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The march of the black boxes

darth vader by Flickr user trustypics
Used on a CC license by Flickr user trustypics

This post was originally published in Electronics Weekly in our new series called Unscrewed.

No doubt about it, tablets and mobiles are getting thinner and harder to open. More parts are glued, fused and soldered together, all in the pursuit of these sleek sealed gadgets.

We’re reminded of an anecdote about the late Steve Jobs, who supposedly took a poor engineer’s prototype of the first iPod, walked to the aquarium, and dropped it in. Air bubbles floated to the surface, and Jobs said “make it smaller”.

This obsession with sleek, thin, sealed black boxes has spread well beyond Apple, and well beyond handheld data-enabled devices.

Recently we’ve started to wonder: are we facing a whole new generation of electronics which even we cannot save during our three hour, fun and free community events? At an October event, we looked at an Acer mini projector which we were able to get into, but the components were so tightly assembled and packed together that we did not have a chance at fixing it within the time we had.

At another recent Restart Party, a participant brought a Powerbee solar charger that had clearly been designed to look like an iPod or an iPhone. The consequence was, we had a hell of a time trying to open it without breaking it. It would have taken us ages to get into, just to check the battery and the connections inside. Moreover, it is criminal that a solar device, designed for green consumers, has been designed to be discarded when the battery fails.

Tellingly, there was NO documentation for either device on the internet, neither from the manufacturers (that would be miraculous) nor from civic-minded consumers.

For the Acer mini projector there numerous admiring “unboxing” videos, but we could not find a single disassembly video.

Is it possible that we are facing a tidal wave of cheap “black box” devices and peripherals which even the hive mind cannot be bothered to help save? Have designers shut us out of small electronics for good, just to gain another 2 millimeters?

This is actually our nightmare at The Restart Project, as until now, during our three hour events, we are able to open and save most everything but some mobiles and stubborn iPods.

We implore manufacturers, if you are going to seal up everything, at least provide disassembly instructions – and if you are making something “green” or making a solar device and do not provide these instructions, you are hypocrites. Pure and simple.

And we implore civic-minded geeks, when you open and save these devices, please document the disassembly and repairs. Blog about them, post on bulletin boards, put videos on Youtube, contribute to iFixit.

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