Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Electronical Microsurgery

Author’s Note: The Blogger service is misbehaving, refusing to save or publish blog entries. This entire entry is written in Microsoft Word over the course of a day, and will be uploaded as a single entry once it’s completed

Well, after two years of faithful everyday service, my trusty 6th generation 64GB iPod Touch has a bulging battery.

This is a little concerning as you might imagine, and a little irritating as well, especially when you consider that this specific device is a replacement for an identical iPod that also had a bulging battery.

To be completely fair though, I don't think we can lay the blame at Apple's door on this specific issue. It's more down to the number of charging cycles that my iPods go through. The device is pretty much tethered for 10 hours a day, playing my let’s play/dramatic reading playlists over Bluetooth so that I have some background noise while I’m up here relaxing, doing university work, sleeping, whatever.
The problem is that Lithium Ion batteries - for reasons I don’t wholly understand – don’t behave well when the device is plugged in and running on mains power. It was always my understanding that when a battery is full, the charging circuitry will disconnect the battery from the charging current, and the device will run entirely off external power. For whatever reason though, some current always seems to go into the battery even if it’s only a trickle, and it seems that over time, that miniscule current will make the battery unhappy.

It’s not a problem exclusive to Apple, the local catalog store now uses Samsung tablets in place of paper catalogs, and because these tablets are plugged in and powered on 24/7, they have to replace each of these tablets on a regular basis as the battery inside swells alarmingly, to the point that the screens on the devices become noticeably convex.

What now then? Warranty replacement? Paid repair? Well, the iPod is out of warranty and I’m not giving Apple another penny. Why?

There are a number of reasons why I don’t like Apple. Whether it’s the slightly creepy cult-like relationship between the customers and company, the walled garden model that keeps the entire eco system of devices, OSes and “apps” (or software as the rest of us outside fairy land call it) firmly locked down, the deliberate and systematic process of making the devices as hard to repair as possible (pentalobe screws, anyone?), or the outright hostility with which the company treats independent repair businesses, denying them access to software, tools, schematics and specifications of their devices to try and ensure that only Apple technicians are allowed to interact with or service the hardware (and we all know how that turns out), Apple are well known as a company that is all smiles and handshakes – as long as you’re giving them money and using their – not your­ – devices in a manner that they approve of.

Whether it’s charging for repairs for faults that are either misdiagnosed or nonexistent (your screen is cracked? It’s water damage, see!) wrapping the users in pages and pages of terms and conditions that dictate how they may or may not use the devices they paid for, what software they may run on it and who they may get it fixed by, or the wasteful and environmentally irresponsible “this component has failed and it’s under warranty? Let’s scrap the whole device and get you a new one” policy that results in unknown scores of otherwise fixable devices ending their lives in some Apple electronics abattoir or other, I just have a deeply rooted objection to supporting Apple as a company.
But I continue to insist on using the iPod Touch. I’m on my third now, with my first (3rd generation) being reviewed almost 10 years ago to the day. When one fails, I get another. Why?
Because unfortunately, despite my grievances above, the iPod Touch (at least as far along as the sixth generation) is a mostly-superb device. It’s built for one primary purpose and it serves that purpose extremely well. The fiddly and sometimes clunky process of actually getting content onto and off of it notwithstanding, there simply isn’t anything as good out there at the moment, and I’ve tried Google Play Music. There are many android alternatives to the iPhones, many products from Asus, Razer and Lenovo that are alternatives (in many cases, superior alternatives) to the macbooks, but there simply isn’t anything out there that is as good at being an iPod as an iPod. Every company but Apple seems to have deserted the mp3 player market, as everyone these days likes to put all their eggs in one basket and keep all their music on their smartphones.
Maybe this is something I should eventually move into as well. I’m still debating which phone I’ll be replacing my trusty S6 Edge+ with, but it will be getting replaced in the next year or so. Perhaps at that time I’ll ditch the iPods altogether and move to a single device model, but for now, I’m happy where I am.

So where does this leave me? I’m not paying Apple to fix my device, it’s out of warranty, and I’m not buying a replacement from Apple, they’ve had quite enough of my money. If keeping my music on my phone doesn’t work out in the future I may well end up buying another iPod from them at some point, but I really don’t want to give them money if I can avoid it.

Fortunately for me, I’ve no problem with getting my hands dirty (or as dirty as they can be while working on electronic devices), and I’ve stripped down and rebuilt laptops, iPods, phones and PCs in the past, so I’m reasonably confident that with some help (I haven’t yet learned to solder, my dad is a very experienced hand at it), I can fix this device.
Note the use of the word Solder in there? That’s right, in another tip of the hat to right-to-repair enthusiasts, Apple have ditched the cable and connector model and soldered the battery directly to the logic board. Awesome, huh? In all fairness, this is just as likely to be because a soldered flexible flat cable takes up less vertical space than a connector, but it’s still a pain in the butt.

Because I like shiny things though, and because I want this repair to go as smoothly as possible, I have bought some new tools. I’ve bought the shiny sparkly and otherwise awesome Pro Tech Toolkit from Ifixit, as well as their iOpener gizmo that should hopefully help me deal with the adhesive strips inside the device that hold the display in and keep the battery secured to the case.

The procedure is a fairly simple one, at least in theory. Open the device up by flipping the screen out of the way, remove the LCD shield, desolder the three contacts connecting the battery to the logic board, [gently, and with the use of heat to soften the aforementioned adhesive strips] pry the old battery out of the case (Yep, direct hands-on contact with a damaged and failing lithium-ion battery – that’ll be fun!), and then install and solder the new battery, reinstall the shield, and lower and secure the screen.
Simple! I hope.

If it works, my trusty iPod gets a new lease on life. If it goes wrong, well at least I still have some sparkly tools to keep. I’ll pick up another iPod from CEX or something. Now, I’m just waiting on the tools and keeping the coffee flowing.

16:21: Well, eventually the amazon guy deigned to turn up with my iOpener toolkit from iFixit. This contains a variety of tools, most of which are duplicates of ones I’ve already got, but what it also has is the iOpener itself.
With the help of the iOpener, I’ve been able to (gently) prise the screen out of its enclosure and pivot it out of the way, whereupon I removed the metal shield beneath, to reveal a distinctly swollen and unhappy battery.

17:51: Right, we’re in business. Wish me luck, hopefully I’ll have a working ipod by the end of this.

19:11: Well, it was touch and go there, but – for the moment – the iPod is charging happily, with its new battery. It still needs to be reassembled, so let’s get on with that.

19:25: Right, now that the device is completely reassembled, I’m getting a new screen that seems to depict a completely drained battery. Whether these obscure Apple hieroglyphics mean “battery discharged” or “battery has failed and will never work again” is anyone’s guess, so I’m going to leave it and see if the battery charges at all over the next couple of hours.

22:51: Geez, it’s nearly 11pm and it’s 34C in here. It gets way too hot in my room.
Okay, so in a fit of pique, I opened the iPod back up, determined to see if there was any other explanation for its behavior than a duff battery. I got my multimeter out and couldn’t detect anything from the battery’s terminals. No reading whatsoever, 0, zip, nothing.
I went to get a second opinion from my dad and he got the same reading. Being much more versed in such matters than me, he noted that to get a reading of 0 in such circumstances is pretty unusual by itself, so he kept checking the terminals.
As he did so, they started to work loose and the connector started coming away from the logic board.
It turns out that letting me solder the connector (this being my first ever time of soldering) was a nice indulgence, but not conducive to actually getting good results. I didn’t do a great job, didn’t use nearly enough solder, and while the joints were strong enough to hold just long enough for the lock screen to show for a few seconds, they didn’t hold any longer than that.

More than that, despite following watching several youtube tutorials showing exactly how to remove the battery for whatever reason, the soldering iron simply wouldn’t melt the solder holding the pads to the logic board as the ones in the video did. Lead-free solder is supposed to melt at around 217C, but even with the iron set to 300, then 350C, it just wasn’t melting. It took a lot of messing around with the soldering iron, and a lot of prying (during which I managed to melt the (replacable tip) of my brand new nylon tipped reverse tweezers) before the connector eventually came free. Initially we were concerned that I’d pulled one of the pads off the logic board, but this turned out to be adhesive goop scorched onto one of the pads, and the goop came off with a liberal scrubbing with isopropyl.

As I seethed with frustration, feeling angry at the battery retailer for sending me a totally dead battery, I asked my dad to test the battery one more time, pointing out he had said that a result of 0.000V is unusual even from a dead battery. He tested again, and it came out to a distinctly not-zero number. 3.83 volts, in fact. The battery was full.

Irritated that I no longer had a valid excuse for blaming someone else for my misfortune, I suggested that my dad do the soldering this time.
He started by re-tinning the pads on the mainboard, and as I held the connector against the pads with a toothpick, he re-soldered each one in turn. I guess an experienced person can make anything look easy.

A few seconds later I swiveled the screen of the still mostly-disassembled ipod back down against the case and held down the power button. I’ve never been so pleased to see an apple logo.
After a few seconds (that felt like forever), the iPod went to the lock screen, and entering my password, I was shown a wonderful lovely and completely working home screen.

Job done. At last.

Tools I’ve used:

Of course, this job was made vastly easier with a wonderful selection of tools from the cool folks over at Ifixit. I bought the Pro Tech Toolkit, and the iOpener Toolkit.

Of particular note during this repair were the Jim (kind of like an unsharpened knife), the shims (the blue plastic triangles), a wonderful 4mm microscrewdriver set, and an equally wonderful set of curved needle-nose tweezers.
To loosen the adhesive holding the screen in (and later, the adhesive holding the battery in), I used the iOpener itself, which again, did a fantastic job.

I also used a Silverline magnetic parts bowl, which allowed me to put screws and parts aside and still be sure they'd stay where they were put at the end of the work.

I distinctly agree with Ifixit’s belief in the right to repair, and I wholeheartedly support their efforts to ensure that everyone has the tools and the knowledge with which to repair their devices. It’s thanks to tools, guides and tutorials from Ifixit that this repair was possible, and I eagerly recommend them to anyone curious about or intent on conducting their own electronics repairs.

Ifixit didn’t provide the soldering iron which was a generic “Precision Gold” 48W workstation, sold (I believe) by Maplin.

So what to do now? Well, it’s too late for celebration beer, so I think I’ll have celebration Chicken Soupandabread instead. This is like Soupandaroll, but with bread slices instead of rolls…

I’ve tidied most of my tools away, I’ve got a bit of tidying to do, but that’s me about done for tonight. I woke up at a sensible time this morning, so I’m tired. But at least I did what I set out to do today.
See ya!

Epilogue, 30th August: Upon resuming use of the now-repaired iPod, I found that the battery capacity was much diminished, compared to the original battery. While my iPod formerly had a play  time (connected by bluetooth to an external speaker) long enough for me to go to sleep listening to podcasts, and to wake up with the podcasts still playing, the new battery ran down from a full charge to zero in about four and a half hours of play. "Oh well" I figured, "four and a half hours of play time is better than the zero I had".

Over a couple of days of use however, for whatever reason, the battery-reading software and the battery have become acclimatised to each other, and the battery will now allow the device to play audio over bluetooth for a full twelve hours, with charge remaining. 

So all's well that ends well. 

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

A Bit Blustery

Well, I have an hour and 45 minutes to wait for Chunky to render the latest beautiful raytraced vista of Honningbrew, my Minecraft city, sso before I eventually go and get some food, I find myself back here, for want of something better to do.

Today was a pretty good day. A nice lay in followed by a nice coffee, sitting in a nice room well insulated from the freezing cold gale force winds outside, I finally managed to get the content management system of my university project website working. Properly working too.
It was a little touch and go at one point, I did something wrong at one point and the next time I loaded the page, well, I've never seen so many PHP errors on one page before. They might have extended off the bottom of the screen, I didn't bother to check.

The website assignment has been something of a millstone around my neck over the past few weeks, it's not one of my strongest subjects, but at least I am slowly picking it up. While the intricacies of PHP (and to a lesser extent, SQL) are somewhat lost on me, the same was true of HTML, and I used to consider CSS something of a dark mystical art.
This project apparentlly uses all four, as well as JavaScript and jQuery. I say apparently because it's such a big project - 70% of the marks for that subject for the entire year - that many of us have started working on it before the classes that teach us the required skills have even been scheduled.
We lost about 40% of the class at the end of the first year at university, and while I'm pretty confident (no, honestly) that I'm going to graduate, I do wonder if one or two of my remaining coursemates will be leaving us in May, never to return.

University of course is the most recent "big thing" to happen to me. Very big, extra big, super big. I'm in second year now, and while I suppose it would have been awesome to get those freshman experiences down for posterity, frankly I've been too busy to sit around and write about them. Studying, stressing, sleeping, or ssssdrinking. The four Ss of your stereotypical student life, and I've done plenty of all four.
I have to admit though the dynamic has changed somewhat, with the first year weeding out those unsuited, unwilling or unable to adapt to university life, the amount of studying has increased (despite a much greater emphasis on self-directed learning that chronic procrastinator here initially struggled to adapt to) and the amount of bars, pubs and drinking has decreased sharply.

It has occured to me to wonder if I should actually make more of an effort to get out and hit the bars, or at least spend some time gaming, because these days I'm either studying or sleeping. As a kid, I was amazed that my brother had these cool games and this amazing computer, yet I never saw him enjoying them, and his room was filled with boring stuff like textbooks and pencils and stuff. I had no idea why someone would rather have their nose in a book than up against a screen, playing Doom or Magic Carpet 2, or even that demo of Total Mania that I still have laying around here somewhere (despite the publishers (Domark) sort of merging into Eidos Interactive nearly 25 years ago)...
Now I understand. Sure, I'd love to be gaming. But I'd love not-failing my degree even more. Not that I'm in danger of doing that, but my classmates and I are quite familiar with what happens to folks who'd rather game than study. Or as they used to say in the Army, Train Hard, Fight Easy, i.e. Work hard now, so you don't have to, later.

Not that I'm under any illusions of course. Data network engineers are very lucky if they can find a nice sinecure. The ones that do exist are no less dead-end than the jobs I left unskilled labour to leave behind me. My best hope for a nice comfortable life is to hit the books, then hit some different books, then hit even more books.
Of course I've already said to friends that I am wary to keep my eyes on the prize. I've had well paying jobs that made me miserable before, I've no intention of working my arse off to get lots of lovely sparkly money, if it means that I hate the job I'm doing day in, day out. I'd rather find a midddle ground between stress and money than be rich and freak out every day at work.

Still, that's some distance away, there's at least another year of university to go, possibly two if I do my Master's degree. Though it's scary how fast things have moved. I was in college twenty minutes ago and now I'm coming up to the start of Exam Season, second year.
I seem to have adapted quite well to the stress, mostly. Probably. I keep a level head not because I don't geel stressed, but because I know that freaking out would just distract me, delay my studies, and quite possibly annoy people at the same time. Strangely, it seems to be the ones who get stressed about every little thing that do quite well in university. The ones who just sit back and assume it will all be fine and that there's no need to worry right now, well, we had twenty of them more on my course this time last year than we do now.

Still, I seem to be getting through my work at a decent pace, grades are good, if not amazing, and I'm just getting on with things. There's really not a lot to report, outside of university, simply because it has been occupying pretty much all my attention in one form or another.

I don't mind. It's something to work towards isn't it.

Now, time for that dinner. I'm going to have new potatoes and chilli.