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Reviewing lessons from giants' flop modules

Posted: 10 Sep 2008 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:iPhone? USB? LCD? software design?

Apple Inc. and Microsoft Corp. spent unspecified millions in the design, development and introduction of the iPod, iPhone and Zune, but less attention was given by them to the basics such as component placement, sealing, USB protection and connector quality. These, along with batteries and LCDs, when only looked into more closely may have drastically cut the companies' product failures. This was according to mobile device service and repair specialist Rapid Repair Unltd Inc.

"The daily experiences of the five-year-old company offer many lessons for any designer of a mobile system. While the potential failure modes are many, a full 50 percent of failures it encounters are related to the LCD and battery," said Aaron Vronko, service manager, Rapid Repair. "While the use of glass minimizes the scratching problem of plastic LCD screens, it tends to break more easily, although laminated glass helps," he added. "As for batteries, the use of Li-ion and Li-polymer leads to leakages, although polymer batteries are more stable. Users should beware for we have seen more failures from after-market replacement batteries than the original that came with the device," stressed Vronko.

Prevailing issues
The LCD and battery issues associated with these and other mobile devices are well documented. The others that are not so documented are the other very avoidable wear-and-tear failure modes within the device that serve to undermine the otherwise excellent hardware and software design investment they represent.

Take the pressure required to activate the front-panel buttons. For the early iPods, the audio processor was positioned right behind the click wheel and because it had no ceramic sealing, the pressure of the wheel caused it to fail. "You have to make sure anything under the pressure pad can take the pressure," said Vronko.

This holds true with connectors. The headphone-jack's anchor point has failed over time on iPods, added Vronko, while the zero insertion force (ZIF) sockets for LCDs and other interfaces clamp down too hard on the cable causing them to fail. While this ZIF problem appeared in the first year with fourth-generation iPods, it was fixed. However, after two years of fifth-generation iPods, Vronko is now seeing the same problem recurring.

On the iPod, Rapid Repair has seen many USB power modules fail due to inadequate protection, rendering the complete device useless without a module replacement. Other failure modes include blown main boards to poorly designed after-market car chargers, liquid intrusion and hard-drive failures due to shock dropping.

Components' weakness
On the Zune, Vronko said: "The dock connector is just not strong enough: the plastic support breaks and the pins get mashed."

Finally, on the iconic iPhone, the dock-to-main board connector tends to come unplugged. It's located right behind the battery compartment and because the enclosure design is so tamper proof, users can't get access without damaging the device. "It costs them $50 for us to just open it up and put it back in," he added.

The headphone jack on the iPhone has a more interesting problem. "The component that detects whether or not a jack is connected to the iPhone is prone to failure," said Vronko. As a result, the external speaker, which is supposed to shut off when a jack is inserted, instead shuts off with nothing inserted.

While Vronko disapproved of the original iPhone's overall design, especially the idea of putting the LCD, touchscreen and drive electronics on one module, he likes the 3G iPhone's accessible approach. "It's much better design and is more easily serviceable," he stressed.

Friendly reminders
Overall, Vronko said designers need to pay more attention to such things as connectors, although he acknowledges that those are often chosen by the contract manufacturer, which in Apple's case is Foxconn Technology Group. Other design improvements he suggested include recessed LCDs (despite the added thickness) and more display and hard-drive protection.

With solid-state drives becoming more popular, with twice the storage for half the price, Vronko viewed hard-drives being around for another five years. "The new Zune was recently out and has 120Gbytes. It'll be the largest single-platter hard drive yet in a consumer device," said Vronko. "The Apple has 160Gbytes, but it is dual platter."

- Patrick Mannion
EE Times

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