PC hardware enthusiasm.. miniaturized?


— 1:02 PM on February 23, 2011

I've been into building PCs for many years now, but before that, I was never a particularly handy or mechanically inclined type of guy. That didn't stop me from developing some proficiency in PC repairs. Heck, I even worked one job in college where I frequently had to open up malfunctioning CRT displays, desolder a failed capacitor, and replace it with a new one. And I never once got shocked to death.

In fact, working with computer hardware has improved my general skill set and willingness to attempt household repairs. One day you're screwing together a PC, and then next thing you know, you've done a full-system repair on a malfunctioning refrigerator defrost system. Who knew?

There's one area of PC hardware repair where I've long feared to tread, though: laptops and other small, integrated, mobile devices. My first real experience there involved opening up a Sony Vaio, pulling up the front edge of the case, and promptly cracking one of those fragile amber ribbon cables in two, resulting in a dead keyboard.

However, my considerable struggles with my Samsung NC20 last year eventually ended in success, and when all was said and done, I'd disassembled and reassembled that thing multiple times. Poking around inside of it and looking at all of the insanely miniaturized components was fascinating and kind of fun, too. My confidence was boosted a bit by that experience, as was my willingness to tinker.

Enter my nine-year-old daughter, who somehow—don't ask me how, because it's baffling—managed to crack and destroy the top screen on her Nintendo DS Lite a while ago. After she'd been unable to use the thing for a while, I finally realized I might as well attempt a repair on it. It couldn't be much more useless than it was. So I ordered up a replacement LCD screen for $13 from Amazon. The screen comes with a tri-wing screwdriver necessary to get the DS Lite open.

Armed with a YouTube video showing how to do the replacement, I carefully took apart the DS Lite, extracting a bunch of little screws, gently prying apart the case and disconnecting a couple of those fragile ribbon connectors. Without, erm, having watched the YouTube video all the way through beforehand. I was surprised when the video ended with, "Now, de-solder the speaker connections from the old screen and solder them onto the new one." I thought tiny screwdrivers would be the extent of it.

I was able to handle the soldering work just fine, it turns out, but the fact that the video ended before providing any instructions at all about how to reassemble the device was daunting. Reassembly is definitely the hardest step, especially because you have to roll up a ribbon connector for the to screen, push it through the round hinge opening, and then thread two wires (for the antenna and microphone) through the middle of the roll. Once that part is done and the rest of the top screen is back together, the ribbon connector has to make it through the corresponding hinge opening for the bottom case and then into the backside of the motherboard, into a tiny connector with a miniature clip on it.

I did find another video showing how to reassemble the DS Lite, but not before I'd made the mistake of using a small pair of needlenose pliers to pull the ribbon cable through the lower hinge opening. When I tried to turn on the DS to test it, the top screen stayed blank and the system promptly shut back down. Further inspection revealed the problem: I'd ruptured one of the traces on the ribbon with the pliers, and there was a black line running up that portion of the trace. Zzzap. The new screen was ruined.

But... I learned a lot about reassembling the DS in the process. I was confident this display's sacrifice would not be in vain.

Another 13 bucks and a week later, I tackled the repair again this past Sunday afternoon. This time, I watched the instructional video much more carefully, was patient with each step of the process, and generally felt the Zen of miniature microelectronics repair. Doing more soldering wasn't fun, and I had to backtrack several steps and make adjustments several times. In the end, though, after a lot of tedium and time, I had the DS booting up and working properly with the new screen installed.

I learned some more lessons in this outing about how to deal with electronics components that are so small, you can barely manipulate them into position with your fingertips. Don't use needlenose pliers on a ribbon connector, for example. Also, look carefully, because these devices are designed to be assembled in a certain way. There's a slit on the DS Lite next to the lower case's hinge opening, expressly intended for the ribbon connector. And make sure you maintain the careful, patient mindset you'll need to make it through such a repair.

But mainly I learned that working on a computer the size of a pack of cigarettes isn't actually, you know, fun. Took forever, made me nervous, and gave me a bit of a headache. Like renewing your driver's license. I'm glad the thing is fixed, but I'm not sure I'd do it again. Big computers are much more fun for tinkering.

   
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