PC hardware enthusiasm.. miniaturized?

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.

Comments closed
    • liquidsquid
    • 9 years ago

    I hear ya, just spent 4 hours with a microscope doing mods on a very complex design. Drill out vias, run some very small wire, change out several 0402-sized resistors and caps, etc. Just another day at work, but it is still cumbersome and rather difficult. Wish I could take a pic and show you, but those pesky NDAs.

    I should have been a brain surgeon, it pays better.

    • Saber Cherry
    • 9 years ago

    I had a much easier (and cheaper) time repairing my DSi. One of the shoulder buttons stopped working. So, I searched youtube for a video on disassembling the thing… and it looked rather complicated, and not necessarily invertible (some things seem to be held in place by fiction, glue, or tiny, fragile plastic snaps). Furthermore, it was not clear that disassembling it would actually allow me to fix the problem.

    But just before I started, I did another more specific youtube search for “how to fix DSi button”, or something. And, wow! It turns out that if your shoulder buttons stop working… all you need to do is blow on them, hard! The video’s thread was full of thankful people who had tried this successfully. And it worked for me, too.

    It may or may not work on a broken screen, but with any malfunctioning Nintendo product, it’s at least worth trying to blow in it before attempting disassembly.

      • JJCDAD
      • 9 years ago

      [quote<]some things seem to be held in place by fiction[/quote<] I've ran into parts like that. Turns out there was actually a little screw that I could see. *shrug

    • Calum
    • 9 years ago

    I replaced the faulty hard drive of my older 40 Gb (3rd gen? Monochrome screen but with a click wheel) iPod with a 16Gb CF card and a CF-to-IDE adapter. Very faffy but enormously satisfying when it came back to life. Now it lives in the car glovebox, I know it can’t take any harm from being in the car because of its new solid state innards 🙂

    • fredsnotdead
    • 9 years ago

    When we talk about working on a PC, we are usually referring to replacing a board rather than replacing the one bad component on that board. In the days when components had leads that were soldered into through-holes, and ICs were in DIP packages in sockets, repairing a board wasn’t too daunting.

    Now, with surface-mount components and multi-level circuit boards, it is more difficult to do these repairs. It’s still possible to do component-level replacement, but my limited experience (replacing a surface-mount capacitor, at great savings to my employer vs. replacing the board), doesn’t make me want to do any more.

    I wonder if tube-era techs weren’t saying the same types of things when microelectronics came out? What era are we in now, nanoelectronics?

    • thermistor
    • 9 years ago

    This is my kind of comment thread. I purchased non-working LCD’s off e-bay and re-capped and re-CCFL’ed them for my Eyefinity setup.

    I got a free second-hand laptop recently; replaced the bad HDD, added memory, but the tour-de-force was replacing the WUXGA screen. This was an Intel Sonoma era lappy, but the ATI X300 graphics (that can play BF2 rather nicely) and really nice 1920×1200 screen made this worth salvaging. And I’m glad I repaired the LCD monitors first as they clued me in on what to expect with a screen changeout.

    I absolutely refuse to give up on broken tech as long as it is worth salvaging. Thinking about trying my skills on an old Thinkpad T60.

    And I feel the same way about appliances, vehicles, home improvement, etc. Give me a decent guide, a few tools, and I’ll try anything.

      • Corrado
      • 9 years ago

      Right on. I always say, whats the worst that happens? Its already broken.

      • bLaNG
      • 9 years ago

      Check out the assembly/disassembly videos you can find here before you start working with the T60:

      [url<]http://www.lenovoservicetraining.com/ion/[/url<] Helped me a great deal when replacing the cooling of my T61.

      • ImSpartacus
      • 9 years ago

      Dude, that’s awesome. For someone like you, I would totally go after an old Thinkpad. Good luck!

    • Aranarth
    • 9 years ago

    After repairing my nephew’s ds lite twice, I definitely feel for you.

    I first had to replace the entire case then we realized the ribbon cable that goes through the hinge was toast so we had to replace the top screen as well.

    Replacing the case was a pain as the plastic pieces were not perfect and some sanding was required.

    I would put this on the same level of difficulty as working on laptops with a couple extra PITA’s thrown in.

    • drfish
    • 9 years ago

    Reminds me of installing an [url=http://www.gameboy-advance.net/accessories/gba_afterburner_internal_light.htm<]Afterburner[/url<] in my GBA all those years ago. I loved that thing, too bad [url=https://techreport.com/forums/viewtopic.php?f=29&t=62414#p885210<]its death was so gruesome[/url<]...

    • Usacomp2k3
    • 9 years ago

    I’m in the middle of replacing the battery on my wife’s old Zune. Got the parts, cracked the case, then realized the battery leads are soldered to the board. Now waiting until I can get my hands on a solder gun with a finer tip than the 15 year old pistol-style gun I have now. Maybe I’ll just splice the cables instead. Hmm.

    That said, I don’t know that its a tough one on whether the repair is worth it or not. $32 for the battery to fix a $200 device is pretty good though.

    • bfar
    • 9 years ago

    The last repair job I did was for sticky buttons on a PS3 controller. Easy to take apart, not so easy to put back together.

    It struck me how poor the build quality is underneath the gloss.

    • kmieciu
    • 9 years ago

    Yeah big computers are much more fun to work with. I remember few funny things I did with computers. I once used a hammer and a chisel – to fit ATX mobo in old AT case. I used butter once to grease cpu fan – I had no other grease nearby and I was in a hurry. I used motor oil to grease cpu fan. I had to attach a big fanless radiator to ceramic pentium cpu and I had no mounting brackets, so sew it. Really, with a thread (through the fins, through the pins, through the fins, etc…). No thermal paste, even no glue to stick it – it worked fine, I even overclocked this cpu from 75 to 90 MHz so I could play quake 2 🙂 But the best stunt was to burn BIOS chips with old pentuim board. Boot the board with original BIOS, take out BIOS chip (with board still working !), put dead BIOS chip and lauch burning program. I did this several times resurecting old mobos with dead BIOSes 🙂

    • Jahooba
    • 9 years ago

    I’ve got two iPod Touch 2nd gens that need repairing, for what else – the buttons (the only moving parts on them!).

    Even though the prices for the 2nd gen components have fallen drastically, I’m still dragging my feet on the repair. I’ve seen the iFixit page and there are a million steps to follow to reach the buttons. You literally have to take apart the entire device, piece by piece, to get to the buttons, which are apparently at the ‘bottom’.

    I was looking through the iFixit pages out of curiosity, and you know what – they’re doing a pretty good job of documenting their repairs. I was really impressed. I’ve known about the site since I replaced the battery in my 2nd Gen iPod (the one with the click-wheel) about 4 years ago, but they’ve grown into all kinds of devices, some of them quite large. If you haven’t checked out the site in a while head over and take a gander.

    I also fixed two 46″ LCD TV’s with bad capacitors in them. I’m not even sure how much money I saved, but in a recession, desperate times call for desperate fixes. 🙂

    • SomeOtherGeek
    • 9 years ago

    Oh man. The good ol’ days are gone when things were so easy to work on. Now, it is either throw it away or hire a service man for an outrageous sum to get something fixed.

    Like you, I try to fix things on my own. I did replace a LCD for a monitor about 8 years ago before they became a dime a dozen. Was the hardest job I had to do. Solder this, break this little piece to get a screw out and cut a wire cuz the solder was under something that I could get my hands on. Took all day and lotsa cuts. Do it again, um, no… Wait, I don’t know, maybe.

    Great post tho and congrats in a job well done.

    • Buzzard44
    • 9 years ago

    I definitely feel ya. I often am called upon to help friends and family with computers, but if it turns out to be a hardware problem in a laptop, I refuse to lay a finger on it. If it’s anything other than RAM or HDD, I’ll end up just breaking the keyboard or something similar trying to disassemble.

    • Palek
    • 9 years ago

    A while back the battery in my iPod 5G started to lose power to the point where it would only last for about 2 hours of music playback. Instead of ditching it or paying Apple some exorbitant amount for a battery replacement, I decided to go the fix-it-yourself route. I bought a battery kit online, complete with tools and video manual, for about $40. The replacement process was about as much fun as pulling teeth. Cracking the case open with the supplied plastic opening tools took a really long time and I destroyed the tips of tools in the process. The operation was successful but I’m pretty sure it gave me some grey hairs.

    [url<]http://www.ifixit.com/Guide/Repair/Installing-iPod-5th-Generation-Video-Battery/603/1[/url<]

    • thanatos355
    • 9 years ago

    I can’t begin to tell you how many of these repairs I’ve had to do to my kids’ DS’s. We have four kids in the house, each of them have a DS, as do my gf and myself. Not only have I had to do that darn screen replacement several times, I’ve had to do the full housing replacement a number of times as well because of those *muttered curses* hinges. I swear that they intentionally designed them to break five minutes after a child under 12 gets their grubby little mitts on them.

      • UberGerbil
      • 9 years ago

      Children under 12 are designed to break [i<]everything[/i<] in 5 minutes or less.

        • SomeOtherGeek
        • 9 years ago

        …and if not, something is wrong with them!

    • codedivine
    • 9 years ago

    Unfortunately with the imminent death of the desktop, we are likely past the stage where we will be able to configure or upgrade or fix our systems easily. Instead we are entering the unfortunate era of disposable electronics where just 2-3 year old systems are increasingly ending up on the garbage pile.

      • UberGerbil
      • 9 years ago

      There’s something of an analogy here with cars (warning! Car analogy!) — cars from back in the 50s and 60s were relatively unsophisticated and the engine compartments were often so big you could just about climb in there with the engine to work. Since then, however, everything has got more sophisticated and far more tightly-packed. And of course electronic, so that some repairs are closer to updating the BIOS on your PC than anything mechanical. And consequently, they are far less friendly to backyard tinkering and shade-tree amateur mechanics. Of course they’e also generally more reliable (and safer and more efficient), too, so they need less of that attention anyway.

        • Palek
        • 9 years ago

        I managed to remove an old car stereo and install a new one in my dad’s car back in high school. Fast forward to present. I attempted to install an Electronic Toll unit in my own car, but I could not even [b<]begin[/b<] to crack open the dashboard...

        • axeman
        • 9 years ago

        Probably the best PC-car analogy you could hope for. I think it pretty much applies to everything though. Massive commercialism has made almost everything throw away, so there’s hardly a second thought to how easy something is to fix. On many vehicles even things that qualify as maintenance tasks can be incredibly complex and require special tools. But what does Ford or whoever care? More money for the stealership that way.

          • thanatos355
          • 9 years ago

          Yeah, tell me about it. I could completely rebuild the top end of my 78 Camaro in the same time it takes to change the plugs and wires on my 96 and without as many problems/hassles!

        • SomeOtherGeek
        • 9 years ago

        Which sucks, btw.

        • travbrad
        • 9 years ago

        The car analogy is true to some extent, but I wouldn’t say these ultra-portable devices are “more reliable” like cars. Just the opposite actually. I have had way more hardware failures on small/tightly packed mobile devices than on regular PCs.

        The efficiency thing is very true though. My 2004 full-size sedan is as fast as a 1970s Ferrari, and gets way better gas mileage while doing it. That sounds a lot like the direction CPUs have been heading lately.

      • Aspleme
      • 9 years ago

      Imminent death of the desktop? While I will be the first to admit that laptops, netbooks, and tablets are far more common and powerful than they used to be, they still can’t replace desktops. A desktop can do a lot more for a lot less money. If you want to see how far the desktop is from dying, just look at the sheer number of motherboards, PSUs, 3.5 hard drives, and PCI-e GPUs and other cards.

      Look at the new processors being released… yes, there are a lot of laptop processors, but there are also even more powerful desktop processors. And the people waiting for processors being released later this year; they aren’t waiting for laptop processors; they want 6 and 8 core desktop processors.

      No, desktops are going to be around for a long time still. Even the newest laptops can’t manage enough cooling or space to satisfy many of the gamers and media enthusiasts. When I see a laptop that can run the latest games at their best graphics with only its own fan without heating your hands up as you play, produce high quality sound without having to plug into speakers or headphones, boot with a SSD drive while still having 2+ terabytes space, run for 6 hours without needing to lower its capabilities, and NOT cost several hundred more than an equivalent desktop, then I will admit that the desktop’s day is done.

        • UberGerbil
        • 9 years ago

        Laptop sales passed desktop sales in late 2008, and desktop marketshare has continued to shrink. Laptops are going to start losing out to smartphones, but desktops aren’t going to benefit from that. Which is not to say that desktops are going to disappear, but they’re becoming less and less of the total pie. Yes, there are lot of desktop components being made, and yes there are things that only desktops can do. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t giving up ground to more portable options.

          • Damage
          • 9 years ago

          But… desktop sales are growing. The pie… is growing massively. This is not a zero-sum game.

    • kamikaziechameleon
    • 9 years ago

    Having worked on several laptops I agree with this article whole heartedly. Almost more trouble than they are worth.

    • Synchromesh
    • 9 years ago

    I hear ya. I had a somewhat similar experience working on a friend’s iPod Touch a while ago. Took 2 of us to replace the middle button. Was a big PITA with all the tiny screws and components. Still tweezers are a man’s best friend when working on stuff like this.

    On the other hand, I do like working on laptop and small desktops the size of Mac Mini. They’re just so insanely awesome when taken apart because of how tiny their components are that can still do many tasks of a big PC. After some pondering I even went mATX on my recent main PC build with a very small case. So I suppose small is still good but there is a limit after which it becomes annoying.

    • Blazex
    • 9 years ago

    top screen replacement is something I’ve needed to get around to for the past 2 years on my 2004 ds phat model, the pixels are slowly going on the top and bottom of the screen, at least it doesn’t require soldering though 🙂
    its just pull it open replace the cable and you’re done as far as I’ve read on a couple sources.

    • Corrado
    • 9 years ago

    I’ve had the same experience. Working on a PC makes you much more willing to work on other appliances. I fixed our dishwasher when it broke, installed a new garbage disposal when that broke, and replaced the switch on our large (20K BTU) wall AC when it broke. The wife thinks you’re a wizard because you didn’t have to call anyone, and in the end, all of those appliances are pretty simple. Motor, 2 power, 1 ground, drain, feed.

      • potatochobit
      • 9 years ago

      I wish the button on my A/C would break instead of the 2000$ compressor and evaporator

      • Bauxite
      • 9 years ago

      I agree, they are usually simple in design.

      However in many cases the hardest part is just getting to whatever needs to be replaced or repaired. It seems to apply equally with large stuff and handhelds.

      It might just be a simple wire or part that needs swapped out, but its the 5 hours and 50 bolts/screws/hinges/clips/whatever to get to it that are the issue. (and 10 hours to put it back together the same way…wait, why do I have screws left over?)

      Sometimes you are lucky and its under the first access port or maintenance cover, but the odd stuff that dies randomly and not from consumption or wear never seems to be easy to get to.

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