were two separate PCBs. On the left was the power supply for the base station, on the right the AirPort Express card and sound board. Note the jagged edges around the case perimeter, evidence of the destruction needed to open it.

Two halves make a whole.

The power supply, which we suspected was the cause of our troubles.

Andrew handled the repair from this point. He immediately focused on the power supply, as none of the AirPorts were powering on. After a bit of unscrewing and unwrapping, he quickly realized the problem: both units contained burnt components in the same exact part of the power supply, rendering them useless.

Our problem is indicated by red markup.

Turns out the board was almost completely burned through near an inductor on the top side of the board. On other side there were two SMT resistors that also bit the bullet. It was not a pretty sight.

Resistors, well done.

Inductor, which we believe caused all the shenanigans in the first place.

As Andrew found out, fixing the power board proved to be a futile exercise. The inductor had continuity between its contact points, and it was assumed to be somewhat functional. He soldered new resistors on the other side of the board, but no amount of manipulation would fix the board. So he tossed it aside and focused on providing an alternate source of power to the AirPort card inside the unit.

Some astute readers may have noticed the output power ratings on the Samsung sticker Andrew removed from the power supply. This crucial piece of information allowed him to analyze the problem further. Apple usually doesn’t give out carrots like these, so they must have thought that nobody would be crazy enough to open up an AirPort Express Base Station. Silly Apple.

Written on the power supply in all caps: OUTPUT: “+5V @ 0.7A,” and “+3.3V @ 1.21A” — score!

Since there was one cable connecting the two boards together, Andrew had little trouble figuring out where the power was coming in. The tricky part was to figure out which wire provided the 3.3V and which the 5V input. Kind of like “do I cut the blue wire or the red wire” on a bomb, but with less explosive potential results.

The second problem of the day was finding a ~3V power supply. We had a generic 5V, 1A phone charger laying around, but nothing near 3V. So Andrew did what any other self-respecting enginerd would do: solder two AA batteries together. A short while later, he had mockup #1 emitting an orange light.

If you look really hard, you can see the two orange LEDs near the top-right of the PCB.

Great news! Except not really. Even though the AirPort Express Base Station powered on, it would not retain custom settings once we tried to set it up properly. The second unit exhibited the same exact problem. No amount of tinkering by either Andrew or yours truly would alleviate the problem, so we abandoned the project for the remainder of the day.

That night I got a text message from my persistent co-worker, who took the project home to work on it in his own time. It read: “I guessed wrong. Swapped the wires and it works!!!” We had discussed swapping wires earlier in the day, but figured that the unit wouldn’t power on at all, and that something else was the problem. Sometimes we shouldn’t overthink things and just do them.

So here is the correct wiring setup:

  • Black wires: ground. All three should be connected to the two ground wires from the power supplies.
  • Red wire (middle): 5V, 0.7A power input.
  • Orange wires (two on the right): 3.3V, 1.21A power input.
  • If you have trouble discerning the wires in the image below, check it out in full-res.

    The AirPort board is the only one worth saving, since it most likely works fine.

    Andrew wanted to do things proper the second time around — no AA battery funny business anymore — so he went to Radio Shack and acquired a 3V/4.5V/6V/7.5V/9V/12V switchable power supply. The final setup, which I’m listening to while typing this, looks like this:

    Not pretty, but it works.

    R-Shack wanted a steep $20 dollars for that fancy power supply, but convenience is king. For our other soon-to-be-fixed units, we found some great cheapo power supplies on Ebay that should work just fine. We won’t know until a couple of weeks from now, so we’ll keep on rocking with the R-Shack power source for now.

    Final power supplies that we used for our gizmo was an R-Shack 3V, 1A and a 5V, 1A power supply. We also put the AirPort card back into its half of the plastic shell. This is how it looks like when in use:

    It keeps quite cool.

    So far our AirPort “Bass” Station has been working consistently for four days with no problems. Still, we unplug it at the end of the day, just in case it decides to light on fire one of these days…

    * By the way, the soldering iron is the way to go when opening these things, as long as you do it in a well-ventilated area and don’t mind potentially destroying a soldering iron tip. It’s also relatively safer, given that the Exacto blade can stab you in the heart really bad.

    Be Prepared: Six Must-Haves for Desert Driving

    October 4, 2010 Hardware — Kyle

    This is a continuation of my series of posts about repair at Burning Man. I travelled to the heart of Nevada’s inhospitable Black Rock Desert to study the effects of accelerated entropy on technology.

    Not everybody can fix a car. But if you drive yours out to the Black Rock Desert, odds are pretty good you’re going to need to find someone who can. The super-fine alkali dust is the perfect material to clog air filters, and the conductive dust has a nasty penchant for knocking out alternators. While I was there, I was blown away by the incredible variety of cars that people bring to Burning Man. I marveled at moving piles of junk that looked like something from Mad Max. Given the combination of old vehicles and hostile desert conditions, most people are unprepared for car problems. In fact, the DPW folks have coined the acronym ‘USV’ for a lot of the cars that show up: Unprepared Sh*tty Vehicle.

    Wingman blowing out a clogged air filter

    Wingman blowing out a clogged air filter

    In my last post, I talked to Wingman (the main auto mechanic on the playa) about the problems people run into on the playa, and some desert repair tips and tricks. He also gave me some tips for preparing your vehicle for the next time you head out on a major desert expedition.

    First, make sure your car will make it *to* the desert. I talked to a number of people that had car problems on the way to Nevada! I totally understand how that can happen. Dealing with auto maintenance issues is always the last thing on my to-do list when I get ready to leave for a trip, but I’m starting to think I’m doing it wrong. While routine maintenance is easy to do at the last-minute, you’re in trouble if you find a major problem. It’s hard to obtain quality parts at the last-minute, and you end up paying the price, both in quality and in your pocketbook. Save yourself the trouble and do a pre-trip check a week or two ahead of time.

    Checking for a valve stem tire leak with soapy water

    Checking for a valve stem tire leak with soapy water

    Now, if this is starting to sound like preaching, I totally sympathize. It’s easy to write repair tips and tell folks to come prepared. I got the ‘be prepared’ mantra pounded into my rather thick skull in the Scouts, and I’ve yet to fully absorb what it means. I thought I was prepared for Burning Man: I had enough food for ten people for a week and a well-endowed toolbox. I even had some emergency flares and a quart of oil: I thought I was set. But I missed a few things, and it bit me—hard—on the way home. Before I tell you how I screwed up, here’s what Jim recommends.

    Now where is that darned air filter?

    Now where is that darned air filter?

    Six things your car needs you to bring to Burning Man

    1. Spare coolant. Jim recommends two gallons, although I think that’s probably a little over the top unless your coolant tank leaks like the one in my Explorer.
    2. Couple quarts of oil. I’ve got at least a quart in each of my cars, and boy has that come in handy a few times.
    3. Tire and tools. Because they came with your car, see? Unless you bought yours used, like me. Then you might be missing one or two things.
    4. Spare bulbs. This suggestsion is a rather surprising, Burning Man-only addition: The Police are in force at the festival, and they are hankering for any opportunity to pay for the replacement parts for their vehicles by fining you for routine violations—like having one headlamp out at night. Spare bulbs are far less expensive than fix-it tickets.
    5. Spare belt(s). Belts don’t cost much, and while replacing a busted one with panty hose is possible, I don’t recommend it.
    6. Duct tape and wire. Obviously. Because you can’t take every part with you, but you can always hack a temporary fix. I saw a couple of different people who had successfully patched their tires with duct tape.
    Alternator won't fit? A little bailing wire and the right tent stake can fix that

    Alternator won’t fit? A little bailing wire and the right tent stake can fix that

    I’ll be the first to admit I only have a couple of these parts in my cars. That leads me to a a rather embarrassing story: driving back from Burning Man on I-5, a semi truck forced me off the road while dodging another fast-moving semi merging onto the freeway. The Law of the Freeway is simple: big things always win. Knowing all-too-well what my place in the food-chain was, I dodged out of my lane quickly. Sliding into the left shoulder, my rear tire collided with something that meant business at 70 MPH. I found out later that it sliced a nice 1/4″ circular hole in my tire. But no problem, right? I knew I had a spare. Pulling off to the side of the road, I was perversely excited to get some exercise after five hours of driving.

    Of course, I had all of my camping gear jammed into the trunk blocking access to my spare. I was quite the image when a highway trooper pulled up: standing on the site of the freeway, covered in playa dust, removing camping stoves and boxes of food from my trunk as fast as I could. The officer told me that he normally asks people if they need any food or water, but joked that he clearly didn’t need to worry about me.

    Imagine my chagrine he watched me finally get to the spare and realize that I had no jack! (I had the crank handle, but not the jack itself.) So I asked the cop to borrow his. And guess what I learned? the CHP has an unfortunate (if understandable in hindsight) policy against loaning out their eqipment. I felt pretty stupid having to call a tow truck just to jack up my car. In fact, once he arrived I pridefully refused to let the tow truck driver help. It was my tire and I fixed it my dang self.

    Got filters?

    Got filters? Inside the DPW spare-parts vault.

    Do yourself (and Wingman) a favor: be better prepared than I was. I’ve posted some more photos of Wingman’s Burning Man repair yard over on my flickr stream.