Wanted: Technical Writer / Tinkerer

July 27, 2011 Hardware — Miro

iFixit’s staff is the focal point of a global community showing people how to fix the things they own. We believe that we can make the world better by empowering people to take control of their hardware.

We are the world’s foremost experts on Apple repair, and we’ve set the gold-standard for online repair documentation. We have already helped millions of people fix their own devices, and we plan to help tens of millions more.

We’re looking for a full-time writer/tinkerer to spearhead our repair effort by creating unparalleled repair guides for electronics, cars, motorcycles, appliances, and just about anything else we think would be fun to take apart. The ideal candidate has a passion for succinct communication, loves to take things apart, and fixes all their friends’ stuff.

Candidates should:

  • Enjoy tinkering!
  • Have certain mechanical aptitude — know their way around an engine or home repair project.
  • Have impeccable grammar.
  • Have editing experience, and enjoy correcting tpyos and errors of the grammar.
  • Progress through life with a sense of humor.

This position is full-time at our San Luis Obispo office (next to Cal Poly campus). Apple industry experience is not necessary; neither is any specific degree. We’d say that the ideal candidate would probably be a mechanic with a liberal arts background.

Want to know what it’s like to work at iFixit? Our team made a video about just that.

To apply: email us a PDF of your resume, as well as a short cover letter explaining two things: why you’re badass, and why you’re the ideal candidate for this job.

ESD is not a venereal disease

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

Electrostatic discharge and novice electronics repair

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Take precautions before handling

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

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

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

Just the facts ma’am

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

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

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

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

So what’s a novice to do?

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

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

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

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

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


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

What bike repair guides should we create?

July 25, 2011 Hardware — Miro

We’d like to expand our selection of general-purpose guides for non-electronic devices, starting with bicycles — and we’d like your help!

We envision a set of guides for bikes that will cover the majority of common problems (or maintenance techniques) that folks encounter with their pedaled rides. So the question is: what kind of bike guides would you like to see us create?

Ones that immediately come to mind are:

  • Front/rear wheel replacement
  • Tire patching
  • Brake adjustment
  • Seat/handlebar adjustment
  • Derailleur adjustment
  • Cleaning and oiling the bike’s chain/sprockets
  • Pedal removal and installation

So what guides are we missing from that list? Are the above guides a good enough assortment to cover the basics of bike repair?

If we created the guides using one type/brand of bike, will they apply to all kinds of other bikes? For example, we have a great set of guides for this Specialized Expedition mountain bike. How useful would those guides be for someone with a Bianchi road bike?

Those are the questions that need to be answered, and we’d love your input. If you have any suggestions regarding these guides, please visit our iFixit Meta page and share a word or two!

Replacing a bike's rear brakes.

Replacing a bike's rear brakes.

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