Wednesday, April 21, 2010

iPhone Surgery

The recent scoop about the (possible) lost-and-found 4th-gen iPhone prototype has me thinking that, come June/July, it might be time for an upgrade. I was, through the great beneficence of Hilary's grandfather, able to be an early adopter and bought a first-generation iPhone when it came out. That phone, minus some glitches, has served me well for the last three years. Still, it does feel a bit sluggish in loading and using apps compared to Hilary's more recent 3GS model, and it would be nice to have that faster connectivity. If the rumors about it using the A4 processor are true, it should be a screamer indeed.

Still, I've got a couple months ahead of me where I shall continue to depend on the phone I've got. Like I said, it has served me well for a bunch of years now. I did have this one weird glitch last year where, for whatever reason, it stopped recognizing when I had the headset plugged in. This is kinda important for the iPhone, because when the headset is plugged in, sound gets piped to that headphone jack, not the built-in speaker, and the phone gets its voice input from the headset mic, not the built-in one. It was an inconsistent glitch, but it meant that I couldn't properly use it as a phone, and sometimes the music wouldn't play in the headphones, so it was a problem. I purchased a replacement headphone jack assembly (which also includes the vibe motor, power switch, silent switch, and volume up/down switches in one wicked rigid-flex assembly) from the ever-reliable iFixIt.com, perused their step-by-step guide on how to change it, and was all set to attempt the repair myself. But I got busy, and after a week or two it resolved itself. So I set aside the replacement part and mostly forgot about it.

That is, at least, until Tuesday afternoon, when the same problem cropped up. This time I was determined to fix the problem and get on with things. So after Brynna went to bed that night, I laid out my tools and a cuppa on the dining room table and set to work.


Those who are interested can read online about how to break into an iPhone, which was not really meant to be opened by mere mortals. It's not quite for the faint of heart, but with patience and a little delicacy, I'd say most people can do it. Most people who aren't too fussed about putting a few dings into that immaculate case, that is. Being 2.5+ years old, it was already well outside of warranty, and had some battle scars from wide travels, so in I went.

It took about 40 minutes to get the black plastic antenna cover off, and perhaps another hour to get the aluminum back case off. I bent the edge of the case a bit in the process, but being metal I was able to bend it back right again (more or less). After that it was a straightforward task of removing a half dozen tiny screws and extracting the old headphone jack assembly. Putting it back together with the new assembly only took about 15 minutes.

Feeling pretty pleased with myself, I tested it out.

Nope. Not fixed.

Not any more broken, mind you. I hadn't made things worse, I just hadn't made them better.

By this point it was after midnight, so I decided to call it quits for the night and hope for the best. The following morning, however, proved that I had succeeded last night in doing just one thing: making the inconsistent glitch perfectly and totally consistent. The iPhone, for its own inscrutable reasons, had things backwards: when I plugged the headset in, it believed it was unplugged; when unplugged, it thought it was there. As a result, when Mark called me in the afternoon, we couldn't hear each other at first because my phone believed that the headset mic was connected, when I was speaking into the built-in mic. We were able to talk to each other a few minutes later, but that required me to hold the phone to my ear normally, but have the headset dangling off the back. I guess I could live with that situation for a few months until the next iPhone comes out, but it would have been pretty annoying.

A little more poking around on the internet illuminated a possible culprit: lint. The headphone jack has a number of small, springy electrical contacts (left ear, right ear, mic, ground), and additional contacts that tell the iPhone when the headset is plugged in. These contacts are so small (half a millimeter, perhaps) that a piece of lint or other debris can prevent the contact from being made. People have tried compressed air, tiny screwdrivers, and alcohol swabbing to fix the problem with mixed success. I also noticed a post that indicated that the replacement part I had installed on Tuesday was actually a slightly newer version of the part I had replaced, a version incompatible with my early-build first-gen iPhone.

But, I also did find this post by a guy who seemed to have a decent grasp of the problem and offered a solution. It required not only cracking into the iPhone again, but actually doing a little exploratory surgery on the headphone jack itself to properly clean the innermost contact, the one that tells the phone when the headset is plugged in.

So Wednesday night I performed the fix for a second time. I did the aforementioned cleaning on the headphone jack assembly I had taken out the night before. I then opened up the iPhone once again. Partly because it had already been broken into, and partly because I was feeling a bit more confident and familiar, it took me all of ten minutes to remove the covers this time. Before making the swap, I plugged the newly cleaned and freely-dangling headphone jack assembly into the exposed guts of my phone to test things out. Sure enough, the problem was fixed. After that it was just the mechanics of swapping out the new headphone jack assembly with the phone's original one and closing things back up again. In and out in less than an hour.

I figure I've renewed my geek cred for at least the next month.

And hey, it's Earth Day, so let's all celebrate by repairing more things instead of replacing!

2 comments:

Beth said...

Love it!

Nice haircut, too!

Brian said...

One would think your day job was sufficient to ensure proper geek credentialing.
Nice work though.