Mac Mini Mid 2011 Teardown

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

Our brand new Mac Mini swooned us with promises of “2x faster everything” and the new Thunderbolt I/O. Naturally, we had to take a look inside, just like we did with the new MacBook Air earlier today.

This year’s Mini is a great example of “less is more.” Apple has done away with the optical drive and replaced it with some good old-fashioned emptiness. We found that hole (as well as the empty extra SATA connection on the logic board) to be perfect for adding a secondary hard drive — essentially bypassing the $400 premium over the “server” model. The only snag in this master plan is being able to find another hard drive cable to hook it up to the logic board, something we’ll work on sourcing.

Kudos to the Mini for receiving an excellent 8 out of 10 repairability score. There’s no proprietary screws or glue, and you can easily replace the existing RAM and hard drive (or almost any other component) if needed.

Teardown highlights:

  • Apple removed the optical drive from this Mini, but would love to sell you one for an additional $79. Sweet!
  • Some of the screws inside the machine were quite interesting. We found T6 screws that were screwed into the top of T8 screws. A screw within a screw
  • The big question with this Mac Mini: “Can I install a second hard drive myself?” The extra empty space seems to imply so. There is definitely plenty of room for a second hard drive underneath the first. The only deterrent is the availability of a second SATA hard drive-to-logic board cable.
  • The new Mini has the same fan as the old Mini, and even the older Mini. Sticking with the brushless, high blade density blower, this single fan is quiet and effective — just the way we like it.
  • The Broadcom BCM20702 Single-Chip Bluetooth 4.0 Processor with Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) support is identical to the chip found in the 13″ MacBook Air we took apart earlier in the day.
  • Big players on the logic board include:
    • Intel BD82HM65 Platform Controller Hub
    • Intel V116A068 2.3 GHz Dual-Core i5
    • Intel L116IA35 Thunderbolt port controller IC, similar to that found on the Early 2011 21.5″ iMac
    • Broadcom BCM57765 gigabit ethernet and memory card controller
    • Texas Instruments XIO2211 FireWire Controller
    • irrus Logic 4206B Audio Controller
    • SMSC 1428-7 System Management Bus temperature sensor
Plenty of space for the second hard drive.

Plenty of space for the second hard drive.

Final layout

Final layout

MacBook Air 13″ Mid 2011 Teardown

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

With the release of these newly-updated MacBook Airs, people have been asking us what Apple updated under the hood. The answer? More than is evident at first glance. The new MacBook Air is visually very similar to the last revision, but it includes substantial improvements to the chipset and IO controllers. Moving to built-in graphics freed up tons of room on the logic board and allowed Apple to squeeze a new ‘Platform Controller Hub’ with Thunderbolt support onto the board.

Although today is an exciting day for Apple, it’s a sad day for consumer repair. Apple decided that this “svelte and sexy” MacBook Air will replace the “simple and serviceable” white plastic MacBook. So while your backpacks will be significantly lighter, future repairability and upgradability will suffer tremendously.

Check out iFixit’s MJ talking about the new MacBook Air on YouTube:

Teardown highlights:

  • A Broadcom BCM20702 chip on the wireless board adds Bluetooth 4.0 support with BLE. BLE chips hold many advantages over classic Bluetooth including 128 bit AES security, 6 ms latency (classic Bluetooth is 100 ms), and less power consumption.
  • A Broadcom BCM4322 Intensi-fi Single-Chip 802.11n Transceiver gives this Air the ability to get internet… through air.
  • Just like in the mid-2010 MacBook Air, the SSD is not soldered on the logic board. Thankfully this means you can upgrade the SSD for more storage, but you’re still out of luck if you need extra RAM.
  • Other than a larger plate to accommodate the bigger die face of the Core i5 processor, the heat sink looks nearly identical to the one used on the Core 2 Duo Airs of last year. We’ll do some testing to see if temperatures are any higher in this machine.
  • Surprisingly, there isn’t too much excess thermal paste between the processor and the heat sink. This is a nice departure from Apple’s recent trend of assaulting processors with gobs of thermal paste.
  • Big players on the logic board include:
    • Intel Core i5 Processor-2557M with integrated Intel HD 3000 graphics
    • Intel E78296 01PB10 / E116A746 SLJ4K Platform Controller Hub. We’re guessing this includes an integrated Thunderbolt controller. It’s not this part, but it’s similar.
    • Hynix H5TQ2G838ZR 4 GB RAM
    • SMSC USB2513B USB 2.0 Hub Controller
  • Shifting to integrated graphics on the processor freed up a lot of room on the board — enough for Apple to add the sizeable Thunderbolt-capable Platform Controller Hub.
  • A new addition to the upper case is the network of LEDs attached to the keyboard backlight cable. A couple LEDs transmit light through fiber optic channels to evenly illuminate the keys on the keyboard.
  • The thickness restrictions of such a thin display were the deciding factor in not equipping the Air with a FaceTimeHD camera.
Final layout

Final layout

iPad 2’s New Display Driver IC

July 19, 2011 Hardware, Site News — Miro

We received word from our pals at Chipworks that newer versions of the iPad 2 are using a new display driver IC. Vintage iPad 2s (circa March 2011) contain a chip labeled as SW0627B, an LG display driver that dates back to the original iPad:

SW0627B - original iPad and iPad 2 display driver.

SW0627B - original iPad and iPad 2 display driver.

Chipworks’ latest batch of iPad 2s, however, seem to be using a new Wise-View chip. Little to no information can be found about the chip at this time, except that it appears to be a technology developed by Samsung. Sadly there’s no information on Samsung Semiconductor’s site regarding this display driver product line.

Wise-View controller from a recently-purchased iPad 2. Image provided by Chipworks.

Wise-View controller from a recently-purchased iPad 2. Image provided by Chipworks.

We’re not sure how long this display driver has been shipping in iPads, but it’s interesting to see that the driver changed significantly — especially since the old one had no problems doing its duty for the past couple of years. Did Apple just change suppliers? Is this foreshadowing the release of an updated iPad with a higher-res screen? Only time will tell, and we’re not ones to speculate.

If anyone has more info on the chip, please feel free to submit a comment or contact us directly!

Motorola Droid 3 Teardown

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

After various iterations and special editions of the original Droid, a worthy successor has finally arrived! The third Droid to hail from the halls of Motorola — smartly named Droid 3 — hosts several new hardware improvements over the older models. Whereas the Droid 2‘s CPU was based on the same ARM Cortex A8 core as the original Droid, the third generation features a dual-core 1GHz ARM Cortex A9 CPU — a proper processor upgrade. Other notable improvements include an 8MP rear camera, all-new front camera, 5-row staggered keyboard, and 4″ qHD display.

And yet even with all the techno upgrades, Motorola paid no attention to the repairability of the Droid 3. You still have to take apart the whole phone in order to access the display and glass, a procedure hampered by Torx screws and glue that are used to hold everything together. Consequently, the Droid 3 received a mid-pack 6 out of 10 repairability score, having been given some brownie points for an easily-replaceable battery and for a straightforward (albeit time-consuming) disassembly process.

Teardown highlights:

  • Whoa! This Droid has a SIM card! A lack of SIM cards in earlier Droids severely hampered international use of Verizon’s network. This SIM enables the Droid 3 to be used almost anywhere in the world.
  • Although now you’re free to roam about the world with your Droid, a very attention-grabbing informational card included with the phone indicates that roaming data charges might be as high as $20.48 per MB!
  • Motorola likes to hide screws and latches beneath labels, making opening the phone a rather sticky affair.
  • The speaker assembly uses pressure contacts to transmit data to both the speaker and the antenna. Interestingly, a hole through the motherboard allows sound to pass through for better transmission to the outside of the phone.
  • We like the offset keys on the Droid 3’s new 5-row slide-out QWERTY keyboard, but the keys feel cheaper in quality than the original keyboard.
  • As with its predecessors, the display assembly in this Droid is very difficult to access. You have to take apart the whole phone (including peeling off the keyboard) if you want to change your broken display.
  • An Atmel MXT224E capacitive touchscreen controller can be found within the front panel — the same chip found on several other electronic gadgets, including the Samsung Galaxy Tab.
  • The main ICs on the front side of the motherboard include:
    • Qualcomm MDM6600 supporting HSPA+ speeds of up to 14.4 Mbps
    • SanDisk SDIN4C2 16GB MLC NAND flash
    • Elpida B4064B2PB-8D-F 512MB RAM
    • TI OMAP 4430 CPU (hidden underneath the Elpida RAM)
    • Triquint TQM7M5013 Linear Power Amplifier
    • Kionix KXTF9 11425 1411 three-axis accelerometer
    • Qualcomm PM8028 chip that works in conjunction with the Qualcomm MDM6600 to provide wireless data connection
    • Hynix H8BCS0QG0MMR memory MCP containing Hynix DRAM and STM flash
Taking off the back cover

Taking off the back cover

Final layout

Final layout

HexBright Flex Programmable Flashlight

July 13, 2011 Site News, Tools — Miro

Here’s something you don’t see every day: a programmable flashlight!

Through some NASA lunar excavator connections (no joke) we made friends with Christian Carlberg, the creator of absolutely smashing Kickstarter project. Before building moon-dirt-digging robots with us, Christian was a Battle Bots contestant for several years. When we found out about his latest project, we offered to let him work out of our office while he worked to get it off the ground. He’s hanging out with us for last few months, and it’s been exciting to watch his bright little idea grow into one of the top-grossing Kickstarter projects of all time—he has over $172,000 in pre-orders right now, and there’s still 5 days left!

The HexBright Flex is a programmable flashlight that you can program however you’d like. Each HexBright Flex has a microUSB port within its aluminum body. Just twist off the cap and plug in a USB cable; the rest is up to your imagination. You can have simple ON/OFF functionality, ON/ON MAX (max brightness)/OFF, ON/FLASH TWICE/OFF, etc. — basically, whatever you can think of.

The coolest implementation we’ve heard of so far: a pilot has written a program to make the Flex to flash his call sign in Morse code. He’s planning on attaching it to the back of his wing for other pilots to see. There are thousands of possibilities, so feel free to give your best suggestion in the comments below.

The Flex' body is made of a single chunk of flex aluminum.

The Flex' body is made of a single chunk of flex aluminum.

Other neato features of the flashlight include:

  • A USA-made CREE XM-L super bright LED outputting 500 lumens (LM). For reference, a solid $30 flashlight outputs about 100 lumens.
  • A rechargeable lithium-ion battery. No need to buy or replace batteries, just plug your HexBright Flex into any USB port. The battery is easily user-replaceable, which as you well know is an absolute must for iFixit endorsement of any product.
  • An easily programmable Atmel ATmega IC processor. Development tools are available for all platforms (PC/Mac/Linux).
  • A waterproof body constructed of a single chunk of hex-shaped aluminum.
  • A sealed rubber switch on the back of the flashlight that controls the microprocessor — not just a simple disconnect switch.
  • An open-source tool to program the flashlight however you want.

The HexBright Flex comes shipped with default program modes of high (500 LM), medium (350 LM), low (200 LM), and blinky. We’ll be selling it for $119.99 once it’s commercially available. However, if you make a $60 pledge on Kickstarter, you’ll get a Flex in your choice of color (black, red, green, or blue); and if you pledge $75, you’ll even get your name (or a word) etched into the flashlight. The only brighter way to spend $75 would be on bootleg fireworks, but those are a tad more dangerous.

The Flex has a rugged look and very solid feel in one's hands.

The Flex has a rugged look and very solid feel in one's hands.

There’s less than a week left before this Kickstarter project gets funded, so make sure to get your pre-order place in time!

Elster REX2 Smart Meter Teardown

July 12, 2011 Hardware, Site News, Teardowns — Miro

The electricity meter is one device that no household connected to the grid can escape, yet the technology utilized by analog meters (the most common type) dates to the late 19th century.

Power engineers have recently developed a solid state electronic meter that sends electricity consumption readings wirelessly. This new meter eliminates human error and allows utility companies to monitor their systems more accurately.

We were always interested in these meters, but had trouble acquiring one for a teardown — it’s not like you can just walk into a Best Buy and pick one off the shelf. Thankfully, the generous folks over at Elster were kind enough to send us one of their REX2 meters for thorough dissection!

Teardown highlights:

  • The REX2 meter provides several enhancements over non-programmable meters:
    • Nonvolatile memory rated for 1,000,000 write cycles
    • Advanced security with full 128-bit AES encryption
    • Remote upgradeability
    • Support for 900 MHz and 2.4 GHz ZigBee communication
    • Optional: flux capacitor add-on???
  • Before gaining access to the interior of the meter, you must first break a security seal. Apparently, electric companies don’t want you tampering with their meters. Go figure!
  • Who would’ve thunk that your power meter would have a LAN ID? A LAN ID is required to connect to the IP-based EnergyAxis Smart Grid network.
  • The true innovation in smart meters is their ability to relay power consumption statistics without direct contact from a meter reader. Our Elster meter accomplishes this by sending encrypted signals on the 900 MHz ISM band.
  • Extremely thick copper wires allow the meter to be wired in series with a household’s main power supply. They’re capable of handling 200 Amps!
  • Interestingly, the meter relies on a black ring-shaped current transformer installed around the copper wires to send power consumption signals to the main board. Current transformers indirectly measure the current flowing through the thick copper conductors and provide an output that can be read by the electronics on the board.
  • Long metal pressure contacts along the inside case of the meter conduct 240V AC electricity to pads that provide power to the main board. No need to plug this unit into the wall outlet.
  • In the whole device there is only one screw, a surprisingly difficult to find Phillips #1.
  • Main ICs located on the front side of the motherboard include:
    • Teridian 71M6531F SoC with an MPU core, RTC, FLASH and LCD driver
    • Texas Instruments LM2904 low power dual operational amplifier
    • RMFD RF2172 medium-power high efficiency amplifier IC
    • Texas Instruments CC1110F32 Sub-1GHz System-on-Chip with MCU and 32kB Flash memory
Removing the motherboard

Removing the motherboard

Final layout

Final layout

What Makes the Thunderbolt Cable Lightning Fast

June 29, 2011 Hardware, Site News — Miro

It’s the chips.

And we’re not talking about the Lay’s variety. We received good word from one of our friends, Ars Technica’s own Chris Foresman, that the $50 Thunderbolt cable may be an active cable. He postulated that the cable may actually have chips containing firmware in it, making it more expensive to produce than your garden-variety HDMI cable — thus justifying the hefty price tag.

There was only one way to find out for sure; we hopped on over to the local Apple Store and donated $50 to the build-Apple-a-new-campus fund. A short while later, the cable was in our hands and ready to go under the knife.

And we knew exactly where to look. The cable contained a sturdy plastic sleeve on each end that looked quite suspicious. Heating up an Exacto knife worked well against the hard plastic, and we managed to remove the casing from the connector after some careful cutting/melting.

Once the casing was gone, we had to perform a significant amount of desoldering and cutting in order remove the metal surrounding the connector. Peeling back the metal (which appears to be plated brass) revealed the hardware underneath.

We found two Gennum GN2033 chips in the connector, one on each side. They were flanked by other, much smaller chips that surely added to the cable’s cost: two chips labeled S6A 1JG on one side, and chips labeled 1102F SS8370 and 131 3S on the other. Of course, there were tons of little resistors (providing impedance as needed) all around the larger chips.

We assumed that the other connector side would be identical, and we were correct. All in all, Apple’s $50 cable contained a total of 12 larger, inscribed chips, and tons of smaller electronic components.

One note: Gennum’s site mentions that their transceiver technology enables “reliable data transfer at cutting-edge speeds over low cost, thin-gauge copper cables.” Perhaps they were thinking of some other low cost cables, as we don’t think Apple’s $50 creation can be considered cheap. But, now you can at least sleep better at night knowing that there’s little chips inside your cable making it go fast. Your move, Monster Cable.

Samsung Series 5 3G Chromebook Teardown

June 8, 2011 Hardware, Site News, Teardowns — walter

Just over six months ago, Google released the Cr-48 prototype Chromebook to developers—promising that production hardware would be forthcoming. They weren’t lying! With today’s release of the first production Chromebook, the Samsung Series 5 3G, Google has officially entered the retail consumer laptop market with a device they promise will change computing forever.

Running Google’s own ChromeOS, the Series 5 Chromebook is Google’s answer to machines running monolithic operating systems, which they regard as overbearing and process intensive. We decided that the screws holding it together rather overbearing. So we removed them.

With the release of the first Chromebook, the Samsung Series 5 3G, Google has officially entered the retail consumer laptop market with a device they promise will change computing forever.

But what’s inside?

Our analysis revealed that the Series 5 is a well-polished version of the rather imperfect Cr-48 prototype Chromebook. We’ve had our Cr-48 for a while, and certain hardware failings—the incredibly horrible, no-good, really quite terrible trackpad and mediocre battery life—prevented us from using it regularly. The Series 5 fixes the major shortfalls of the Cr-48 and adds the polish necessary to strike lust into the heart of a broad consumer base: sleek looks, 8+ hours of battery life, and optimized performance.

The Samsung Series 5 3G Chromebook landed a decent 6 out of 10 Repairability Score. The Series 5 can be disassembled with a mere three tools: a spudger, a plastic opening tool, and a Phillips #1 screwdriver.

Teardown highlights:

  • The Series 5 is significantly more attractive than its ancestor—and a bit slimmer as well.
  • The improved Atom N570 processor sports 512K more L2 cache than the Cr-48’s Atom N455.
  • Samsung’s large integrated lithium-polymer battery is good for 8.1 Amp-hours at 7.4 V!
  • The Atom and NM10 graphics chip produce so little heat that no cooling fins are used at the fan’s exhaust.
  • Located underneath the keyboard, we discovered a Synaptics T1320A – Capacitive Touchscreen Controller.
  • Key players on the motherboard include:
    • 1.66 GHz Intel Atom dual-core N570 processor.
    • Intel NM10 Express Chipset (labeled as CG82NM10)
    • 2GB RAM: Samsung K4B2G0846 HCH9 2 Gb DD3 SDRAM (total of 8 ICs = 2 GB RAM)
    • 16 GB SanDisk SDSA4DH-016G SSD
    • Realtek ALC272 4-Channel High Definition Audio Codec

Lifting the motherboard out of the lower case

Lifting the motherboard out of the lower case

Final layout

Final layout

Unveiled: Audience powers iPhone 4’s impressive noise cancellation

May 17, 2011 Hardware, Site News — Kyle Wiens

When we analyzed the Nexus One last January, the big news was its Audience voice processor. The Audience chip takes advantage of two microphones (if you’re counting, that’s one more than most cell phones) to cancel out ambient noise. This dramatically improves audio quality in noisy environments, and the Nexus One’s impressive microphone performance has been a major selling point. (The Nexus One’s other selling point is regular Android updates, but it’s probably best to leave that sore point for another time.) The Nexus One design win was a major coup for Audience, and landed their A1026 Voice Processor on the world stage. You can see the Nexus One’s Audience part highlighted in yellow in this image:

Fast forward to last summer, when our iPhone 4 teardown revealed that the iPhone also had two microphones! At the time, we rather ambiguously reported that it was “used to cut out ambient noise and improve sound quality.” What we didn’t know was whether Apple had invented their voice processor or was licensing third-party technology.

There was one small, 3mm x 3mm chip that we weren’t able to identify during our teardown. It was white-labelled, meaning Apple asked the manufacturer to remove their branding from the package to make it difficult for folks like us to identify. The markings on the chip ’10C0 01S8 0077′ didn’t match any existing part in our database, and we didn’t pursue it further. This part turned up again this February when we got our hands on the Verizon (CDMA) iPhone 4. You can see it here to the right of the A4:

We like mysteries as much as the next guy, so we decided to dig further. Our friends at Chipworks just decapped the chip, and guess what they found? That’s right, an Audience low power audio signal processor. As conclusive proof, here’s the Audience die marking they found inside the chip:

The package has an embedded digital signal processor with accompanying analog front ends. You can see the innards here, courtesy Chipworks:

The iPhone’s audio cancellation capabilities are very impressive, outperforming every non-Audience powered cell phone we’ve tried. You can hear the cancellation in action in this test by PocketNow:

This is a huge win for Audience. They’re seeing impressive traction in other smartphones. Going forward, it will be interesting to see if Apple decides to integrate the technology into the A5 (as they have with other subcomponents) or if this relationship with Audience is long-term. Clearly Audience is betting on the latter—and thus far, they’ve shown impressive execution.

FBI Tracking Device Teardown

May 9, 2011 Hardware, Site News, Teardowns — Miro

Disclaimer: We love the FBI. We’ve had the opportunity to help them fight crime on several occasions. We’ve helped them with instructions on gaining entry into certain devices. We have nothing against them, and we hope they don’t come after us for sneaking a peek inside their nifty tracker.

Now that we’re in the clear, it’s teardown time!

We partnered with Wired to bring you a peek inside an FBI car-tracking device. The device was loaned to us by a person who found the device on their car, and is similar to the one Yasir Afifi recently found underneath his own vehicle.

The hand-assembled device is comprised of a GPS unit for receiving the car’s position, an RF transmitter for relaying your location to the interested authority (aka the FBI), and a set of sweet d-cell lithium batteries that power the whole enchilada.

But we didn’t stop there, of course. Read on to find out exactly what components make this device tick.

Opening the transmitter

Opening the transmitter

Final layout

Final layout