2012-10-07

Repairing your own Smartphone to Save Money

Here is my story and advice regarding fixing your own smartphone.

Last week, I stupidly left my phone on the roof of my car and drove off, resulting in the phone flying to the pavement at about 30 MPH.  Happily I recognized the situation immediately, and found the phone... with a shattered LCD.

My phone still worked, but the front glass was shattered, resulting in (at least) a painfully embarrassing handset.

At first, I thought I'd take it to a local shop to fix it.  They charge about $90, which I thought was a pretty good deal.  But then I saw that I could by the LCD part and fix it myself for a mere $30!  That was a $60 savings!  So why not?

So I went to my favorite on-line shop and bought a kit which included the LCD touchscreen and a specialty toolkit for $30.  A few days later it arrived in the mail, exactly as I expected.

Then I went to iFixIt.com and checked out the instructions.  There were about 27 steps to get at the screen... but none of the steps seemed to hard.  So I cleared off my desk and started to go at it.

I have the patience of a saint, so I methodically followed all 27 steps to get to the LCD.  I swapped in the new panel, and then followed those 27 steps backwards until my iPhone looked whole again.  In all, it took me about 2.5 hours, with no lost screws or parts, and no "oh no" moments.

At the end, it all worked!  I had a new screen, and I am totally happy with my repaired iPhone.

But was it worth it?

I saved $60 by repairing my phone myself.  Was it worth it?  Would I do it again?

No.

I conclude that it would have been better to spend $60 more in order to get the job done professionally.

First, most people do not have the patience or the mechanical fortitude to deal with dozens of screws, connectors, and contacts, each which must be cared for perfectly.

Secondly, even for me, there is a lot of comfort in someone else taking responsibility - if I screwed up, I'd have 10 ounces of electronic waste.  If they screw up, they are responsible for getting it right.

So in conclusion: unless you can afford your own failings, I suggest taking it to a quality shop and forking over an additional $60.   That $60 buys you several hours and a valuable warranty.

Other facts of note

I did notice that the vast majority of the screws are there to hold down electrical connectors.  It is amazing how much additional cost and effort goes into each connector on a phone.  The connectors have to be screwed down, because no one wants them coming loose during a simple drop.

I can see the beauty of having as few connectors as possible.  A higher level of integration results in fewer connectors, which results in higher reliability and lower cost.  That means that phones are going to become much more highly integrated than they already are today.

2012-09-29

Getting Paid for Being Wrong


I have been using iOS6 Maps since the day it was formally released, and I think the new Maps app is great.  To me, it is a real step up in quality and UI over the old Google-based map solution.  I have zero complaints.

But some in the press seem to be "creating controversy" in order to "create revenue".

Considering the things I've heard and read (like "Maps claimed I was traveling North in the city, while I was actually traveling South"), I conclude that some in the press, including many bloggers, don't have the experience or expertise to publish on technology topics.  At least I hope so.  The more cynical side of me thinks that it could be that "controversy sells ads".

When one writes about technology for the public, the public expects that the author is coming from a place of expertise.  Someone who has done research, and who can appropriately and comprehensively explain things.

The public deserves more than personal opinion and personal experience - they deserve more than speculation.  They deserve more than a quote from someone with an axe to grind, or a retailer that has a product to sell.

All this Map nonsense is reminiscent of the "authentication chip" that iLounge claimed was part of the Apple Earbuds.  Of course, any well-experienced electronics expert could have informed iLounge that a chip is required for sending digital pushbutton signals over a standard analog headphone cable.  But instead, iLounge published the ridiculous "authentication chip" claim, which undoubtably upped their ad revenues and which did a disservice to their reader community.

2012-09-23

The iPhone dock connector was bad, and Lightning is awesome

Numerous people in the press are mourning the loss of the iPhone's 30-pin dock connector.  A separate vocal group has often complained about the lack of a Micro-USB connector port on the iPhone.

Both these groups are complaining about Apple's new Lightning dock connector.

But at the end of the day, the Lightning connector is a great move for Apple customers.  Here's why

Limitations of the Micro-USB standard

The 2007 MicroUSB-B connector became a European standard for cell phones in 2010.   Although USB is a good standard, it is far from adequate for modern smartphone use in terms of power, data, or flexibility.

In terms of data, the 2000-vintage USB2 standard provides a practical maximum data rate of roughly 35 MB/second.  However, most smartphones need to deliver faster I/O.  HDMI, for example, requires a consistent 500 MB/second data stream with very low latency rate.  USB2 to HDMI conversion is therefore impossible without a loss in quality.

In terms of power, the USB2 standard stipulates a maximum of 500 milliamps per device, unless its a device on a bus used to charge devices.  But most modern smartphones require much more than 500 milliamps for charging, and so that means either fast charging OR data, not both simultaneously.

In terms of flexibility, USB as implemented on smartphones is as an endpoint device  - not as the USB bus master.  And therefore, the smartphone cannot control other devices on the bus.  The smartphone has as much control of the USB bus as a mouse has on your computer's USB bus.

What about USB 3.0?  Forget it. First of all, it still isn't fast or latency free enough to driver modern HMDI without loss of quality.   Secondly, the MicroUSB 3.0 connector is large and unwieldy, and therefore is not seen on smartphones.

Failings of the classic 30-Pin Dock connector

The dock connector has numerous advantages over the MicroUSB standard.  First of all, it isn't limited to USB - it can carry analog audio and video, as well as HDMI, VGA, and a host of other signals.  It's 30 pins gives it a ton a flexibility you just can't get with a 5-pin USB2 interface.

Secondly, the 30-pin dock connector is expert at zero-insersion force.  What this means is that one can build a standard cradle or dock, and the 30-pin connector can slide home with near-zero crankiness, and be removed with near-zero stick-to-it-ness.  If desirable, cables can add a catch/release mechanism to add connector security, if so desired.

But the dock connector's advantages have led to some disadvantages.  The connector's pins have changed substantially over the years, so few devices are actually universal - old chargers don't work with new docks, new cables don't fit old cases, yesterday's video cables don't work with today's devices.  In all, it has become a hodgepodge, a solution that covers a lot of ground, but which is far from universally compatible.


Which one is a new, official Apple product? [A: both]
Which one works with your iPod? [A: maybe the left one]
Which one fits your case? [A: maybe none]

The next time you're in a hotel, try your old iPod or your newer iPhone in that clock radio with a dock. Does it work as you'd like?  If so, congratulations - your device is of the same vintage as the hotel's clock radio.  Evolution is a bitch.

Glories of Lightning

Lightning introduces a standard very high-speed bus for the iOS platform, much like Thunderbolt for the Intel platform.  It uses active cabling to eliminate all the old-school signaling, and replaces it with a single high-speed bus that can be converted into anything that peripheral manufacturers want to produce.

Lightning is all digital, and so media conversions have to happen within active cables.  This makes it possible to add unlimited new features over time without adding or redefining the interface.  It's bus master is exclusively the iPhone, so the iPhone can control a host of devices (unlike the USB2-B standard crowd).

Lightning is not USB, and therefore isn't subject to USB's limitations.  An active cable along with OS software is used to convert Lightning signaling to USB signaling.

Lightning is as fast as the CPUs on the iPhone, so the practical speed limit is simply what's attached to the other end of the connector, not the connector itself.  HDMI's multi-gigabit speeds?  No problem.  Analog audio/video?  Easy.  USB3?  Absolutely possible.  And as the technology beat moves on, Lighting will be able to deliver.

But wait, how, with only 8 pins, can it be faster than USB3?  Easy.  USB3 is a specific bus arbitration communication standard that travels for meters.  In contrast, Lightning is a direct I/O bus for very short hauls.  What something else?  Make it true with the right converter chip built into the cable. Ethernet. SCSI.  RS-232.  Even 1-wire is within the realm of reason.



Stuff to Buy for my iPhone 5!

I have my new iPhone 5 on order, but before I actually get it I want to make sure I have all the stuff I need to keep it healthy and happy.  Here are the items I have on order.

CaseCrown Case for the iPhone5

I want to keep my new iPhone5 looking like new.  But how?

I love my CaseCrown Slide-on case for my iPhone4.  It looks great, is slim, but is very strong.  It has kept my iPhone4 looking like new.  And so it only makes sense for me to get another CaseCrown for my iPhone5.  Happily, there is a CaseCrown for the iPhone5!  Find the CaseCrown Case Here.

CaseCrown Case for iPhone 5

A Lightning to Dock cable

Some are complaining that the Dock Connector is going away.  I say good riddance - the Dock connector was always an unwieldy hodgepodge, supporting about 20 analog and digital standards.  A standard very high speed connector will do much more in a compact and reliable package.

That said, I do have one key dock connector item that I love - my car FM transmitter.  My 12+ year old car doesn't have bluetooth or line-in, so my FM transmitter is a useful auto accessory.  With an inexpensive aftermarket Lightning to Dock cable, supporting power and analog audio, I'll be able to continue to use this old workhorse.  Aftermarket Apple Lightning to Dock Connector cables can be found at Amazon.

A two-port USB car charger

This just seems useful - when we're driving in our old cars, sometimes we want to plug in and charge more than one item.
A USB car charger that supports two devices simultaneously just seems like a good thing to keep in the glove box. This Griffin Powerjolt Dual USB item should do the trick!

2012-09-16

HP LaserJet Keeps On Ticking

I've had a lot of printers over the years, but there is one that just keeps on working for me - my HP LaserJet 4L. This little beast is over 18 years old!

My 4L is the slowest laser printer on earth, printing at a mere four black and white pages per minute.   And the paper tray holds a paltry 100 sheets.  But it keeps going and going.

I haven't had to replace any parts, and the toner cartridges - which last for about 3000 pages - are inexpensive and readily available.   The last one I bought was $19.  Do the math and you'll see that it beats the pants off of any modern inkjet printer.

I did end up adding an inexpensive Parallel to USB adapter to the HP - and plugged it into my trusty Airport Express.  Now my HP is always on the network and ready to handle the print jobs of the twenty+ nearby devices.  Wow!

My only concern now is my future ability to buy HP 4L cartridges.  I am definitely going to start keeping my used up carts for refill, as I can imagine that retail availability will decline over the next few years.


2012-09-02

802.11n Channel Width Optimization

After much research and experimentation, I have optimized my 802.11n channel width.  I have set it to the unconventional, yet best performing setting of 5 MHz.

I live in a busy city, and often count more than 15 visible access points with in range of my home.  All these access points compete with mine - they share the same spectrum, and if they're talking at the same time my wireless router is talking, error detection and retry protocols kick in.

802.11n has a standard width of 20 MHz, and optionally can be expanded to 40 MHz.  This improves performance, right?  Well, not exactly.

If you live in a WIFI void, with no competition, 40 MHz is awesome.  But in the real world, some other device chatting within that channel is going to result in significant clashing, resulting in performance-killing error correction protocols.  So I took the counter-intuitive approach and brought my router to 5 MHz.

But 5 MHz is a lot smaller!  Yes, with a narrow channel your theoretical bandwidth slows down to about 1/4 the performance.  But it isn't a theoretical world.  It's a real world, where there are competing radios.

With a narrow 5 MHz channel, it is much less likely that a neighbor's access point will compete with mine, and therefore error correction protocols rarely kick in.  And the proof is in the numbers: with a 5 MHz channel width, I average about 16 Mbit/sec - about 10% faster than when I have my access point set to 20 Mhz, and faster than my ISP in any case!

Of course, your mileage may vary.  If you live in a rural setting where there are no other access points, 40 MHz is likely the best choice.  A suburban area with houses every 100 yards apart might be better off at 10 or 20 MHz, depending on the local airwaves.  Your best bet is to try it, and measure the performance.

Another advantage of 5 MHz?  Longer laptop battery life!  The wider the channel, the more power your laptop has to expend to transmit on the channel.

2012-07-14

iPhone Model Lineup Changes in Store

Currently, Apple produces four technically-distinct iPhone models:

  • The iPhone 4S, GSM/CDMA
  • The iPhone 4, GSM
  • The iPhone 4, CDMA
  • The iPhone 3GS, GSM

... plus a new model in the pipeline, which we all call the iPhone 5.

Although there are component cost differences between the four current models, their costs are very comparable.  The parts and manufacturing costs of an iPhone 4 is virtually identical to that of the iPhone 4S.  The parts and manufacturing cost of an iPhone 3GS is within $35 of the iPhone 4S - and converging.  The delivery and support costs of an iPhone 3GS is virtually identical to that of an iPhone 4S.

To reduce its overall costs, Apple needs to reduce its overlapping product lines.  To stay competitive, it is clear that Apple will start to drop off it's older products in order to maximize economies of scale.

Therefore, I suspect that the iPhone product line will soon be substantially overhauled:

New:

  • iPhone 5, $200 and up price range


Retained:

  • iPhone 4S, $0.99 - $99 price range, based on storage.


Dropped:

  • The iPhone 4, GSM
  • The iPhone 4, CDMA
  • The iPhone 3GS, GSM
This will effectively result in the number of iPhone products supplied by Apple from four to two, simplifying the supply chain and reducing support costs.  Furthermore, it will result in a more capable baseline for the iPhone ecosystem - a dual core CPU with 512MB of RAM will be the new baseline for future operating systems - a tremendous step up from the 2009-vintage devices.

Furthermore, this change will have only positive impact to the customer community.  The new line-up will be priced nearly identically to the old lineup.  There will be less choice, but only in the sense that less capable models will be dropped.   Customers will be getting a 4S for the price of a 3GS.

Timing:

Apple won't release the iPhone 5 without a new OS to support its new features and to wow the industry.  Therefore, the new iPhone will be released along with iOS6.  iOS has a quite visible schedule - mid-to-late September.

Validation:

To validate this concept, we should start to see an erosion of the availability of the iPhone3GS and perhaps even iPhone4 models roughly two to four weeks before the release of the new iPhone.  However, Apple will not constrain its market so much that it negatively impacts sales, and therefore the reduction of supply will happen only after the back-to-school shopping season.

Conclusion:

Barring unexpected production mishaps, by September there will be evidence of a drop-off of iPhone 3GS and iPhone 4 availability.  Apple will release the new iPhone by mid-to-late September, in concert with iOS6.  Soon after, Apple will formally remove the 3GS and 4 from its catalog.  

2012-02-06

Fixing and old iBook Keyboard and more

Repairing and upgrading an older 12-inch Apple iBook G4 laptop.


A great friend of mine had a 12-inch iBook laptop from 2005 - with a broken keyboard.  She asked me to help her shop for a new Mac to replace her old tried-but-true laptop.

Whenever anyone asks me for computer advice, I ask them what they want to do with a new computer.

She told me that she used her computer for basic email and surfing the web - she said the old iBook was great for many years, but that now, with a broken (and dirty and gross) keyboard, it was time to move on.

After thinking about it for 15 minutes with her, we concluded that the best approach was to fix her old laptop.  A little upgrade is a LOT easier than going out and buying a new machine, and then migrating 6 years of data and apps.  Also, the price is a lot less than a new machine.

We went on-line and bought two things:


The replacement iBook keyboard (bottom) and 1 GB upgrade (top, in envelope)

The components arrived in a few days.  Here was the basic procedure:

  1. backed up everything
  2. shut down and unplugged the iBook
  3. removed the battery
  4. popped off the keyboard (sliding two levers in the corner is all it takes!)
  5. popped in the new RAM, which is situated under the keyboard
  6. Unplugged the old keyboard, plugged the new one in and snapped it in place
  7. Reinstalled the battery.  Done!

In all, it took less than 10 minutes to upgrade the iBook.

My friend ended up with an incrementally faster computer at a very low cost and with very low stress.  She did not end up with a new, fast-as-lightning computer or a hole in her pocket.

I loved this upgrade because the cost, effort, and result couldn't be beat:
  • A very clean looking laptop with a working keyboard
  • A faster laptop, thanks to the additional memory
  • Her same programs and files, in same location - NO confusion!
And I had:
  • An easy 15 minute upgrade
  • No stress helping her buy a new computer
  • No heavy lifting moving the data to a new computer
  • No additional "support" calls

In short, these old iBooks are still useful little computers.  And with a little effort, you can keep them ticking for several more years to come.

The Repaired and Upgraded iBook: Looking great, running great!

2012-02-05

Connecting your MIDI keyboard to your Mac

MIDI and the Mac.  It's easy, fun, and shockingly inexpensive!

I enjoy fooling around with musical instruments, and so when Garageband originally came out several years ago, I was very excited to start using it with my cheap little Casio keyboard.

Initially it seemed expensive and complicated to get the right parts together to connect the Mac to my keyboard via MIDI. I didn't want to spend a ton of money in professional-class electronics. I wanted to fool around.

Happily, I discovered that it's inexpensive and easy.  If you know where to look, a Mac-compliant MIDI adapter can be purchased for under $10! That's right, for less than $10 I connected my Mac to my MIDI keyboard and by MIDI drum kit.

I bought an MIDI-to-USB interface, in particular, one like this really inexpensive USB MIDI Cable available through Amazon. The adapter is a simple device that has a MIDI "in"/"out" connectors on one end, and a USB connector on the other.  The adapter doesn't require a power adapter - it's just a magic converter that translates MIDI into USB.

The beauty of this interface is that it required no special drivers for my Mac at all. My Mac, running Mavericks (and Lion before that) automatically detected it. Awesome.

I connected the MIDI-in connector on the cable to the MIDI-out port on my keyboard. And then I plugged the USB plug into my Mac. Hookup was that simple.

MIDI "out" cable goes to MIDI "in" port, and vice-versa

From there, I fired up the Garage Band application and turned on the keyboard. In Garageband, I created a new "Piano Project".

I started by creating a new "Piano" project

Once the new project appeared within Garageband, notes on my keyboard were coming out of my Mac's speakers. If this doesn't work, you may want to double check your volume and make sure that the "in" and "out" MIDI cables are plugged into the "out" and "in" on your keyboard.

From there, I was able to double-click on the Piano icon within the "tracks" view in order to change the instrument of my key presses to something else, like a sax. Do so reveals the Software Instrument selector.

Double-clicking on the piano icon sets you change the instrument


The Software Instrument list is fun and amusing



Since we play musical instruments in the house quite often, I decided to connect the Mac to an amplifier. I used a basic 3.5mm jack plugged into the headphone port of the Mac. I connected this to a small guitar amp.

Connecting a small guitar amp to the Mac

It's a good idea to turn down the volume on the amp before plugging or unplugging your Mac from it.

Next Steps

My next step is to experiment more deeply with GarageBand and some of the add-on instrument packs. Some add-on packs for GarageBand include:
That's my initial attempt to get started with MIDI on the Mac. It works great, but there is a lot more to try! Have fun!


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