Commack, NY Apple and Microsoft spent untold millions in the design, development and introduction of the iPod/iPhone and Zune, respectively, but a bit more attention to the basics such as component placement, sealing, USB protection and connector quality, along with batteries and LCDs, could have drastically cut their product failures, this according to mobile device service and repair specialists Rapid Repair.
The day-to-day experiences of the five-year-old company provide 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 tied to the LCD and battery, said Aaron Vronko, the company's service manager. While the use of glass eliminates the scratching problem of plastic LCD screens, they tend to break more easily, though laminated glass helps, said Vronko. As for batteries, the use of lithium ion and lithium polymer leads to leakages, though polymer batteries are more stable. Users beware, however: "We see more failures from after-market replacement batteries [than the originals that came with the device]," said Vronko.
The LCD and battery issues associated with these and other mobile devices are well documented. Less-well 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 it [the pressure]," said Vronko.
So too with connectors. The headphone-jack's anchor point has failed over time on iPods, said Vronko, while the 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 occurring.
Also on the iPod, Rapid Repair has seen many USB power modules fail due to inadequate protection, thereby 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).
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," said Vronko.
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 more accessible approach. "It's much better design: more easily serviceable."
Overall, Vronko advises designers to pay more attention to such things as connectors, though he acknowledges that those are often chosen by the contract manufacturer, which in Apple's case is Foxconn. Other design improvements he suggests include recessed LCDs (despite the added thickness) and more display and hard-drive protection.
Though solid-state drives are becoming more popular, with twice the storage for half the price, Vronko sees hard-drives being around for another five years at least. "The next Zune, due out on the 9th. (of September), will have 120 Gbytes. It'll be the largest single-platter hard drive yet in a consumer device," said Vronko. "The Apple has 160 Gbytes, but it's dual platter."