A Humbling Learning Experience

I recently blogged about the new Mac mini Core Duo that we purchased on Saturday, March 18. Well, up until now, I haven’t really given you the whole truth. I wanted to wait until the story had ended in a way that I found satisfactory before I told the whole thing. Kind of selfish of me, I know, but hey… it’s our blog and we’ll write how we want to. Anyway, it’s pretty embarassing and humbling, but I need to get it out there for everyone to hear:

I broke our brand new Mac. Yes, only four days after purchasing our brand-new, $799 Mac mini Core Duo, I broke it.

On Wednesday, March 22, I received a shipment from OWC: Two one gigabyte RAM chips, so that I could upgrade the mini from 512 megs of RAM to 2 gigabytes of RAM; and one miniStack external FireWire/USB hard drive enclosure, so that I could add additional storage and extra USB and FireWire ports.

The miniStack is easy to install – just plug in the power and plug it in to the mini via FireWire and USB cables, and you’re done.

The RAM is another story. The Mac mini doesn’t contain any ‘user serviceable’ parts. That means you are supposed to take it to an Apple Authorized Service Center for any repairs or upgrades, and that includes RAM. Also, if you take the mini in for warranty service, and they determine that the problem was caused due to an upgrade that you performed, they can deny you service. Being the (electronically) adventurous sort, and having previously disassembled our PowerBook to fix its AC/Sound board, I felt comfortable undertaking the repairs and taking on the risks of voiding the warranty.

I had read up on the procedure for replacing RAM in the mini (well documented around the web), and had even watched an excellent instructional video provided by OWC. The key to opening the mini is to have a thin metal tool that can slide into the space between the outside case and the chassis. Essentially, you slide in the tool, apply some pressure, and the clips holding the chassis onto the case will come unhooked. The recommended tool is a 1.5″ putty knife, the edge of which should be sanded down with 150-grit sandpaper.

Well, we don’t have any putty knives at home, and we didn’t have the second-most-recommended tool, a pizza cutter. So on the day the mini was to arrive, I went to Home Depot to buy putty knives. Trouble was, I couldn’t find any metal ones. In retrospect, I’m sure they were available, but I was in a hurry. I did find plastic putty knives, and so I bought two of them, hoping that the plastic would work just as well.

It didn’t. Later that night, when I started working on the case, I found that the plastic was far too malleable and flexible to effectively open the case. The simple act of inserting the knife into the case caused the knife itself to compress, and the effectiveness was lost. Obviously, this is why a metal knife was recommended. Unfortunately, we didn’t have anything around the house that was thin enough and metal enough to do the job. Except… I do have this Leatherman Squirt which does have a very thin, very sharp, very narrow folding blade. It was definitely not the best choice, but at this point, I was getting pretty frustrated, so I went for it.

The knife actually worked fairly well, all things considered. I don’t recommend it for anyone else, but it was actually able to jimmy open the case. Unfortunately, I cut myself several times in the process of opening the case, since the blade kept folding back up. Everything was looking just great, until I came around to the front of the case. I slid the blade down, and in a moment of exhaustion and tension, it slid down too far, with a sickening crack.

I froze. I looked around. I couldn’t see what had broken, but I feared that something critical had been damaged. I gingerly lifted the chassis out of the case, since at that point all of the clips had been released. As soon as I did, a small bit of plastic tumbled out. I couldn’t tell what it was at first – it had four small metal leads, which apparently were what I cut through, and a bit of shiny black plastic on the front. I set it aside for a moment and tried to gather my thoughts. I had obviously just broken off something from the case. But what? Worried, I plugged the mini back in to the power, monitor, and keyboard immediately, without putting the case back on. The system booted up with no problems. There were no video or sound problems. I could get on the wireless network just fine. The computer didn’t blow up or overheat or anything. Everything was working normally. So what the heck did I break?

Then a thought occured to me. I looked at the shiny black piece again, and held it up to the case. I looked around for a missing space, anything that could have been removed. And then, I spotted it: the tiny circuit board just to the right of the optical drive, where the infrared receiver is housed. I had chopped off the IR sensor on the front of the assembly. This effectively rendered one of the coolest features of the new Mac mini useless: Front Row. Front Row is a multimedia application that can only be launched via the infrared remote control that comes with the mini (and also comes with the new Intel iMacs and MacBook Pros). It lets you control your music, movies, photos, and DVDs from across the room, all in a sleek, animated, full-screen graphical interface.

Admittedly, Front Row isn’t a critical application. It’s not even all that useful if you’re just sitting in front of the computer, which is how I use it most of the time. But for those occasions when we just want to control our music from across the room, or if in the future we want to integrate the mini as part of our entertainment center (as many people do), it would be really nice to have. And hey, it’s part of the product that I paid for, so I ought to be able to use it. I’m not saying that I’m entitled to have Apple fix it for me, since it was my own stupid self who made a bad decision on which tools to use, was clumsy, and broke off the IR receiver. I’m just saying that I feel obligated to get it working again.

There were several options that came to mind:

  • Attempt to reattach the receiver to the board.
  • Purchase and install a complete replacement part (receiver, board, cable, etc).
  • Purchase a third-party infrared receiver and remote.

The first one I attempted a few nights ago. I opened the case up once again (this time with a pizza cutter we had just purchased – MUCH easier!) and located the IR board. I initially considered attempting to solder the board back on, but considering that my experience with soldering is next to nil, and the leads were so tiny, I didn’t want to risk it (though at that point the IR receiver couldn’t have gotten much worse). Instead, I tried taping the receiver back on with clear mailing tape. This offered a small measure of success… but unfortunately, it required constant jimmying to get the tape into the right position so that the receiver would make contact, and I couldn’t figure out how to put everything back together with the tape in place. So I ditched that idea.

I moved on to the second idea, which was to try to find a replacement part. I contacted a few parts stores I have worked with in the past:

  • Pre-Owned Electronics – I’ve used them in the past to get parts, in particular the part for the aforementioned PowerBook AC/Sound board replacement.
  • PowerBook Medic – I’ve also used them in the past to buy a battery charger for the Pismo, as well as a full take-apart manual for the PowerBook Pismo.

I also contacted some places I haven’t worked with, who I found via Google:

Ed Ajlouny of Mac Pro responded first, saying that Mac Pro did not carry that part yet. Bradley of PowerBook Medic responded next, saying that they should be able to order the part if I have the serial number for the unit. I gave him the mini’s serial number, but he later replied that it looked like this was a part they couldn’t order separately. Dismayed, I started looking around for some additional places to contact.

That’s when I found MicroDoc. I emailed them this past Monday, and got a response back from John. He asked, understandably, if my mini didn’t already come with this part. Additionally, he noted that they should be able to get me the part for about $49. I wrote back, explaining my clumsy mistake. John responded again with a photo of the part, and it was indeed exactly what I was looking for! So I went ahead and gave him a call to order the part. It should be here by this Saturday, at which point I’ll perform surgery on the mini. Incidentally, this Saturday marks the 30th anniversary of the founding of Apple Computer. How appropriate that I’ll be delving deep into a Mac to mark the occasion.

This time, I’ll be taking some additional precautions:

  • Doing the work on the dining room table with plenty of space and bright light.
  • Using the pizza cutter instead of the pocket knife or plastic putty knives.
  • Making sure I am relaxed and well-nourished before starting work.
  • Taking it niiiiice and slow.
  • Documenting things on paper, photograph, video, or any combination of the three.
  • Working on a static-free surface with anti-static wrist strap (just in case!!).

Hopefully I’ll be able to disassemble everything, remove the existing IR cable and board, install the new one, get it properly re-routed, and have working infrared once again! Here’s hoping!

Update, April 6

Well, John at MicroDoc forgot to order the part when he originally said he would. I guess I can’t be too disappointed about it, since he didn’t charge me until the part was shipped, and since I didn’t go through a storefront of any kind, there was no formal agreement between us. In any case, he did manage to ship the part out earlier this week, and it is scheduled to arrive this afternoon. So, hopefully tonight I will be doing the replacement!

Update, April 7

I performed the surgery last night with no major complications. My biggest problem is working with the tiny little screws that hold the case together… it always takes me several tries to get them to line up just right. Once the screws were out and the case was open, actually removing the bad part and installing the good one was pretty easy. Everything went back together nice and clean, I booted the machine up, and presto! The remote control works once again.

I videotaped the whole process, and I am planning on putting together a movie this weekend for those who are interested in seeing just how it works!

Update, April 8

Here’s the movie (35’26”, 53.42 MB, QuickTime format)

10 thoughts on “A Humbling Learning Experience

  1. jennifair

    I’m glad you were able to fix it! What a story! It sounds like something I would do, were I more of a tech person. πŸ™‚

    Hope some of the pictures turned out all right from the shower – I tried my best, but not being as up on the whole digital camera thing, I fear they may not be great. But I tried!

    Reply
  2. Mom

    Your father just put a hole in our new kitchen floor while he was replacing the cupboard doors after being painted. It happens to the best…! Mom

    Reply
  3. Ken F

    Becky, Do NOT!! I REPEAT, DO NOT LET PETER NEAR THE BABY WITH DIAPER PINS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Just think how long “that” video will be if he messes up and tries to fix that!!! Ken

    Reply
  4. Angela

    Jeremy was all excited this morning, telling me you had bought a new computer. I was like, yeah, old news, that happened weeks ago. Then he said something about your BREAKING it, and I yelled “He WHAT?” and ran to the computer. I’m glad it turned out okay, and for a minimal additional investment!

    Reply
  5. The Cameron's

    Hi, this is Amanda, Kirk’s wife. He doesn’t deal withour website as much as I do. I actually have met you Peter! πŸ™‚ I was also a student of your dad’s. He’s a great teacher! I’m happy that you left your website, it’s nice to keep up on friends that you haven’t heard from in awhile! Feel free to check our site every now and then! Congratulations on the pregnancy! I’m sure you are counting the days! It will go faster than you think!

    Reply
  6. Pingback: World Wide Wood » Blog Archive » Drama King

  7. Ken F

    Well, actually, they did have another brother,(farnham1.0), but I don’t want to go into that!!! We went disposable (diapers that is, of course we could’ve tried it with kids too) after that one! πŸ™‚

    Reply

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