DIY Christmas Lights

December 24, 2011 Meet iFixit — Bob

‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all over the house
The lights were flashing like crazy, thanks to Carl Friedrich Gauss.

Here at iFixit, we’re natural tinkerers, tweakers, and fixers. Many of us spend our free time on side projects and activities which could only be described to normal people as “crazy” or “insane”. Mine happens to bring Christmas cheer to local family and friends, so I thought I’d share it with all of you this year as well. And it probably falls into the “crazy” category.

The Christmas lights I’ve put up at my parents house for the past few years would make Clark Griswold proud. Yes, it’s one of those displays where the lights flash in sync with the music.

Now I could have gone out and purchased an off-the-shelf solution (like a Light-O-Rama system), but that’s just not how I roll. It would be way more fun to build this thing myself! So back in fall of 2008, armed with nothing more than a bit of money and a half-complete bachelors degree in Computer Engineering, I set off to build my own animated Christmas lights show.

Like all good engineers, I started by doing research. Lots and lots of research. I had plenty of experience building digital systems that ran on DC power at a friendly 5 volts, but controlling 32 channels of Christmas lights running on 120V AC power was new to me, and the last thing I wanted to do was burn down my parents’ house for Christmas.

After reading a few scattered articles I’d found around the web, I stumbled upon the Do It Yourself Christmas forums. DIY Christmas is a place for light show tinkerers to meet up, share experiences, and provide tips on everything from hardware controllers to sequencing music. These were my kind of people!

I opted to design my own controller rather than get in on a group-buy for an existing design. To save time, I decided to piggy back on the FPGA board I’d already learned how to use in school. I just needed to design a peripheral board that would let me control 32 channels of lights.

The FPGA board on the left receives lighting information from a computer via the serial cable for each of the 32 channels. Each channel is represented by a single byte, where 0-255 represents 0% – 100% brightness. After decoding each channel, it controls 32 outputs which travel over to the board on the right. For each of the 32 channels, the board on the right will show its status on an LED and send it out to the yard over a standard Cat 5 Ethernet cable.

That bridge board in the middle? That’s a painful reminder that no matter how rushed you are to get something done, you should always double check things you use from the internet. I happened to find a PCB design for the large connector that someone had been kind enough to post on their blog, which saved me a lot of design time because that connector has 50 pins on it. Unfortunately, the original author had connected all the pins backwards, so pin 1 was actually pin 50, pin 2 was actually pin 49, and so on. That bridge board was something I threw together quickly to reverse all the pins on the connector.

Out in the yard, there are 8 electrical gang boxes, each of which has four outlets. These four outlets are individually controlled by the four channels that come in over the Ethernet cable. The power itself doesn’t come over the Ethernet cable, though. The Cat 5 wire inside is so tiny that it can’t handle powering the lights, so there’s a small board inside each gang box called a solid state relay.

The control signal over Ethernet is just 5V and a couple milliamps. This needs to switch 120V at several amps, depending on how many strands of lights I have plugged into the outlet. This calls for a relay, which is basically just an electronically-controlled switch. When my low-voltage control electronics trigger the relay, it opens the floodgates for the wall socket power to come through. This lets you control big-power things with small-power electronics.

An important part of this setup are those tiny square black chips in the picture. Those are opto-isolators, and they’re pretty clever little chips. The last thing I want is a stray power surge in my high-voltage circuits to get into my low-voltage circuits, because that would most certainly destroy a lot of expensive electronics. Those chips allow you to keep the two sides safely isolated. When the low-voltage side triggers the opto-isolator, it turns on a tiny LED inside the chip. That LED triggers a photodetector, which turns on the high-voltage side of the circuit. The two circuits are linked, but completely electrically isolated from each other. Cool beans!

The last piece of the puzzle is sequencing the lights to music. Thanks to the hard work of a fellow DIYer,  Vixen is freely available software for doing just that . It even has a plug-in system if you want to make it run your own custom-built controllers, like I did.

It’s been a lot of work getting the display up and running. Sourcing parts, designing logic boards, writing embedded control software, plugging in all the lights, and sequencing the show certainly takes quite a time commitment, but seeing the smiles on peoples faces when they watch it makes all the work well worth the effort every year.

From our epilepsy-inducing houses to yours, have a very happy holidays and a wonderful new year!

But I heard him exclaim, as he drove out of sight
Merry Christmas to all, and to all some bright lights.

Holiday Gift Guide

December 13, 2011 Hardware, Tools — Miro

Alright, friends. It’s that time of year again—to reach into the pocketbook, bust out the pepper spray, and face the hordes of maniacal shoppers.

But wait! You may not need pepper spray this year. We want to make it easy for you to get gifts for your loved ones. We’ve drafted a list of top-notch gifts and stocking stuffers for the tech- and repair-folk dear to you.

What’s even better than a list of great stuff to buy? If it were free. Well, how about the fact that it’s all available right here on iFixit? Spare yourself a chaotic trip to the mall and check out our goodies right now. If that’s not reason enough, check out MJ’s assessment of our holiday wares:



New Pro Tech Base Toolkit

December 13, 2011 Hardware, Site News, Tools — Kyle Wiens

Our Pro Tech Base Toolkit has been a hot item ever since we released it last year — repair techs, DIYers, single-parent moms, and even secretive 3-letter agencies have used them to open their devices.

Not content to rest on our laurels, we’ve spent a year asking our teardown specialists, customers, repair shops, and tool geeks worldwide how to make it better. We paid close attention to their advice, and we’re excited to announce our new 54 Bit Driver Kit and Pro Tech Base Toolkit!

So what’s new? First, we’ve substantially improved our 54 Bit Driver Kit. Some highlights include:

  • Pentalobe bits to open and repair popular Apple devices such as the iPhone 4, MacBook Air, and MacBook Pro.
  • T7 through T20 security bits to fit Torx security screws with a pin in the center.
  • A full line of metric nut drivers.
  • JIS bits to fit the screws found in digital cameras, R/C helicopters, and other high-end electronics.
  • A custom 1/4″ to 4 mm adapter to allow our 4 mm precision bits to be used in standard 1/4″ screwdrivers with larger handles, ratcheting handles, or torque drivers.
  • A 60 mm extension that doubles as a T-handle, making it easy to get extra torque and remove stubborn screws.

We’ve kept all the great features of our driver kit including the precision machined, magnetized driver and a full complement of flathead, tri-wing, Phillips, Torx, and hex bits.

MJ provides a nice overview of the new 54 Bit Driver Kit here:

While our 54 Bit Driver Kit is the most capable electronics repair screwdriver set on the planet, getting inside many devices requires more than just a screwdriver. That’s where our Pro Tech Base Toolkit comes in. We’ve carefully selected the components to include the most useful tools for releasing tabs, disconnecting connectors, getting into tight spaces, and picking up small parts. To keep everything portable and well-organized, we designed an all-new tool roll to house everything.

Kit contents:

Want to see more? Watch MJ show off the new Pro Tech Base Toolkit:

We’re offering the Pro Tech Base Toolkit at a very affordable $59.95, and we’re also selling the upgraded 54 Bit Driver Kit set for just $24.95. Give the gift of sweet repair success to your loved ones this Christmas.

University Technical Writing Project

December 6, 2011 Site News — Miro

Several thousand user-contributed repair guides have been published on our site since we released our repair guide creator to the world. And that’s no coincidence. We’ve been working with the English department at Cal Poly since September 2009 to develop a technical writing curriculum centered around a device repair manual. In fact, students from across the nation are responsible for the majority of user-created content on our site; a total of eight universities now peruse the iFixit project.

The curriculum requires a group of technical writing students to document how to repair a device — either one provided by iFixit, or one of their own choosing. In return, iFixit provides the tools, materials, and instructions for the students to successfully take apart and photograph a device. The entire curriculum (including tips on photography, writing style, and deliverables that need to be turned in) is hosted on iFixit, so students have access to it anytime, anywhere.

After two years of development, we’ve seen tremendous benefits for everyone involved:

  • Students make a noble contribution by writing guides for real electronic devices, all the while learning modern communication techniques by using pictures and text to relay what they learn.
  • Students have a clear set of deliverables that they can show off to family and friends, and even put on their resume at the end of the term.
  • Professors gain access to an easily-startable, easily-maintainable project. Our collaboration with Cal Poly helped us develop several tools for professors that make it easy to keep track of students’ contributions during the school term.
  • The world has yet another open-source repair manual that can be used to fix the device.


Student group shows how to adjust the derailleur on a bike.

Student group shows how to adjust the derailleur on a bike.

The vast majority of student contributions result in fully usable, well-written guides. And given our flexibility with project devices, we’ve published everything from a stellar PSP 2000 repair manual to a great set of repair guides for a Volvo 740.

With the help of Cal Poly, Ohio State University, CSU Los Angeles, University of Maryland, Cuesta College, James Madison University, University of Wisconsin Stout, and University of Maine, we’ve been able to publish over 350 student-authored service manuals (comprising over 2,000 guides). That’s a great start, but there are still thousands of devices that require repair manuals.

We would love to include other universities across the United States. Our online-based program easily scales to accommodate several more schools that might be interested in our program. So if you know of a professor or other faculty member at your local university and think they might benefit from collaborating with iFixit, please send them our way!

Samsung Galaxy Nexus Teardown

November 29, 2011 Hardware, Site News, Teardowns — Miro

Thanks to some wonderful folks in the UK, we got our hands on the elusive Samsung Galaxy Nexus even before its release date has been announced on our side of the pond.

And we’re glad that it’s here, as it contains some features we’ve never before seen in a smartphone.

Sadly, it’s not all fun and games. The phone is a bit difficult to get into, and glass replacement is costly due to the glass being fused to both AMOLED display as well as a display frame. So, either get good with a heat gun or just don’t drop the phone. Consequently, the Galaxy Nexus received a mid-pack 6 out of 10 repairability score.

Teardown highlights:

  • Not only does the 3.7 V, 1750 mAh battery power the phone, but the user manual states that it also doubles as the NFC antenna. Of course, we had to see this one for ourselves, so we peeled apart the battery. Lo and behold, there’s a sweet antenna hiding underneath the battery’s shiny wrapper.
  • If you ever want to buy a replacement battery (and keep NFC functional), ensure that the battery has the antenna. Our battery says “Near Field Communication” on it, so that might be a good indicator if it will function as an NFC antenna.
  • The 5 megapixel rear-facing camera is optimized for low light conditions and has a handy continuous auto-focus feature that’ll surely help keep those quick moments clear. If you prefer moving pictures, this camera can capture full HD 1080p “talkies.” We weren’t that impressed with the camera during our five-minute pre-teardown test, but that’s just our impression.
  • The front-facing camera allows for video chat and will take pictures at 1.3 MP or videos at 720p. Pretty standard stuff nowadays. But, the cool part is that is also has a Winbond 8 Mb Serial Flash Memory unit in line to help it buffer all the data it collects.
  • The rear speaker pops off the motherboard without much effort. The ability to replace individual components inside the Galaxy Nexus is always great, since this will make some repairs less costly.
  • The primary internals of the Galaxy Nexus are contained on two L-shaped boards that are held together by soldered wires from the vibrator motor. We found the following chips:
  • Texas Instruments TWL6040 8-Channel High Quality Low-Power Audio Codec
  • Texas Instruments TWL6030 Fully Integrated Power Management with Switch Mode Charger
  • Invensense MPU-3050 Motion Processing Unit
  • Intel XG626 Baseband Modem
  • RFMD RF6260 Quad-band Multimode Power Amplifier Module
  • Samsung K3PE7E700M 512 MB DDR2 SDRAM
  • Samsung KMVYL000LM Multichip Memory Package, which we believe to house an additional 512 MB of RAM in addition to the main processor.
  • Samsung SWB-B42 BT 4.0 Dual Band Wlan FM Tx/Rx. Chipworks says the module is actually manufactured by Murata, and houses a Broadcom BCM4330 die inside.
  • NXP 65N00 Smart Card IC. According to Chipworks, this two-die package houses an MCU and a PN544 NFC controller.
  • The chip labeled as 274 U141 031 hides the Bosch BMP180 MEMS Pressure Sensor, which should be responsible for the “barometer” feature inside the Nexus. The Bosch BMP180 is identified by its markings CMD 173 as noted by our friends at Chipworks.
Checking out the wire bonds in the Bosch BMP180 MEMS Pressure Sensor

Checking out the wire bonds in the Bosch BMP180 MEMS Pressure Sensor

Final layout

Final layout

iPhone 4S Transparent Rear Panels

November 28, 2011 Site News — luke

iPhone 4S Transparent Rear Panel

Update (12/6): We’re now selling the 4S and 4 GSM transparent panels individually. We’re putting more in stock as fast as we can. If we’re sold out, click “Notify me” on the product page and we’ll email you as soon as they’re back in stock.

Apple designs amazing products—inside and out. The internals of the iPhone are absolutely gorgeous, but Apple keeps them covered up! We’re proud to announce our iPhone 4S transparent back panel. Now you can have the coolest iPhone on the block!

The glass panel looks absolutely gorgeous, and we can’t wait to see them on iPhones everywhere. To kick the new product off in style, we’ve put together a special introductory package:

These items normally sell for over $50, but today (11/28) we’re offering the entire package for only $29.95. Supplies are limited. Once we run out of packages, we’ll continue selling the back panel for $29.95.

If you haven’t upgraded to a 4S yet, we’ve also got a package with iPhone 4 GSM panels.

Installing the panel takes seconds—just remove two screws with the included screwdriver, slide the back panel off, and slide the new one on. We’ve even made step-by-step instructions to show you the way.

This is an incredible Christmas gift for your geeky friends.

Thirsty Bags

November 23, 2011 Hardware, Site News, Tools — Miro

If you have ever dropped a phone in a pool or spilled water on your Game Boy, then you know the helplessness of water damaged electronics.

When water comes into contact with an electronic device, it tries to seep into any nook and cranny it can possibly get into. If one of those crannies happens to be near the motherboard, the water may cause a short, rendering parts of the device, or the entire device, useless.

The first step for fixing a wet device is always to immediately turn it off and remove the battery, if possible. As long as no power is flowing through the motherboard, there is no way that the water can cause a short. But how do you get all the water out? That’s where this bag of thirst comes in.

Introducing the Thirsty Bag – the bag that is guaranteed to absorb 100% of the water out of your device and help get it running again. Using the Thirsty Bag directly after an accident can dramatically reduce the chances of a short.

Broken iPhone not included. That's for you to provide.

Broken iPhone not included. That's for you to provide.

We use molecular sieves, the best in desiccant technology, inside the bags to absorb the maximum amount of water from the environment. Molecular sieves work by allowing small molecules (such as water) through their pores while concurrently blocking out larger molecules (the rest of your device). What does that mean for you? Ridding yourself of every drop of liquid in your device.

The Thirsty Bag is big enough to work for PSPs, watches, cameras, calculators, PDAs, and more. It can even dry your larger electronics, like iPads and DSLR cameras, if you use a larger sealable bag. And unlike other home remedies — such as uncooked rice or direct sunlight — these pouches are guaranteed to absorb all of the water out of the device without any risk of damage.

Fair warning: using the Thirsty Bag will ensure that there will be no liquid left inside to cause a short, but it will not guarantee that your device will work afterwards. Think of it as an electronic bandage. You’ll use a bandage if you get shot (and it’ll even extract the bullet for you in this example), but it won’t guarantee that you’ll live. So just as it’s handy to have some bandages around in case you get into a gunfight, it’s handy to have the Thirsty Bag around just in case you drop your iPhone into the toilet while reading this blog post.

Nook Tablet Teardown

November 21, 2011 Hardware, Site News, Teardowns — Miro

Today, the Nook Tablet met the Kindle Fire in our operating room. The tension was so thick you could cut it with a knife.

But instead of cutting into tension — which we’re pretty sure wasn’t physically possible — we focused on carving into every cranny of the new Nook, which we’ve found to share a lot in common with its fiery foe.

Not going to lie: the Nook Tablet was a tad tricky to get into. Anyone wanting to embark on this adventure will need to gear up with both metal and plastic spudgers, plastic opening tools, a Torx T5 screwdriver, and an extra ounce of patience.

Loads of adhesive, a fair number of screws, and a perplexing internal design guarantees some frustrating situations. Even though the Nook Tablet is almost as simple feature-wise as the Fire, it turned out to be much more difficult to get into; so a middle-of-the-road 6 out of 10 repairability score was definitely appropriate.

Teardown highlights:

  • The Nook has its microSD slot stashed away under a magnetic cover next to the carabiner clip. This could make changing your SD card while rock climbing a bit difficult if you’re using the Nook as a tie point.
  • The two small circles flanking the microSD slot may look like harmless aesthetic pieces, or even buttons, but they actually house insidious screws that will hamper your disassembly efforts.
  • Just as we thought, the rounded sides of the Nook are deceptive. Even though it looks skinnier than the Fire, it’s actually a hair pudgier. The Fire measures in at .45″, but the Nook is .03 inches thicker, at a mind-blowing .48″! Holy smokes!
  • The Nook’s 1 GB of RAM easily conquers its rivals’ (Fire and iPad 2) 512 MB offerings, but we feel that’s a pretty small victory — more RAM does not necessarily translate to more performance.
  • The 3.7 V, 4000 mAh battery provides an advertised 11.5 hours of use time, which easily beats the Kindle Fire’s 8 hours.
  • A little wiggling and out comes the motherboard. Let’s see who we’re dealing with:
  • SanDisk SDIN5C1-16G 16 GB Flash Memory
  • Texas Instruments 6030B107 Fully Integrated Power Management IC
  • Texas Instruments AIC3100 Low-Power Audio Codec With 1.3 W Stereo Class-D Speaker Amplifier
  • Texas Instruments LVDS83B FlatLink 10-135 MHz Transmitter
  • Hynix H9TKNNN8P 1 GB DDR2 RAM
  • The Hynix chip likely covers the Texas Instruments OMAP4 1 GHz dual-core processor, just like in the Kindle Fire.
  • A closer look at one of the ribbon cables reveals a FocalTech FT5406EE8 Capacitive Touch Panel Controller.
  • Ready for more shocking similarities to the Kindle Fire? The Nook Tablet’s 7″ IPS display also runs at a resolution of 1024 x 600 pixels and produces the same 16 million colors. Unreal!
Final layout

Final layout

Droid RAZR Camera Made by Omnivision

November 18, 2011 Hardware, Site News, Teardowns — Miro

Oh hey, Droid RAZR has an 8MP camera. And it’s made by Omnivision. The wascally wabbits at Chipworks just sliced apart their unit, did some serious digging, and uncovered the goods — just like with the iPhone 4S. Here’s some visual proof:


X-ray of the RAZR camera from a side view

X-ray of the RAZR camera from a side view


Die mark clearly identifying Omnivision as its creator

Die mark clearly identifying Omnivision as its creator


Image of the sensor, showing its pixel density

Image of the sensor, showing its pixel density

Kindle Fire Teardown

November 15, 2011 Hardware, Site News, Teardowns — Miro

The Kindle Fire teardown marks an important precedent for us at iFixit: our first in-house chip unmasking. Today, with the guidance from our pals at Chipworks, we fought Fire with heat-gun fire and desoldered the Hynix SoC package to discover that Amazon is making use of Texas Instruments’ OMAP 4430 processor. We were equally delighted with the goodies inside the Fire, as we were with our newly acquired skill.

Blazing your own trail into the Fire doesn’t require much. A Phillips #0 screwdriver, some plastic opening tools, a spudger, and a couple guitar picks will do the trick. By and large, we were blown away with how easy it was to disassemble the Fire. Minimal adhesive, standard screws, and the non-fused display filled us with glee. Although its plain design (no volume buttons, cameras, etc.) meant fewer components, we had no hesitation in rewarding the Fire with a sterling 8 out of 10 for repairability.

Teardown highlights:

  • According to the power specifications listed on the back side of the Kindle Fire, an input power of 5 V DC at 1.8 Amps is suggested. Why is this important? A computer USB port typically puts out no more than .9 Amps (USB 3.0), which means it’ll take a looong time to fully charge the tablet through USB.
  • Very little prying and plucking is required to open the Kindle Fire. It’s a very nice departure from the iPad 2, which is almost impossible to put back together once taken apart. And all you need are some plastic opening tools and guitar picks to help you along the way.
  • Removing the back case reveals the motherboard and a sizable battery. There are shiny metal plates on the back case that help provide protection for the internal components, as well as heat sinking and EMI shielding. Unfortunately, this mirror-like shielding inevitably results in a narcissistic battery.
  • This battery sure puts out… 16.28 watt-hours, to be exact. However, due to the size of the Fire, its battery’s 3.7 V potential and 4400 mAh capacity don’t quite stack up to the specs of the larger iPad 2’s battery.
  • The good news: two years down the line — when the battery decides to go kaput — it will be significantly easier to replace the battery in the Kindle Fire than its Apple competitor.
  • The chips on board:
  • Texas Instruments OMAP 4430 Processor
  • Samsung KLM8G2FEJA 8 GB Flash Memory
  • Hynix H9TKNNN4K 512 MB of Mobile DDR2 RAM
  • Texas Instruments 603B107 Fully Integrated Power Management IC with Switch Mode Charger
  • Texas Instruments LCDS83B FlatLink 10-135 MHz Transmitter
  • Jorjin WG7310 WLAN/BT/FM Combo Module
  • Texas Instruments AIC3110 Low-Power Audio Codec With 1.3W Stereo Class-D Speaker Amplifier
  • Texas Instruments WS245 4-Bit Dual-Supply Bus Transceiver
  • Continuing our IC exploration, we decided to sneak a peak under the Jorjin package’s cover. We uncovered a Texas Instruments WL1270B 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi solution. According to Chipworks, the WL1270 is an older chip that was designed to work with the TI OMAP 3530. It’s interesting that the Fire has it, given that it’s coupled with the newer OMAP 4430.
  • Separating the display from the glass was a breeze, which was a nice departure from the usual fused glass ordeals. Thanks, Amazon!
  • We may be comparing apples and oranges here, but the original Kindle contained roughly 15,999,996 fewer colors. They were as follows: gray-ish, gray, grayer, and grayest.


TI OMAP 4430 revealed
TI OMAP 4430 revealed
Final layout

Final layout