Tuesday, July 31, 2012

User Serviceable Parts Inside

Don't open that! Here there be monsters!

Why do some hackers and hobbyists get their panties in a twist over the phrase, 'no user serviceable parts inside'? What's the big deal?

For many that tinker a lot (like me), there's a mindset about fixing something instead of replacing it when it breaks. Just the thought of tossing out a perfectly good piece of consumer electronics for a minor problem annoys me. People used to fix their appliances all the time, or have them fixed at a local repair shop. This is less and less of an option in our modern world. The costs for electronics is so low, it is often easier to buy new rather than repair. Few repair shops even exist, though there are some options if you really want.

We are discouraged from trying to repair our own electronics. "Your warranty may be voided." "It will be $170 to repair, or for just $40 more, you can buy an upgraded model."

A recent example

I just went through the experience of repairing a car stereo. The display back light was not working; since the only clock in the car is on the stereo, this was especially annoying. Also, the CD player had an appetite for chewing up CDs. 

To be honest, I first tried to replace the radio. I searched for an inexpensive option on craigslist, and found a likely candidate for just $15. Well, at least I would be re-using, rather than buying new. However, when I got the new-to-me stereo home, I found the tuner didn't work. However, it turned out this stereo was the same brand as my own (Sony), and the insides were pretty similar. In fact, the CD player module had the same model number internally. I figured I'd get some value back on my $15 and swapped the CD player out. 

As long as I had the stereo partially disassembled, I decided to try to fix the back light. I figured it would be a simple LED or two. As it turned out, it actually used two little neon lamps. I was able to track down a place to order them. It more than I wanted to spend; the shipping alone was more than the cost of the part. Nevertheless, I decided to go for it.

Don't be afraid, there are no monsters in there.
When the part arrived a week later, I opened up the stereo again. Each time I had to open it, there were many screws, clips and things to remove. I got to be pretty familiar with getting to the guts of this device. Finally ready, I set up my soldering station, and opened the bag with my new neon lamps. 

What I found was that my "new" parts were in pretty bad shape. The leads of the little lamp appeared a bit rusty. As I held the tiny green lamp, it actually fell apart in my hands. The glass bulb underneath the green cover was cracked. It was dead on arrival. 

So... I contacted the supply house I had bought the lamp from. After some discussion, they agreed to refund my money, and placed a new order for me. Another week of waiting. Another chance to practice putting the stereo back together.

When the new lamp arrived, guess what? It was exactly like the last one. Leads rusted and glass broken. I'll be contacting the seller shortly for a refund. However, I was able to repair my back light after all.

I poked around with my multimeter and figured out how the lamps were powered. The two lamps were wired in series, so if either lamp burnt out, the light would not work. I replaced them with two LEDs and a current limiting resistor. 

In fact, as long as I was repairing and re-engineering, I figured I might as well customize. A red back light would look much cooler with the rest of the things in my car's dashboard. So I installed two tiny bright red LEDs in place of the green neon lamps.

So what's the point of all this?

What did I gain from all of this? I spent some money and lots of time. What do I have to show for it? Was it worth it?

Here's why I do this sort of thing.
  1. I consumed less, by extending the life of a product.
  2. I recycled, by using parts from another used product.
  3. I saved money, by avoiding buying a brand new product.
  4. I customized, getting exactly what I wanted, instead of what someone wanted to sell me.
  5. I gained experience, so next time I'll feel even more confident about repairing something.

Was it worth it? Hell yes, I'd do it again. 


  1. I'm so glad you posted this. This is one of my biggest issues with the direction that technology is going. Things like iPod and iPad batteries and the new techniques of microwave soldering are making it more and more difficult to repair consumer electronics. The unfortunate truth is that companies don't want you to fix the devices that they sell and they will do everything in their power to stop you from doing so. Then again its just good business.

  2. Thanks, Gunther. I agree that it becomes harder and harder to work on consumer electronics. The same has happened with the automotive industry. It is much harder to be an amateur mechanic with today's cars.
    Hopefully the maker movement will encourage people to take off the cover and tinker, despite the obstacles put in place by today's manufacturing practices.