Opinions

Inside the Android Dream

I recently bought a used Android phone on eBay. I wanted Skype access when I wasn’t at my computer, and Android’s an attractive platform for a developer. My HTC Dream aka T-Mobile G1 immediately delighted me: the interface, the features, the slide-out keyboard, the Android Market were all better than I’d anticipated. I quickly became addicted to the Google Reader utility NewsRob, and was surprised to find I preferred reading books with Aldiko to chasing down their print counterparts.

But my G1 Dream was cosmetically challenged. Although the previous owner had passed it on with all its faculties intact, it had clearly gained some experience in the school of hard knocks. The housing was marked, the screen was chipped, the keyboard slider was floppy. And no-one likes a floppy slider. I resorted to eBay once again, and bought a full new housing kit – how difficult could this be?

My kitchen table workbenchRather more difficult than I thought.

The housing kit was touted as including “all the parts and tools necessary to replace the housing on your T-Mobile G1 or HTC Dream” and the listing had links to disassembly instructions on the internet. I quickly browsed these instructions, nodded knowingly and clicked the Buy Now button. “Quickly” and “browsed” were my undoing: had I “carefully considered” the instructions I’d have approached the task ahead with fear and trembling.

I’m not an experienced maintenance technician; my efforts to fix broken appliances fail as often as succeed. I didn’t even own a soldering iron or long-nosed pliers two days ago, and now this project’s completed I don’t know when I’ll next use either of them.

Despite this, on Friday evening I sat down to take my fully functional G1 Dream apart. The first steps weren’t overly tricky even though the kit didn’t contain the required Philips #0 and #1 screwdrivers. The difficulty began when I realised the on-line instructions didn’t cover disassembly to the level needed to replace the housing. The difficulty became critical when I discovered some key components weren’t included in the housing kit.

The eBay listing had noted that volume and camera buttons were not included in the kit. I’d debated this and decided my fashion sense wouldn’t be irretrievably compromised by having my old (brown) buttons in my new (black) housing. But when the kit arrived, one of the first things I discovered was a small zip-lock bag containing … the volume and camera buttons. Bonus! I thought. By mid Saturday morning I’d have willingly swapped all of that bonus for even some of the missing components.

The subframe assembly, separatedProblem the first. The G1 Dream case assembly screws into four small brass bushes which are sealed into the housing when it’s moulded: the replacement housing didn’t have these, so there was no way to screw the new case together.

Problem the second. The G1 Dream keyboard is a moulded three dimensional plastic shell with a thin steel subframe bonded to it: the replacement keyboard didn’t have the steel subframe.

Uh oh.

I immediately applied the lessons of a lifetime to these problems. I put the pieces of the phone down carefully on the table and went for a long walk.

I sought advice from the experts I thought most likely to be able to help: a national electronics retailer (“you what?”) and a watchmaker (closed). OK, not the ideal experts: in provincial New Zealand on a Saturday morning I wasn’t spoilt for choice. But propitiously my walk also took me to REL Computer Solutions, whose proprietor deserves my sincere thanks for knowing exactly what to do and being willing to share that knowledge. Better yet, his advice worked.

The existing bushes can be extracted by inserting a screw two or three turns into the bush and holding it with long-nosed pliers while applying a soldering iron to the top of the screw. When sufficiently heated the screw and attached bush can be smoothly withdrawn, and then inserted into the new housing with the same process. The amount of heat is critical, and so is the angle of insertion. I’m pleased to report I inserted three of the bushes 100% successfully. The fourth I didn’t insert quite far enough, which meant the top of the screw sat proud when (three layered subsystems later) I tried to reassemble that part of the case. I cheated: rather than disassemble the entire phone again, I filed one millimetre off the tip of the screw.

Clamps made from hairclipsThe bonded steel subframe can be separated from its plastic parent by inserting a craft knife or scalpel between the two parts. “Inserting” makes this sound like a quick and simple process; in fact it’s a painstakingly repetitive task which for long periods appears to achieve nothing. Any distortion of the subframe has to be avoided at all costs (tolerances are less than a millimetre) and the shape of the part provides limited access at only some edges: it took an hour of slow work to separate the two. After cleaning the steel subframe with turpentine (thanks to Richard for that idea), I was able to glue it to the new keyboard shell. I had no clamps to hold the two together while the glue set, but found that a couple of butterfly hairclips worked adequately.

Overall, migrating the G1 Dream to a new housing was a long and fiddly process, and along the way I came to rue my decision to take on the challenge. Among its other signal ommissions the housing kit contained no gaskets, adhesive tabs or rubber shims. Some of these couldn’t be salvaged from the original installation and for some, such as the touchscreen gasket, I was unable to devise an alternative. Worse, the quality of the housing kit was inferior to the original. It’s mostly a softer plastic which will mark more quickly; the camera lens cover is a milky plastic rather than the clear glass of the original. With no touchscreen gasket or camera lens cover (how could I?) the phone internals are now exposed to dust they’d previously been spared.

My HTC Dream / Android G1, reassembled>Although I didn’t expect the re-assembled phone to work, it did so immediately with only one error: the menu button didn’t function. Taking the phone’s “chin” apart again, I found that the flexible connector wasn’t properly seated because of a small distortion in the plastic moulding. A few minutes with an emery board sorted that out. Having done that, all systems pass testing. The rebuilt phone certainly looks more attractive than it did, and the keyboard slider is firmer. However, in a regrettable oversight I neglected to clean the inside of the touchscreen before reassembly: the screen looks fine in use, but dirty on standby. Sigh …

Would I do this again? Yes. But first I’d want to find a replacement housing of a higher quality; one with a glass lens cover, touchscreen gasket, assembly bushes and steel keyboard subframe. Good looks are nice, but functionality and robustness are more important. It was the G1 Dream’s functionality that attracted me to it in the first place, and I don’t really want a phone I have to mollycoddle.