Boxee Box Teardown

November 10, 2010 Hardware, Site News, Teardowns — Miro

The Boxee Box is a cubist deviation from the traditionally rectangular set-top box. The oddly-shaped form factor forced D-Link to make the internals equally odd. But that also made it super fun to take apart!

It’s smaller than it looks in our photos. The Box is roughly thrice the size of an Apple TV, but it certainly won’t dominate your entertainment center. After looking at the overall package — both outside and in — we feel that the Box has build quality that rivals Apple’s, and is much more solid than the Logitech Revue (aka Google TV). The front panel is made of sturdy plastic and displays a neat Boxee logo once you power on the device, just in case you mistake it for a device that should instead have a glowing apple symbol.

We gave the Boxee Box a 7 out of 10 repairability score. The rubber base is a doozy to remove, and will most likely never be same once you’ve taken the plunge. Once you have it off, however, all you need is a Phillips screwdriver to take the Box apart the rest of the way. It has a logical assembly layout, as well as a separate power board that can be replaced independently from the motherboard, should it ever fail.

Teardown highlights:

  • The Boxee Box has an Intel CE4110 processor which is nearly identical to the Logitech Revue’s CE4150. In fact, both devices seem to be running at 1.2 GHz.
  • Other notable specifications of the Boxee are 1 GB of Nanya DDR3 SDRAM and 1 GB of Toshiba NAND flash memory. Realtek is contributing an RTL8201N Ethernet chip, and Broadcom provides the BCM4319XKUBG Wi-Fi chip.
  • The Boxee has a digital to analog audio converter, courtesy of Wolfson Audio! That means you can pump out 1080p video and still use your analog audio equipment. Very convenient for people who may hook up the Boxee Box directly to their computer speakers or retro stereo equipment.
  • In stark contrast with the Apple TV, this media player has a convenient SD card slot.
  • A soft white plate on the status panel disperses the light from a couple LEDs to illuminate the semi-transparent Boxee logo either orange (standby) or green (running).
  • Instead of using thermal paste, the Boxee Box uses a phase-change thermal pad much like the one found on the heat sink of the Logitech Revue.
Unscrewing a screw

Unscrewing a screw

Final layout

Final layout

The Story of Electronics

November 9, 2010 Hardware — Kyle Wiens

You may already be familiar with the Story of Stuff Project—they created a series of popular videos that expose the hidden costs of all the consumer products we buy and toss at alarming rates. The films have done more to increase the volume of discussion about our throw-away culture than anything else in recent memory.

I caught up with Annie Leonard (the star of the films) at Bioneers this year and she told me about a new film she made with our friends at the Electronics Takeback Coalition, the organization responsible for many of the manufacturer-sponsored recycling programs.

They just released The Story of Electronics. It discusses the problem we’ve been talking about for years—how we throw away millions of tons of electronics every year and what that means for the planet. While it’s a little harsh on the manufacturers, it’s well worth your time.

Self-Repair Manifesto

November 9, 2010 Site News — Kyle Wiens

Our relationship with our stuff has spiraled out of control. We buy things, use them for a short while, and then rapidly replace them with the next model. It’s time to take a stand. These are our guiding principles.

If you can’t fix it, you don’t own it

Repair is humanity’s best hope for taking back real ownership of our things.

How long does our stuff last? We need to take a deep breath and look at all of our things. Will we be able to fix them when they break? We have got to put the brakes on our race to become a throw-away society.

It’s not completely our fault. Manufacturers push new models every year with just enough style tweaks to make our last one feel obsolete. They use legal threats to keep repair manuals away from us and deploy so-called ‘security bits’ in new products to prevent us from opening our own things. They have even gone so far as patenting screw heads to keep us out of our stuff.

This must not stand

The manufacturers tout their green credentials by citing take-back programs and recyclable materials, but that’s a a misdirection. Recycling isn’t good enough! Recycling is just efficient urban mining. Recycling destroys the captured energy invested to manufacture things, requiring even more energy to melt it down and make something new. And products made from the resulting material (particularly plastics) are substantially lower quality. We’re much better off using existing things as long as physically possible.

Take action

Hang on to last year’s model! Solve a hardware problemFix an iPod! Teach someone how to fix an XboxContribute to a repair manual! This revolution will not succeed without your help.

Spread the word!

We need to shout this message from the rooftops. Let’s post this manifesto in every coffee house, repair shop, and garage in the world. I’ve posted a page where you can share the Manifesto and download files to print. Put the poster up in your workshop and share a photo!

The revolution will not be televised.

Kinect Teardown Video

November 5, 2010 Site News, Teardowns — Kyle Wiens

We’re thinking about doing video overviews of major teardowns. We’ve created Animoto video slideshows in the past, but I’ll be the first to admit they didn’t add much value to our written teardown. For this video, we tried a completely different take: MJ (one of our technicians) shows you through the entire disassembly process.

This video is not a repair guide. Rather, it’s a quick overview of how to get inside the Kinect. Videos are really good at communicating context and repair difficulty, providing someone who’s never done it before an overview of the process. They’re not nearly as good at teaching repair—it’s incredibly frustrating to follow a repair video, constantly starting and stopping it to keep track of where you’re at. At the same time, the detailed repair manuals that are so useful when you’re doing a repair can be very intimidating when you’re first considering whether or not to fix something. I like to think of videos like this as a gateway drug to repair. We’re going to give you enough of a taste to get you hooked on the exciting possibility that you can fix your own hardware, then give you the best resource available to help you do the actual repair: a step-by-step photo guide.

In this sense, a video like this isn’t any different than our teardowns. We take apart every new gizmo to raise awareness that they can be fixed! The repairability score we give every device is serious business: it’s critically important that we consider how we’ll take care of the things we have before we buy them.

There’s one other problem with videos: they’re not a wiki! Our community has made dozens of improvements to the Kinect teardown since we published it yesterday, and it’s a much better document now. Repair manuals need to be living documents, getting better over time as more people use and improve it. That’s theoretically possible with videos too, but no one has written a video wiki yet! We’re going to continue to invest most of our resources into documentation that acts as a starting point for continual improvement.

In summary: We’ll be posting videos to make repair more accessible to new audiences, but they are not a replacement for step-by-step photo repair guides.

Now that I’ve gotten the background out of the way, MJ and I would love to know what you think of the video! What have you always wanted to know in our teardowns that video could convey effectively? Do you see anything we could do better? We’ll work your feedback into our next video.

Microsoft Kinect Teardown

November 4, 2010 Hardware, Site News, Teardowns — Kyle Wiens

We haven’t been this excited to get our hands on new hardware since the iPad. The way that we interact with computers is (finally) evolving, and Kinect is unlike any hardware we’ve ever taken apart. In fact, the only thing we’ve ever taken apart that has anywhere close to this many sensors is Pleo, the dinosaur robot.

The Kinect isn’t a traditional game controller—it’s a horizontal bar of sensors connected to a small, motorized pivoting base. We love that the world is finally at the point where we’re not upgrading our compute capacity as often. Instead, we’re upgrading sensors so our computers understand more about us.

What’s inside the Kinect?

  • Four microphones. Four! We’ve taken apart binaural devices before, but this is our first quadaural sensor setup!
  • One infrared camera optimized for depth detection.
  • One standard visual-spectrum camera used for visual recognition.
  • An IR transmitter
  • A fan. For a 12-watt device, Microsoft seems very paranoid about heat dissipation. This is understandable considering the Xbox 360’s red-ring-of death problems. This is a good thing for consumers, but we can’t help but wonder if they’ve gone overboard in the cooling department.
  • 64 MB of Hynix DDR2 SDRAM
  • A motor. This motor is nothing to write home about. It’s quite tiny. Diminutive, even. So tiny that you might want to make sure you keep Kinect out of your toddler’s reach, because forcing it to pan could damage the gears.
  • A three-axis accelerometer. We suspect this is used to increase the accuracy of the panning motor.
  • A Prime Sense PS1080-A2. Kinect is based on Prime Sense’s motion detection technology. This chip is the Kinect’s brains—all the sensors are wired into here for processing before transmitting a refined depth map and color image to the Xbox.

And a whole lot more—hit the teardown for the full list!

Most of the Xbox’s processing power is dedicated to gaming, so the Kinect preprocesses the image prior to sending it on to the Xbox. The Prime Sense processor condenses all the information it collects about your living room into two things: a color image and a depth map. These are sent to the Xbox over USB.

The Kinect’s eyes are not tiny cell-phone cameras—they’re closer to the camera you might find in a webcam, with large lenses and autofocus. We can’t independently confirm the resolution of the cameras yet, but we’ve seen reports that the infrared cams are 640×480 and the RGB cam is 1600×1200. There’s also a lot of circuitry packed into the cameras themselves. We’re conducting a full investigation of the cameras, but that analysis will take us a few more days.

Kinect is first generation hardware. As usual for a first revision, it is mechanically quite complex. We were surprised at the number of thermal sensors and large, sturdy power connectors. Kinect was clearly designed by a team accustomed to designing large hardware like the Xbox. It has nothing in common with design aesthetic of the Zune HD, for example.

Repairability score: 6 / 10

Pros: The design is very modular, and replacing individual components (like the motor) when they fail shouldn’t be a problem. No soldering required to disassemble.

Cons: Microsoft used four kinds of screws, including some hated security bits: T6, T10, T10 security, and Phillips #0. Without a service manual, repair will be quite a challenge. Microsoft has not made a service manual available. If we get enough demand, we’ll do their work for them and publish one.

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 Goldberg

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.