Burning Man: Wingman’s Auto Repair Yard

September 30, 2010 Hardware, Repair Stories, Site News — Kyle Wiens

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

Wingman is standing by

Wingman is standing by

Most people only stay in the Black Rock Desert for the week of Burning Man. But the Department of Public Works has to run eighty vehicles non-stop in the desert for two months setting up and tearing down the infrastructure for Black Rock City. Their work never stops, even in a dust storm. They buy most of their vehicles at auction, and you can imagine what sort of vehicles they get with their spartan budget.

The task of keeping the DPW fleet running lies with Jim Sweet, known on the playa as ‘Wingman.’ He runs the three-man repair crew responsible for keeping these clunkers humming. His team may be the most important folks on the playa: without them, work would quite literally grind to a halt.

The Black Rock City auto repair yard

The Black Rock City auto repair yard

Wingman’s ‘shop’ is a shipping container full of spare parts (primarily air filters and alternators), cases of oil, hand tools, an air compressor, and one luxury item: a tire changer. Their setup is strictly mobile: I didn’t see much that you couldn’t fit into a truck bed toolbox. I spent a day shadowing Jim, watching him handle the never-ending trickle of people with car problems that filtered under his shade structure. He has a heart of gold. There’s a huge temptation for mechanics to focus on the problem, and gruffly ignoring the people with the issue. Jim doesn’t work like that. He refused to talk to anyone about their car until he knew their name.

His approach isn’t just altruistic. He thinks that if people know the person at the repair yard, they’re more likely to try to fix things themselves and perform regular maintenance. This is a really interesting idea, and jives well with my philosophy that if you can’t fix it, you don’t own it.

A medical team takes a break from prowling the playa to blow out their air filter

A medical team takes a break from prowling the playa to blow out their air filter

An aside: Jim wanted me to make sure to mention that his repair shop is for DPW vehicles only. There isn’t a repair camp on the playa large enough to handle all the vehicle problems that happen out there, and he’d be quickly overwhelmed if they tried to help everyone. So be prepared to fix it yourself!

Deserts: Where even eye-wash station become hazards

Deserts: Where even eye-wash stations become safety hazards

Jim describes his work as ‘triage.’ He told me that he’s forced to avoid major jobs in the field because the dust fouls everything up. Instead, he hacks in whatever fixes he can—anything to keep the car running long enough to get it back to a real shop. I asked him what the most common repairs were, and this was his list.

The top 6 desert-induced car problems

  1. Flat tires. No surprise here, tires fail under the best of conditions. But you’ve got a spare. And a jack. And a tireiron. Right?
  2. Dead alternators. This is tricky to fix without a spare part, and who carries around a spare alternator? I saw one guy who couldn’t find a spare manage to keep his art car running by running his generator alongside the engine. Hack? Definitely, but it kept his battery topped up long enough for him to limp home.
  3. Random electrical issues. Conductive dust. Everywhere. ‘Nuff said.
  4. Overheated cooling systems. Deserts are hot, man! Save a water bottle or three for your car. If you do start to overheat, run the heater to vent as much heat as you can.
  5. Clogged air intakes. DPW blows out the air filters of all eight of their fleet vehicles every other day!
  6. Sticky thermostats. Thermostats are mechanical, and they wear out and clog with dust.

Mechanic helping mechanic: Wingman diagnosing an electrical issue on the bike repair van

Mechanic helping mechanic: Wingman diagnosing an electrical issue on the bike repair van

The law of the land is simple: make it work with what you’ve got, or you’re not getting out. I saw another art car with a failed alternator. The proprieters of this vehicle had managed to snag a new alternator, but it was the wrong one. Hey, an alternator’s an alternator, right? You just gotta make it fit. So they modified heavy-duty tent stakes into metal brackets and wedged the new alternator into place. Presto chango, a functional art car!

Apple TV 2nd Generation Teardown

September 29, 2010 Hardware, Site News, Teardowns — Miro

The 2nd Generation Apple TV is the least expensive iOS device Apple has ever shipped. The set-top box continues the trend of cost-cutting that we saw in the iPad, even sharing several parts with its tablet cousin.

The big news: we uncovered a Samsung NAND flash chip and found it has a whopping 8 GB of storage! The A4 processor has 256 MB of integrated RAM, the same as the iPad and the 4th Gen iPod Touch.

Apple’s current HD movies generally run less than 4 GB, but Apple needs around 512MB for the OS and likely wants to leave room for video quality improvements over time.

This is the easiest to service new Apple product we’ve seen recently. We awarded it a coveted Repairability Score of 8 / 10. The ease of repairing this device, integrated high-efficiency power supply, low 6-watt power consumption, and efficient stand-by mode lead us to believe this may be the most eco-friendly set-top box of all time.

Teardown highlights:

  • The Apple TV has 256 RAM, just like the 4th Generation iPod Touch and the iPad. The key marking of interest on the A4 processor package is “K4X2G643GE,” which is identical to the marking found on the iPad.
  • We found Samsung K9LCG08U1M 8GB NAND flash chip inside the Apple TV! It’s the same chip we found when taking apart the iPad. This is a pretty remarkable amount of storage for a $99 device.
  • We are pretty sure the flash memory is used to cache your favorite shows while they’re being streamed.
  • There is an empty spot right next to the Samsung NAND flash that looks to be the perfect size for putting another Samsung NAND flash chip. Could Apple be planning a higher capacity Apple TV in the future?
  • Wi-Fi board brought to you courtesy of Panasonic! This is the first time we’ve seen a Wi-Fi board from Panasonic in an Apple device. A different division of Panasonic usually supplies the optical drives for Apple’s laptops.
  • The Panasonic Wi-Fi board contains a Broadcom BCM4329XKUBG 802.11n Wi-Fi/Bluetooth/FM, exactly the same as the one we found on the iPad.
  • The solder pads near the side of the logic board look to be a *perfect* match for a dock connector! This Apple TV seems to be a couple of features shy of a full-on computer. Perhaps this logic board will be used in future iPads?
  • Apple is continuing its theme of hiding power supplies inside their devices. It’s especially impressive here, considering that the Apple TV is only slightly larger than a 60 watt MacBook AC adapter.
  • The sticker on the power supply has this rating: 3.4V @ 1.75A. We’ll save you the multiplication: that’s just 5.95 watts!
  • Apple brags that when in standby mode, the Apple TV uses less power than a night light. We don’t suggest trying to use the status LED to illuminate your dark hallways, though.

Removing the logic board

Final layout

PlayStation Move Teardown

September 19, 2010 Site News, Teardowns — Miro

Sony’s plan to change gaming forever is a light wand with seven buttons, a compass, a gyroscope, an accelerometer, and a vibrator motor. Oh, and they threw in a safety strap for good measure. Sony is claiming that the Move “only does everything,” so we took one apart in an effort to see how exactly it could possibly accomplish such a lofty mission.

The PlayStation Eye camera bundled with Move is nothing new: Sony’s been shipping it since October of 2007. So we focused our attention on the Move controller, which ended up being super-easy to take apart.

We awarded it an 8 out of 10 Repairability score (10 being easiest to repair) since all one needs to do is remove a few Phillips screws to pop it open. Inside we found other easily replaceable components: the battery can be removed by unplugging its connector, and the trigger comes out as one unit. It looks like you may not have to toss your $50 controller in the trash if it runs out of juice.

Teardown highlights:

  • The Wii and PlayStation use different methods of locating their controllers. The Wii Remote has an infrared (IR) sensor built into the controller, and uses triangulation from the IR emitters on the sensor bar placed near the TV to locate itself. PlayStation Move, unlike the Wii, can locate the motion controller in 3D space. The PlayStation Eye camera visually recognizes the X/Y position as well as the relative size of the glowing sphere on the motion controller to pinpoint the controller’s location.
  • The Move contains many of components found in today’s smartphones: a processor, accelerometer, gyroscope, Bluetooth transmitter, vibrating motor, and even a MEMS compass. It’s an amazing amount of tech for the money, even though we still think it’s steep to pay $50 for a controller. Compared to a $40 WiiMote, though, it’s quite the bang for the buck.
  • The sphere at the top of the Move lights up via LEDs inside the controller. The LEDs are capable of putting out any color, which makes it easy to differentiate between players. They can also change colors mid-game, creating another source of user feedback. The color of the orb also changes in response to its environment, ensuring optimal visibility and detection by the PlayStation Eye.
  • The internal lithium-ion rechargeable battery lists a minimum capacity of 1320 mAh at 3.7 Volts. The battery gets brownie points for being able to be disconnected from the Move without any soldering. Just unplug the connector and plug the new one in.
  • The vibrator motor lifts off, however it still remains connected to the motherboard. It’s definitely smaller than the two vibrating motors stuffed into a Sony DualShock 3 Controller.
  • The Move motherboard loses points on repairability due to the vibrator motor, LED, charge contacts, and EXT cables being soldered down.
  • We were not able to identify the gyroscope manufacturer from a surface examination, but we suspect that it is the white-labeled part #Y5250H.
  • As LEDs get warmer, their brightness decreases. Having a heat sink in the LED assembly not only keeps the LEDs at the optimal operating temperature, but also increases the longevity of the diodes. The clear plastic lens on the far left helps diffuse the light from the LEDs to light up the orb uniformly.

Taking out the battery

Final layout

Burning Man: Bike Repair

September 15, 2010 Repair Stories, Site News — Kyle Wiens

Driving is forbidden in Black Rock City. The only powered vehicles allowed are art cars. That makes the place very pedestrian friendly, but the city is too large to walk comfortably. So everyone bikes! Day and night, throngs of bicycles flow through the streets—creating a feeling of perpetual movement and pulsing life.

This works great, but there’s a catch: The playa dust gunks up everything! Bikes are particularly vulnerable because riding in loose sand kicks up dust. Of course, everyone knows this is going to happen, so they bring the oldest, cheapest bicycles they can.

You can see where this is headed: Bike repair is an absolutely essential skill on the playa. The most common problems are predictable: flat tires, clogged deraileurs and chains, and failing bearings.

The dust in the desert is very fine—closer to fine cement or regolith than sand, which is relatively coarse. The alkali content is basic and caustic to organic compounds like skin. It is also midly conductive and wreaks havoc on all kinds of electronics.

There are several bike repair shops on the playa. I interviewed bicycle techs from the largest two: the ‘official’ bike repair camp, and Pandora’s Lounge and Bicycle Fix-It Shoppe. Pandora’s shoppe featured a problem-solving flow chart (Warning: potentially offensive image). DPW is the local Department of Public Works, and Moop (material out of place) is trash.

Pandora’s has been a stalwart force at Burning Man: this was their sixth year fixing anything and everything people threw at them. I watched for an hour as people from all walks of life came up asking for advice, help, and tools. They solved one problem after another, doing as much as possible with lubricant and tape rather than spare parts (which are rather hard to come by in the middle of Black Rock Desert). The wire bead separated from the rubber on this tire, and this well-dressed gentleman was able to get the tire reseated with a little duct tape to hold the bead in place.

The shop crew were super helpful, and shared some tips with me for preventing getting stranded without a ride on the playa.

  1. Don’t use *any* oil or petroleum based products. That includes WD-40! The oil attracts dust like nothing else, and the fastest way to ensure your bike will grind to a halt is to liberally coat it with lube before you leave home.
  2. Less is more. Use as little lubricant as possible! One tech went so far as to tell me that he thought no lubricant was better than an oil based lube. That’s certainly not conventional bicycle maintenance wisdom. If nothing else, wipe off as much lubricant as you possibly can.
  3. Kickstands don’t help much in 30 mph winds! Just lay the bike down, or the fall will break a pedal.
  4. Temporary hacks are often better than the ‘right’ fix. Don’t attempt complex repairs (like pulling a bearing) on the playa. It’s almost impossible to keep things clean—better to hack a quick fix for a few days and then get the bike back to a real shop.

I asked everyone about lubricants, and the consensus was that White Lightning’s self-cleaning wax lube is the best product out there. I’m told it also works wonders on zippers!

I bet you’ve never seen a BUCKET of wax lubricant before, either.

A few years ago, an anonymous donor helped Burning Man buy 1,000 ‘Yellow Bikes’, bicycles painted green (yes, green: irony is the source of much playa humor) and available for communal use. There’s only one rule: Never lock up a Yellow Bike. Instead, leave it for the next guy when you’re done.

I stopped Epona, one of the Yellow Bike repair techs, to ask why she spent her vacation fixing bikes. The simplicity of her answer delighted me. “I like making bikes go.” Who doesn’t?

Burning Man: Repair on the Playa

September 14, 2010 Repair Stories — Kyle Wiens

I made it out to Burning Man this year. If you’re not familiar, Burning Man is a week-long arts festival in Black Rock City, Nevada. The city is established temporarily for a week every year in the heart of the remarkably inhospitable Black Rock Desert. It is the most populous temporary city in the world.

Propane powered fire sculpture

I’m not really in the loop with the art scene. But I am into big hardware, and I know some of the people that work behind the scenes putting on this massive, magnificent event. They took me behind the scenes of Black Rock City and showed me the infrastructure that makes the place tick.

On the way out to the desert, I stopped to talk to the residents of Winnemucca and Gerlach. All the locals I asked about the Black Rock Desert told me that it was a dirty, dusty, terrible place and went to pains to explain that they couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to go there.

Burning Man has quite a reputation as a home for anarchists, sculpters, fire dancers, partiers, and survivalists. I saw and met all of those people, and I found something surprising in common with all of them: they seriously know how to fix things. It’s in their blood. The ability to repair is essential to radical self-reliance. I’ll give a number of examples over several posts about my experience there.

One of the unique things about the festival is its insistence on decommercialization: except for a small coffee bar and an ice shack, no cash transactions are allowed inside the city. Instead, everyone barters and shares freely. That sounds radical, but it works quite well for a week. (I’m not sure how well it would last if the event went on much longer.) The freedom from worrying about your wallet emboldens a widespread ethos of sharing, teaching, and helping. Keeping things working in the desert is a challenge, and there are several repair workshops scattered throughout the city. I’ll profile a few of these in the coming days: Pandora’s Lounge and Bicycle Fix-It Shoppe, the city fleet auto repair center, and the heavy equipment yard.

Black Rock City Bike Repair Shop

What really struck me about the folks who make the event happen, particularly those in the Department of Public Works (DPW), was their commitment to facilitating—on a grand scale. They are paid a pittance to live out in the middle of nowhere, subsisting on a meager diet of PBR and Marlboros for months, putting in backbreaking effort to build the foundation for the biggest art festival in the world.

Black Rock Workstation

What fascinates me about Burning Man is the intersection of high technology with the raw force of nature: man struggling to fight off chaos. I took advantage of the opportunity to study this accelerated entropy, and over the coming days I’m going to post a series of photos and stories from my time there.

iPod Nano 6th Generation Teardown

September 9, 2010 Hardware, Site News, Teardowns — Miro

Despite keeping the same price tag as its predecessor, the new Nano is a bundle of trade-offs. Gone are the days of click wheels, cameras, and video playback. Instead, users get a multi-touch screen, a clip, and a device that’s slightly easier to repair.

Judging by the both the internal and external features of the device, we feel the new Nano is more like a Shuffle with a screen than a Nano with true multi-touch.

Apple is seriously reaching by calling the Nano “multi-touch.” 3M defines multi-touch as the “ability to simultaneously detect and resolve a minimum of 3+ touch points.”

The Nano does not support three touch points. In fact, the only gesture the Nano supports that has two touch points is rotation.

We’ve learned from reliable sources that Apple’s internal documentation suggest support for pinch to zoom, which is not present in this version of the iPod Nano’s software. Was this feature cut at the last minute? Could it be added back in with a software update? Only time will tell.

Teardown highlights:

  • This iPod Nano’s battery only has two wires, one red and one black. All the other iPod Nanos we’ve taken apart have included three battery wires. That third battery wire typically ties into a thermistor, a resistor whose value changes with temperature (a poor man’s thermometer). Presumably the iPod Nano’s battery is small enough and the charge rate is slow enough that overheating is not a concern.
  • The 1.54″, 240 x 240 pixel LCD screen is equipped with multi-touch, although how anyone is supposed to comfortably fit more than one finger on the display is a mystery.
  • The Nano has a 220 pixels-per-inch (PPI) screen, the highest pixel density on an Apple device aside from the iPhone 4 / iPod Touch 4th Gen. That’s almost double the iPad’s paltry 132 PPI density!
  • Pure speculation: The front glass on the Nano sticks up about .3 mm from the outer case. Why, you ask? Presumably due to the thickness of the headphone jack. Apple wanted to keep the device as thin as possible, and the curvature of the edges would have forced the case to be thicker for a completely flush glass panel. A thicker case was ditched in favor of the glass sticking out slightly.
  • Like its cousins — the iPhone 4 and the new iPod Touch — the touchscreen, LCD, and front glass are inseparable.
  • The Nano’s battery has a capacity of 105 mAh, compared to the Shuffle’s 51 mAh. We assume the Nano uses the extra juice to power its display (which the Shuffle lacks).
  • The headphone jack, volume buttons, and sleep/wake button are all found on the same ribbon cable that snakes around the inner perimeter of the Nano. Very efficient!
  • There’s a total of eleven screws in the Nano — quite a hefty amount for such a small device.

Removing the battery

Final layout

iPod Touch 4th Generation Teardown

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

First, an observation: this thing is thin! So thin that there is literally no room for the 5 MP camera in the iPhone 4.

Second, some news: The 4th Generation iPod Touch’s A4 processor package has the same 256 MB Samsung SDRAM markings found on the iPad’s processor. Many developers will be disappointed that it doesn’t have the 512 MB found in the iPhone 4, but Apple had to keep costs down to hit the $229 price point.

We found several notable improvements from the previous Touch, especially a more repair-friendly front panel that can be easily removed with a heat gun and some careful prying. This is by far the easiest Touch to open, although it’s not completely straightforward once you get inside.

Teardown highlights:

  • This is the easiest iPod Touch we’ve ever cracked open — a bit of glue and two tabs hold the front panel in place. We hoped that the insides would continue to be repair-friendly, but then found that the front glass and LCD panel were permanently fused together. This will prevent dust from getting beneath the glass, but unfortunately will also make repair more expensive.
  • Like all other revisions of the iPod Touch, the battery is soldered to the logic board. This isn’t a surprise given the slim form factor of the iPod, but we wish Apple would make battery replacement easier, especially on a Touch that is now easier to open.
  • Apple did add more space between the battery’s three solder points compared to the 3rd Gen Touch. This should make the soldering job a little easier when replacing the battery, as there’s less chance of accidentally bridging the contacts.
  • The EMI shield is surprisingly heavy, weighing in at 11 grams. The entire iPod Touch is only 101 grams, meaning Apple has devoted more than 10% of the iPod’s weight to this metal EMI shield.
  • Unfortunately, the rear-facing camera is only 960×720 resolution. That’s only about .7 megapixels, compared to 5 megapixels on the iPhone 4. Apple was forced to sacrifice still photo resolution in order to squeeze the camera into the Touch’s slim package. Going forward, we expect Apple to adopt improved micro camera technology as better cameras come to market.
  • For those of you who are wondering, there’s no way the iPhone 4’s rear camera can be installed in the Touch.
  • In a first for the iPod Touch line, the headphone jack is not soldered to the logic board. There’s also a liquid damage indicator on the bottom of the headphone jack, so don’t use your Touch to stir the coffee.
  • This primary antenna is situated near the front glass panel. Its new location eliminates the need for the plastic “window” found on the 3rd generation Touch. There also appears to be a secondary antenna located on the headphone jack.
  • Contrary to Apple’s initial claims on their FaceTime marketing page, the iPod Touch does not have a vibrator. Apple’s website has been updated to remove this claim.

Prying out the logic board

Final layout

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

Nintendo Virtual Boy Teardown

September 3, 2010 Hardware, Site News, Teardowns — Miro

Our week of game console teardowns is coming to a close, and we have a super-extra-special teardown for today. We partnered with Engadget to bring you a glimpse of one of the most interesting game consoles ever — the Nintendo Virtual Boy!

Direct quote from our guys who created the teardown: “The Virtual Boy is bar none the coolest device we’ve ever taken apart.” Everyone at the office agrees that it’s an awesome console, so much so that there have been arguments over who’s going to play it next.

Nintendo called the Virtual Boy a “32-bit, 3-D experience” that “eliminates all external stimuli, totally immersing players into their own private universe.” Even so, TIME Magazine listed the Virtual Boy as one of the worst inventions of all time, and PC World called it one of “the ugliest products in tech history.” Of course, neither Time nor PC World ever opened one, so what do they know?

Teardown Highlights:

  • The Virtual Boy was only available in North America for seven months — from August 14, 1995 until March 2, 1996 — with only 770,000 units sold. Compare that with the Nintendo 64, which sold 32.93 million units over its lifespan.
  • Virtual Boy tech specs:
    • 20 MHz, 32-bit RISC Processor
    • 128 KB dual-port VRAM
    • 384 x 224 pixel resolution
    • 2-bit monochrome display (black and three shades of red)
    • 16-bit stereo sound
  • The Neoprene eyepiece completely encompassed the player’s field of vision. This not only isolated the player from the rest of the world, but prevented anyone else from seeing what the player was doing. If only the Virtual Boy could play “other” content…
  • Games such as Mario’s Tennis support the use of the Extension port to hook up two Virtual Boys for multiplayer play. Regrettably, Nintendo never got around to releasing an appropriate cable.
  • In order to deliver a full range of motion in a virtual 3-D environment, a method of controlling motion in the z-axis was required. To overcome this hurdle, a second D-pad was added to the controller.
  • The modular construction of the Virtual Boy indicates it was designed with repair in mind. A damaged controller port or audio system could be individually replaced rather than having to replace the whole motherboard.
  • Each 4-color display unit was manufactured by Reflection Technology Inc., and featured a 1×224 pixel resolution with 32 levels of intensity. The “image” produced by the display is merely a row of red LEDs. Used in conjunction with an oscillating mirror, a full image is produced.
  • The mirror oscillates and the LED refreshes with such speed that the human eye perceives a single image across the view plane.
  • To oscillate the mirror, alternating electrical current at high frequency is passed through a copper coil attached to the mirror. A stationary iron core is attached to the display unit, forming a solenoid to produce the motive force needed for oscillation.
  • Because the entire image is produced by a single row of LEDs, the refresh rate is incredibly high. The pattern of LEDs displayed changes 19,277 times every second!

Removing the bottom cover

Final layout

Nintendo Famicom Teardown

September 2, 2010 Hardware, Site News, Teardowns — Miro

It’s day four of our week of game console teardowns. We borrowed a hot tub time machine, went directly to 1983, and acquired a Japanese national treasure: the Famicom!

We partnered with Wired for this teardown to bring you a glimpse of one of the most popular game consoles ever. Check out their story!

For those of you ill-versed in gaming consoles, the Famicom — short for Family Computer — is the name of the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) in Japan. Join us as we delve into the system that revolutionized the gaming world as we know it.

Teardown highlights:

  • The Famicom was the first console to incorporate D-pad controllers to acquire user input. Departing from the era of joysticks, the inclusion of the D-pad allowed for quick and accurate controls.
  • The second controller has a built-in microphone and a volume switch at the expense of the central “select” and “start” buttons. This is the only console we know of that has a microphone on one of its standard controllers.
  • You won’t be able to lose a controller unless you also lose your machine. They’re attached internally via two old-school connectors, so you’ll have to take apart the machine if you want to disconnect a controller.
  • The Famicom’s miniscule 4W power supply won’t be popping fuses anytime soon. That’s about 2.5% of the power that the Xbox 360 devours.
  • Famicom technical specifications:
    • Ricoh 2A03 8-bit 1.79 MHz processor (MOS Technology based on the Motorola 6502 8-bit processor core)
    • Ricoh RP2C02G-0 8-bit, 5.32 MHz PPU (Picture Processing Unit)
    • 2KB (16kb) on-board RAM
    • 2KB (16kb) on-board Video RAM
    • PSG (programmable sound generator) Sound
    • 256 x 240 pixel resolution
  • Unsurprisingly, lead solder abounds on the bottom of the board. RoHS standards weren’t established until 20 years after this puppy was made.
  • Ejecting a game cartridge is accomplished by pushing two inclined planes underneath the cartridge until it pops off the motherboard connector.
  • Opening the game cartridge reveals a 60 pin printed circuit board. This PCB (from a Tennis cartridge) has two ROM packages — totaling 24 KB — soldered to it. A single layer Blu-ray disc has 25,000,000 KB capacity!

Removing the motherboard

Final layout