ESD is not a venereal disease

July 27, 2011 Answers, Site News, Tools — Jeff

Electrostatic discharge and novice electronics repair

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Take precautions before handling

Beware: a short stroll on your Dacron® carpet can load the surface of your skin and clothes with enough spare electrons to cook that RAM you just took out of its special little pink or silver bag. Recipes for Abbacchio Al Forno aside, cooking your RAM is something to avoid. If you are new to tinkering with electronics, you may not have heard of electrostatic discharge (ESD) safety procedures. ESD is a sudden electric shock that your electronic device may incur if it isn’t handled properly. As a rule of thumb, the smaller the components inside your device get, the more sensitive they are to those crackles and pops you hear on a dry day when you pet the cat.

Electronic components become smaller every year; so just about any electronic device you own has components that require proper care on your part before you start fiddling inside. Be it the innards of your smart phone or the logic board, RAM, or hard drive in your laptop, the free electrons on your skin are just itching to attack all those tiny semiconductors.

By the way, you and all the objects around you are exchanging static charges all the time. Don’t be fooled into thinking that just because you don’t see a spark, there is no energy transferred. That visible spark between your finger and a door knob may have contained several thousand volts, but some electronic components are sensitive to static discharge of less than one hundred volts. You are unlikely to see, feel, or hear these smaller (yet still potentially damaging) exchanges of charge. Just scooting your butt around in your chair can load up enough zap juice to cause mayhem.

Just the facts ma’am

So, every time you or other objects move around, making and breaking contact with various surfaces, a static charge may build up. A particular surface may hold or dissipate that charge depending on all sorts of factors, like relative humidity in the air, conductivity of the material, etc. If those details don’t put you to sleep and you want to know more, have a look at the web page of the Electrostatic Discharge Association. It’s loaded with detail mostly intended for folks in manufacturing who really need to keep ESD under control.

For the electronics repair novice, the key tidbit to keep in mind is that bad things happen when your electronic components (with one level of charge) suddenly come in contact with something with a different level of charge. Spare electrons on the surface try to find equilibrium and create havoc. If they rush from one object to another and some tiny electronics are in the way, the semiconductors get cooked. Yet when all components in your device are assembled, they share one big happy charge together. So there’s no problem until  you start taking it all apart — that’s when the potential for different charges rears its ugly head.

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ESD Safe symbol: a triangle/hand under an arc.

The objective of ESD safe procedures and tools is to dissipate or equalize unequal charges before they can flow through delicate electronics, or to slow the exchange of that electrostatic charge enough so it does not cause damage. If your hands, work surface, tools, and electronic parts are all at the same charge or all connected to a decent ground, there will be no exchange of charge between them when they come in contact. This is the purpose of anti-static wrist straps and mats. Those special pink or silver plastic bags containing your new disk drive or RAM chip are designed to dissipate static charge slowly enough to prevent damage. The pink or silver plastic is neither a good conductor, which would dissipate an unequal charge too quickly, nor a good insulator, which would hold a potentially damaging charge for a long time. Likewise, the special plastic grips of ESD safe tools are intended to slowly dissipate an unequal charge. Used together with the right procedures, ESD safe tools and anti-static mats and wrist straps may keep your new RAM fresh and uncooked.

So what’s a novice to do?

A few simple precautions will help keep you from creating inadvertent paperweights:

  • Unplug your electronic device.
  • Remove rings, watches, and bracelets from your fingers and wrists.
  • Ground your work surface. Lay down an anti-static mat and use its wire lead to connect to ground. This can be a water pipe or an unpainted metal part of a grounded appliance like a washing machine, dryer, or refrigerator. You may connect directly to the ground wire of an AC outlet but only if you are certain you know what you’re doing. You may wish to consult an electrician. Can’t get to a good ground? Then clip your mat to something big and conductive like the steel legs of a work bench. This at least gives you a charge reservoir to equalize everything with.
  • Ground yourself. Wear an anti-static wrist strap and use its wire lead to connect to your anti-static mat.
  • Keep your new parts in their pink or silver bags until you are ready to install them.
  • Place all your bagged new parts on the anti-static mat before you work with them.
  • Place your electronic device on the anti-static mat.
  • Place your tools on the anti-static mat.

Everything, including your hands, should now have an equal charge and you can get to work. As you work keep a few things in mind:

  • If your electronic device has a metal case, its charge should be equalized by just sitting on your anti-static mat. If your electronic device has a plastic case, touch a metal internal case component before you disconnect any internal parts. For example, removing the battery from a MacBook exposes its internal metal frame. Touching your grounded hand to these metal parts will equalize the charge of the internal components with you and your work surface. Touch those same internal metal frame parts regularly as you work, particularly just before swapping sensitive components like RAM sticks.
  • Any parts that you may wish to keep should be placed in ESD safe pink or silver bags for storage.
  • Caution: ESD safe procedures will not protect you from high voltage discharge from a CRT display or any other glass tube monitor or television. In addition, power supplies built into desktop CPUs or other devices contain capacitors with similar potential for high voltage discharge.

Once you have your device reassembled and working again, don’t forget to remove that silly-looking strap off your wrist. Then it’s time to shuffle across the carpet and zap the cat on the nose.*

 

* We do not condone the abuse of animals, even if it’s zapping your cat on the nose.

iPod Shuffle 4th Generation Teardown

September 7, 2010 Answers, Site News, Teardowns — Miro

Apple sent a clear message with the updated iPod Shuffle: “We were wrong.” They changed course, admitted that people actually like buttons, and brought them back for this generation. Pshhh! Those of us with 3rd Gen Shuffles just printed out a convenient chart and carried it around for reference.

Having confessed that their lack of buttons was a problem, we wanted to see if Apple improved the repairability of the device. The 3rd Generation had a press-fit back cover and a battery soldered to the logic board, making replacement quite difficult. Unfortunately, the 4th Gen is even harder to open, thanks to the generous application of glue in addition to the press-fit back cover.

Teardown Highlights:

  • iPod Shuffle 4th Generation Repairability: 2 out of 10 (10 is easiest to repair)
    • Good: The click wheel is attached to the logic board via a connector, allowing it to be easily separated.
    • Good: The lack of a screen eliminates a large weak point of other devices, making the Shuffle more resilient to falls. Just don’t flush it down the toilet.
    • Bad: You essentially have to break it to open it.
    • Bad: The battery is soldered to the logic board, making replacement that much more difficult.
    • Bad: Apple keeps shrinking connectors. These super-small cable connectors are increasingly difficult to open without breaking them.
  • The device was extremely difficult to open. Apple press-fit and glued the back cover onto the body, so it took us quite a while to pop the cover off the unit. We definitely had a harder time accessing the internals than in the previous generation Shuffle.
  • Even the seemingly simple task of disconnecting the button pad ribbon cable turns out to be quite a chore when the connector is 1/8″ wide.
  • We have a feeling that as technology advances, we’ll need smaller and smaller tools to take devices apart. You won’t be able to see our hands in pictures, just little pointy tweezers.
  • Apple once again chose to solder the battery to the logic board. This adds another layer of difficulty to replace it (aside from breaking the back cover to open it) if it dies on you in the future.
  • Unsurprisingly, the date codes on the main Apple chip indicate die manufacture dates in late June (1025) and early August 2010 (1031).

Final layout

Size comparison between Shuffle generations

Recognizing the World’s Repair Experts

March 26, 2010 Answers, Site News — Kyle

When I decided that iFixit was going to show people how to fix anything, I realized that we couldn’t accomplish that mission without enlisting the help of the world’s repair experts. But, since everyone starts out as an amateur, I also knew that we needed a path for people to gain credibility and become recognized as an expert.

The obvious metric to use is industry-specific accreditation certifications. Some expert accreditations work very well, others do not. I wouldn’t trust a surgeon that didn’t have an MD, or a lawyer that hadn’t passed the bar exam. However, many other so-called expert certifications (A+ and MCSE, I’m looking at you!) have such a low barrier to entry that they approach meaninglessness.

We are serious about expertise

Professionals in each industry know which standards to trust and which to ignore, but the immensely varying quality level often makes these certifications opaque to the rest of us.

We plan to recognize the good certifications and supplant the bad. First, let’s talk about the good.

Recognition

Reliable reputation standards streamline trust. I’m probably going to be pretty skeptical of medical advice from a random person on the street—unless that person happens to have earned an MD. In that case, I am willing to extend them a great deal of credibility, even without any other knowledge of the individual. The world is rapidly becoming too complex to function without external certification entities to help us streamline case-by-case trust decisions.

Apple actually has one of the better computer service certification programs out there. I know this firsthand, because I learned most of my Mac repair skills at my first job, working under incredibly skilled certified Apple service technicians. They taught me a tremendous amount, most of which came from hundreds of hours of direct hands-on experience, but their baseline skill set came from Apple’s excellent training and certification programs.

Starting today, anyone who holds a current Apple Certified Macintosh Technician certification can send us their certificate via a handy upload form on their profile page. We will update their profile accordingly with an Apple Certified Macintosh Technician badge and 100 reputation points!

Our Certification Uploader in action.

We don’t intend to stop with Apple certifications. We plan to support any industry-specific certification program that our community deems popular and credible. We won’t support them all initially, of course, but we plan on gradually rolling out new certifications.

A note of caution: Just because you have a certification doesn’t mean you are the final arbiter of truth and can steamroll over people who don’t. Yes, independent training and testing is a good start, but what we really care about is what others in our community think of you.

Expert certifications that matter

I don’t think very many computer technicians think that the A+ certification means much. (Even Geek Squad has replaced it with their own internal “DATA” certification.) But anyone would agree that a couple years of boots-on-the-ground experience successfully fixing things for people is worth a lot. You build up a track record of all the people that you’ve helped, people you can point back to as references.

So while we are eager to recognize the certifications that do mean something, we want to provide an alternative way to recognize the expertise of those who are out there actively helping people every day. That’s our goal for our reputation system—to provide a way for people to recognize expertise.

We’re very humble about this. We have devised a point system that surely needs lots of work before it reflects reality in any reasonable way. But every point that you earn in the system comes from a real person who thought the information that you provided was useful. And isn’t sharing specialized knowledge the essence of expertise?

Help make iFixit better

February 7, 2010 Answers, Site News — Kyle

Our goal for iFixit Answers is to create a knowledge base of troubleshooting information for every device. Now that’s a lofty goal, but we’re already making tremendous progress towards it! We just hit 2500 questions, and over 95% of them have received at least one answer! I’m seeing some very interesting questions, and they’re getting phenomenal answers from the community.

The best (and most common) questions for a device create an impressively useful troubleshooting FAQ for the device. Some great examples of this are the community pages for iPod Video support and MacBook Unibody support. These community support pages are rapidly becoming an important part of our device repair manuals.

As a community, we need to focus on cultivating quality answers. Our repair information will rapidly get more useful if we all work together to organize and curate questions. Here are five easy things you can do to help:

#1: Vote on questions!

Each vote has a big impact. Questions don’t show up on the most helpful page unless it has at least one upvote.

#2: Vote on answers!

Questions stay on the unresolved tab until there is at least one upvote on an answer. Of the 968 questions currently on the list of unresolved questions, almost all of them have at least one answer. Pick a few older questions and upvote the answer if it’s accurate and informative. (There are actually only 115 questions that haven’t been answered at all– less than 5%!)

#3: Link to existing answers.

When people ask a question that’s been answered before, link them to the canonical answer. We need a catalog that is useful long-term, and this helps focus our efforts on increasing quality.

#4: Organize devices.

New users often misname the device they’re asking about, and people are constantly asking questions about new devices. There are currently 168 devices that are either misnamed or need a device page. Help us out by properly naming these devices or by making a device page stub!

#5: Cultivate device pages.

The core organizational page around here is the device repair manual page (we just call them device pages). This page automatically links in step-by-step guides, parts, teardowns, and answered questions. (Example pages: Nintendo Wii, iPhone 3G) We’re slowly building a catalogue of devices, and we need help adding to it. Every new device needs a consistent name, a photo, and an identification summary. I like to think of the device page as the table of contents and first chapter of a service manual.

With your help, we can help people fix their own things and keep hardware working as long as possible!

Answers Contest Winners Announced

December 31, 2009 Answers, Site News — Andrew

Using a top secret algorithm originally devised to pick recipients of the Publisher’s Clearing House Sweepstakes, we’ve finally selected the lucky winners of our lightly tested Wacom Bamboo Touch and Zune HD!

As a disclaimer to the winners, the mail carrier delivering the package to your door will not be accompanied by a camera crew armed with balloons and a five-foot-wide check.

To have been eligible for the giveaway, users needed at least 100 reputation by the December 24th deadline.

Congratulations to our multi-continental winners!

Zune HD:
spikey2 in Australia  (795)

Wacom Bamboo Touch:
natalia47 in Virginia (103)

Want to win free stuff in the future? Keep your reputation up and answer some questions!

We stand on the shoulders of giants

December 4, 2009 Answers — Kyle

Stack Overflow

We have been working on the technology behind our community repair platform for several years. About a year ago, someone I’ve been following for a long time and respect a great deal launched a revolutionary new site, stackoverflow.com. The evil mad scientist behind it is Jeff Atwood, author of the influential Coding Horror blog. Stack Overflow is a Q&A for programmers with a built-in reputation economy.

The moment I saw it, I knew he had struck gold. We immediately realized that the SO team had created elegant solutions to a lot of problems that we had been struggling with. Since then, we have been working to combine the best elements from what we have been working on with Stack Overflow’s solid, field-tested model. The result of this work is iFixit Answers.

I strongly agree with Jeff’s stated goal of making his corner of the web better. I like to think that’s what iFixit has always been up to– making sure that the repair content here raises the bar for repair manual quality on the web. We are thrilled to back up the Stack Overflow Justice League by making online repair information better.

League of web justice

Visualization of the Stack Overflow league of web justice

Thanks for all the fish

I want to personally thank the entire Stack Overflow team for being so inspirational and helpful. Jeff is a genius at building community and architecting social software. One of the more unique features of Stack Overflow is their badge system, which we have almost exactly copied. Jeff also graciously gave us permission to use some of their badge names. I had actually been planning a badge system from my Boy Scout days, but again, the SO team really nailed their implementation (which was in turn inspired by the Xbox achievement system). So today, I am pleased to introduce the Stack Overflow badge. We haven’t decided exactly how we’ll award this badge yet, but I guarantee it will blow your stack.

Also, if you’re a software developer, you should definitely be listening to the Stack Overflow podcast. Every week, Joel Spolsky and Jeff go off on an hour-long riff on programming topics and social software development.

iFixit Answers is live!

December 3, 2009 Answers, Site News — Kyle

After a solid month of testing, tons of feedback, hundreds of little tweaks (and a few big ones), we’re making iFixit Answers public! Everyone in the beta has gotten a tremendous amount of help with problems on a wide variety of hardware. Now it’s your turn! Go ask a question.

At the moment I’m writing this, people have asked 255 questions yielding 811 answers. Out of all of those questions, just 5 haven’t gotten answers yet. (I don’t expect them to stay unanswered very long.)

Wow, this is useful!

Here are three of the most popular questions from the beta:

How dangerous is working on a CRT?

The answers to this contain lots of interesting information about the thousands of volts that CRTs build up and the tools that technicians have to use to work with them.

Where can I find a star point screwdriver?

Apple’s latest MacBooks have a screw that looks different than we’re used to. It turns out that it’s actually a new kind of security bit, a ‘Torx Plus 6′ with five points instead of the standard six. Fortunately, a 1.5mm flat head screwdriver works just fine to remove it!

What does my Wii’s blinking light mean?

It turns out this person was worried for no reason! The blinking light on a Wii (rather unintuitively) means that there is a new message waiting on the Wii message board.

First user to hit 1k reputation!

Our first user hit 1,000 rep, and several others are well on their way.

Spreading the Christmas joy

I thought it would be fun to have a little drawing to celebrate the Answers launch. So we’re going to give away some hardware. What are the goodies?

Givaway: Wacom Bamboo Touch & a Zune HD

Givaway: Wacom Bamboo Touch & Zune HD

I have the Zune HD from our teardown (no, we don’t destroy things when we take them apart) and one of those fancy new Wacom Bamboo Touch tablets. They’re both awesome devices. I know, because I’ve personally been testing them out to make sure they worked! (Yes, I love my job.)

We’re going to randomly select two winners from people who have at least 100 reputation on December 24th. What’s your rep? Start helping people with their problems!

Feedback Loops

November 5, 2009 Answers — Kyle

I recently learned a lesson on the importance of feedback loops. We have lots of people participating in the Answers beta, and I reposted a couple questions there from our public discussion forums. I was hoping that it would produce some helpful solutions. My approach turned out to be a mistake, but not for the reason that you’d expect.

People actually posted several thought-out, interesting answers. The community voted some higher than others, and some of the answers . What did I do wrong? I got several answers to the user’s problem, a number of which looked viable to me. But I didn’t know which answer to accept! It turns out that the information that I think is useful is probably different than what the person who asked the question actually needs. I wasn’t able to honestly accept an answer because the question wasn’t mine!

Accept this

This really illustrates the need for our ‘accepted answer’ loopback mechanism. One of the really fun things about repair is that when you do find a solution, you know for a fact that it worked. There is no wishy-washy epistemological debate. Either what you suggested works to fix my problem, or it doesn’t. Accepting an answer communicates this success to the world, and to the person who posted the solution. This feedback is hugely encouraging to people posting answers.

Accepting answers solves an important issue with online communities. Troubleshooting forums are traditionally full of ‘hit and run’ questioners: people who post a single question and then disappear forever, never communicating the end result to the community members who tried to help. There are two problems with one-off questions: over time, it discourages established members from helping newbies, and it doesn’t indicate to people who stumble upon the forum whether what they are seeing is actually a useful answer. Establishing a social norm of saying ‘thank you, that solved my problem’ solves both these issues.

Two perspectives

The asker is not the only one who benefits from answers. There is another intended audience for the answers people post: the community at large. There are actually two right answers to every question: the response that fixed the asker’s problem, and the answer that the community as a whole finds most useful.

There is an immediacy to the first answer— we strive to provide timely, helpful solutions to problems people post. But what’s wonderful about our system is that it gets better with age! The more people vote up answers, the more views it will get and the more people will be able to edit posts to make them better.

When you help people here, you aren’t just writing answers to questions. You are building a long-term knowledge base of solutions to problems people encounter about devices. Because everything is editable, the answers to more popular questions will actually get better over time. The world needs this information.

Introducing Answers: A Collaborative Repair Community

November 3, 2009 Answers, Site News — Kyle

I am proud to announce iFixit Answers, a collaborative repair community of people helping people make devices work longer. We are launching the private beta today, but we will be inviting more people throughout the testing period. To get an invite, add your name to our list (we’ll be sending out invites to people on the list as we have room) or, if you want to be bumped to the front of the list, write a teardown!

The world has a problem with rapidly consuming devices and tossing them aside, ignoring long-term environmental impact. With your help, we are going to change that. I’m confident that we can change our culture of ephemeral ownership.

Fixing a Mac, the iFixit way

iFixit has helped hundreds of thousands of people fix Apple hardware. Just last month we shared our repair knowledge with over a million people in 175 different countries. Our internet-scale troubleshooting and repair documentation has made electronics repair accessible to people all over the world. In this new and exciting time, you can leverage your knowledge about hardware to make a difference not just to people next door, but to communities halfway around the world.

Answers is a natural progression from our successful forums. The community will have complete control over the content on Answers, and the system will be collaboratively managed by you, and other people like you. Every question and answer can be voted on by anyone and edited by members of the community.

As we were designing Answers, we had four guiding imperatives:

  1. It’s important that posts get more useful over time. It’s not uncommon for a traditional repair forum response to become the canonical source for an answer to a problem, only to get outdated and stagnant as technology changes.
  2. It’s important that we recognize expertise. It matters if the author of an answer is a professional technician, or has helped 200 people fix their problems.
  3. It’s important to make helping people fun. There’s a rush that comes from helping someone solve a tricky problem, being recognized by people for the research you put into a question before asking it, or testing your hardware diagnosis mettle against others.
  4. And most important, we need to close the feedback loop between the people answering questions and those asking them. Repairing things is uniquely tangible — when you use a solution proposed by someone, you know for a fact whether or not it worked. Finding out that the answer you gave someone actually fixed their problem is one of the greatest feelings in the world.