This was a Magic Prerelease weekend. Even though I no longer spend a ton of time behind the counter, I was at the store all weekend, and it was full of people. I came home exhausted and sick of smiling and being switched-on socially, so I decided to fix some electronics. We’ll start off with an easy one: A Pokemon battery replacement.

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We used to do these by prying the battery off of the tabs, then electrical-taping a new battery in place, counting on the tight fit to maintain electrical contact. Since I set up my workshop at home, I’ve found that I enjoy doing it properly. This is probably not worth my time, but I feel better about it after.

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Are lithium cells still susceptible to overheating and exploding when they’re fully discharged? I have no idea. Let’s not find out, okay? Heat up the contacts until the solder flows, then lift the battery off, one side at a time.

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Remove the excess solder using a desoldering braid (unless you’re a slob) and solder the tabs onto the contacts. You can get the correct tabbed coin cells from digi-key, but you’ll have to bend the tabs slightly to account for the cell sitting on top of a chip instead of flush with the board.

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I put it back together, plugged it into my GBA SP, and… no dice. Disassembling the game again and inspecting it, I found no signs of damage or extra solder joints. I scrubbed the contacts down with alcohol and a Q-tip…

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Reassembled the game, and…

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Ta-da! Okay, easy win. Next up is a GBA SP that my lackey indicates has trouble charging. He says that the system charges, but stops charging when you wiggle the cable.

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Also pictured is my new $6 set of tri-wing drivers. Yeah, I’m kind of a big deal. I remove the battery door, and…

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Ew. That is just REALLY not a great sign for lithium batteries. I know that my ultimate problem is likely to be a cold solder joint where the charge connector sits on the board, but I’m not going to proceed with the battery in this sorry shape. I placed an order for a $2 (including shipping!) battery from Hong Kong, and put the project into a bag with a note stating that it’s waiting for the battery.

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Next up is a Nintendo DSi system that we bought today. My lackey sheepishly told me that he found a problem after the customer was gone. Demonstrating, he powered the system on, then tapped it lightly against the counter, whereupon the power cut off. Now that I’ve gotten it home, I can’t get it to power on or charge at all.

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I don’t think the lackey can really be blamed here, since it’s not like we’re going to give every piece of electronics a thump test before accepting it. I cleaned the battery and tested, finding that the problem persisted. I removed the battery cover and battery, then nine screws holding the housing together. The housing lifted off easily, but I could see two connectors running from it to the motherboard. Popping those loose, the case came free.

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Now, I’m absolutely an amateur at this stuff, but it seems to me that this sort of problem is most likely to be at the place where components connect together, since surface-mounted components on a solid-state board with no moving parts are usually pretty boringly reliable. Poking around, it appeared that the battery terminals were on a daughterboard connected to the motherboard by a ribbon cable and power line. Hey, neat! That board also has the directional buttons and the power button.

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I disconnected the daughterboard and took a good look at it. It appeared that all of the power for the whole system originated in those three connections going to the battery terminals, and the two connections going to the motherboard. All five solder joints looked pretty tired. I wondered if one of them had gone cold. I thought about checking continuity, but decided instead that it would be easier to just replace the joints on all five connections. The way I looked at it, this was as far as I was willing to go for a system that is worth about $55. If this wasn’t the problem, that would mean that there was some other failure on one of the boards, and that falls beyond my current skill level.

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I don’t have shots of the re-soldering because some combination of hurry, fatigue, alcohol, and dealing with a small board caused me to shorten the black wire a little bit. The solution may or may not have involved the tiniest bodge wire I’ve ever been guilty of applying. I finished the repair and put everything back together.

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Hey, it’s charging! My elation was short-lived, because when I powered it on, the screen powered up and then immediately went black. While I pondered this, I remembered that, when a Playstation Portable has a completely dead battery, it won’t boot up without having a few minutes to charge. I guess it requires more amperage on startup than the charger alone can provide. I spent a few minutes cleaning up, then came back to the DSi and tried again.

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Success! What’s more, no amount of thumping it around seems to cause it any sort of problem. That’s one for the win column!

My final bit of work tonight was a controller that didn’t have a note, but did have very sticky, unresponsive buttons.

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Opening it up and getting it apart, I found sticky residue all over everything.

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Every bit of this controller was covered in grit. I wonder what sort of stories it would tell if it could speak? Most likely it would say something like, “Please kill me. Every moment that I exist is a brutal agony.” Well, not today, little guy! I completely disassembled the controller and cleaned everything with a damp towel.



While re-assembling the controller, I noticed that one of the battery terminals is sitting a little derpy. Can you see it?

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The cold solder joint strikes again: This controller was working only because the spring and solder were pressed up against the contact on the board. Indeed, as soon as I touched the wire, the whole thing fell out. I removed the old, crappy solder with braid, then put the spring back into place and soldered it back in. It took a little extra flux to get the solder to flow onto the wire, but you can see the shiny new connection on the right here:

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Good to go. By the way, I’ve instructed my employees to stop putting the big price labels on controllers and handhelds. They’re tough to remove, which isn’t a problem for DVD-cased games, but becomes really irritating when you want to clean off a controller for use. We actually got a one-star review for this stuff. I suppose it’s warranted. Kinda.

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We only sell these controllers for $26, we buy them for between $8 and $11, and we currently have 15 of them in stock. Was this really worth my time? Probably not, assuming I would have been doing anything productive at the time otherwise. But hey, I find the activity soothing, and there’s at least a marginal benefit to my business, so I’ll keep doing it.

Scrub them toilets, boss.

There came a point a couple of years ago where I could afford to pay a lackey to work for every hour that the store was open. Then we grew to the point where we always had two lackeys working, and sometimes three or even four. This freed me from the tyranny of the need to be behind the counter to keep the store open, and changed my entire job.

December was bananas for my store. We beat our best month ever by about 30%. I’m happy to have the money to pay some bills, but the wear on the staff and the store is easy to see, so I’m glad that the crush of traffic is slowing down a little. With school back in session, we’ve got our mornings and early afternoons back for doing all the administrative crap that keeps this place from falling apart. These are responsibilities that are secondary to ringing up customers and putting new inventory onto the shelf from trade: deep-cleaning, doing inventory, sorting cards, and price-updating. I’ve been trying to spend a couple of hours every morning helping my lackeys catch up.


This morning, after paying payroll taxes and settling up with the state on December’s hefty Sales Tax collection, I grabbed my laptop and went out into the store to inventory our Xbox One and Xbox 360 sections. I set up a standing-height folding table with my laptop, set it up to do an “hot inventory” of the two categories (allowing customers to shop a section that is being inventoried), plugged in a barcode reader, and started grabbing handfuls of games from the shelf to scan into the system. Then it occurred to me that it would be much faster to just scan games directly on the shelf. I grabbed a USB extension cable from the PS3 section to give my reader more range, and started scanning.

My Executive Lackey saw me doing it this way, and commented that it made much more sense than the way we’d traditionally done it, which involved toting armfuls of games across the store to a computer to be counted. I agreed, and was quite proud of myself, until I looked back at the laptop to realize that about 75 games ago I’d scanned a barcode which for some reason had failed to result in a database hit. This had caused the system to stop clearing the input field, meaning that I had a several-hundred-character-long string of numbers which meant absolutely nothing. I figured out where I was supposed to be and started scanning again. As I moved across the wall, I had to scoot, scoot, scoot the table across my waxed floor. At one point I got in a hurry  and tripped over my USB cable, nearly yanking my laptop off of the table.

Several good things happened as a result of this adventure:

  • My employee saw a better way of doing something, born of a fresh perspective from someone who hadn’t done it in a while.
  • I realized that we needed a rolling utility cart if we were going to do inventory this way. The cart can also double as a Clearance Table when we need one of those.
  • I realized that we could also use a wireless barcode reader.
  • I realized that the inventory screen needs the option to play a sound announcing the result of a barcode scan. Maybe it could be Kronk saying “Got it!” for success, and Yzma saying “Kronk!!” for failure. We never added anything like this before because, as a measure to prevent my employees from getting lost in YouTube, I had removed the speakers from the point-of-sale computer. Now that we always have multiple employees present, that sort of misbehavior is probably less tempting.

If you’re the boss, it’s true that ideally you need to spend more time working on your business than at your business. But don’t fall into the trap of thinking that you’ve perfected any particular process in your operation, and certainly don’t think that your employees will ever be motivated and empowered enough to do as much good for your business as you can. You need to try to get in some lackey-work, even if it’s only when someone calls in sick or there’s a labor shortage. Let your employees do the mundane lifting that you hired them to do, but make sure that you’re doing it often enough that you can spot potential improvements. That means that you need to do the supply checklist once in a while, put out some trade, and yes, clean the bathrooms.

Cleaning out the returns cabinet

Ah, our first catch of the day:

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Employee states that it won’t turn on. Betcha the battery contacts are either corroded, dirty, or damaged.

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Called it. A little love with a Q-tip dipped in alcohol, and…

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It’s always nice to start with an easy win. You should take the batteries out of your electronics when you’re not going to use them for a while.

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Employee note says that this wired 360 controller doesn’t power on. Let’s take it apart and see what’s going on.

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Mr. Multimeter says that we’ve got continuity from the USB end all the way to the four contact points, so the controller is getting power, it’s just not doing anything after. That officially puts it in the “too much trouble” category, but I’m feeling froggy, so I remove some of the more common failure components for repairing other controllers or for other projects.

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The harvest is two clicky joysticks, two vibration motors, and a shoulder button, removed only because it was in the way of one of the joysticks. The oft-misplaced breakaway part of the cable will go back to the store. The rest goes into the bin.

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We’ve got TONS of leftover Xbox 360 hard drives, but they’re all for the first-generation fat systems, instead of the newer slim models. A lot of fat 360 consoles died to the Red Ring of Death, so there’s a surplus of power supplies and hard drives out in the world. We buy them for very little but there’s not much demand for them at any price. In the land of more modern hardware, however, users are so hungry for hard drives for their 4gb 360 slim consoles that they’re willing to pay $65 for a 320gb upgrade. With a $4 enclosure bought from China, the 2.5″ hard drives from the old fat enclosures work just fine in the newer systems. I’m asking $45 each for the converted hard drives. I bet we sell a bunch of them as folks realize that they should have listened to our warning about buying Grand Theft Auto V (which needs hard drive space) with a system that didn’t come with a hard drive. I made four. If they sell well I’ve got another dozen to convert.

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Employee states that the left bumper button isn’t clicky.

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Examining the white buttons, I can see the problem. Can you? The left button still clicks, but it’s about a millimeter shorter than the right button, so the shoulder button doesn’t fully engage it before being stopped by the body of the controller. Now, I DID just salvage a shoulder button from another controller, but replacing it is going to mean desoldering the left trigger assembly, desoldering and replacing the button, then re-soldering the trigger assembly. That’s a lot of trouble for a $30 controller, and every thing that you monkey with is one more thing that can go wrong. I decide to try the easy solution first: I put a dab of super glue on the button, wait a few hours, put another dab on, and let it sit out overnight, propped upright in my board holder.

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Looks like that added the correct amount of height to the button. I also replace the thumbsticks while I’ve got it apart, because the old ones looked pretty tired.

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That seems to do the trick. After assembly, the left and right bumper feel identical. I’ll keep an eye out for this one to come back, but I think it’ll be a solid repair.

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Employee states that there’s a sticky button on this Wii remote. My observation is that ALL of the buttons are sticking when you press them. It’s probably just some spilled liquid. I haven’t done a Wii remote before, so we’ll give it a go.2016-01-05 13.48.48

My normal tri-wing bit from my security bit set gets these two screws just fine, but there’s two at the bottom that are deeper inside the case. In a pinch, you can use a 1.5mm flat-head screwdriver, as long as you’re careful. Once the screws are out, you can use a flat tool like the iSesamo to get at the latches inside the case and release it.

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Ew, ew, ew.

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I remove all of the buttons and clean them with alcohol. YUM.

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Back together, and good as new!

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Super Nintendo in the returns cabinet with no note on it. Seems to work great for me. I have GOT to get a better game than Play Action Football to test with.

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Employee note says that there’s a glitch that causes menus to disappear. Now THERE is an interesting failure! Sadly, it seems to work fine. The culprit was likely dirty contacts on the game that was played, but it’s impossible to know if the lackey reproduced the problem on his own, or just took the return, issued a replacement or store credit, and sent the customer on their way. December was busy. I’ll ask a lackey to test two or three other games to see if they can reproduce the failure. If not, back onto the shelf it goes.

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NES Advantage controller with no note.

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All buttons work fine for both player 1 and 2. Anticipation is one of the worst NES games I’ve ever seen, and we’ve got dozens of copies of it. I should turn some of them into Raspberry Pi cases or something.

That’s all for today. Some of the less-technical diagnosis and repair should be happening in the store instead of my workbench at home, but my employees have been absolutely slammed with holiday traffic this year, so this is my way of taking some of the burden off. As things return to normal, they’ll be doing more of this stuff.

I hope that this is at least mildly interesting. I think that most of it is pretty boring, but my friends are telling me that they like looking at old gaming stuff and watching me tinker. I guess I’ll keep it up until the affirmation stops flowing.

Replacing the thumbsticks on a Playstation 4 controller

Sony’s DualShock 4 controller is, in my opinion, the best-feeling controller in the history of ever, but it’s not perfect: Sony put cheap, crappy thumbsticks on it, and the covering on those thumbsticks frequently peels off in short order. Sony will replace the controller if you have this issue, but YOU pay for shipping, it takes over a month, and they won’t even talk to you unless you can prove that you’re the original owner. Way to fail, Sony. I had a half-dozen of these to repair for the shop, so I figured I’d document the last one for you.

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You can get replacement thumbsticks on eBay or Amazon. I’m actually using aftermarket joysticks meant for the Xbox One that work great on the PS4. I’m using these because I like them a lot more than the factory sticks, and because I kinda had 50 of them on hand already.

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To start, unscrew the four Philips screws on the back. You’ll need a small driver. Many manufacturers like to hide screws behind stickers, but Sony, bless them, put all four where you can see them.

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This is the worst part of the repair. Once those screws are out, you have to separate the two halves of the controller body. You start this by squeezing on the joint like this:

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Then you pull on alternating sides of the controller until it comes loose, usually with a loud snap that makes you think you’ve broken something. While you’re doing this, watch for a little round rubber piece which may or may not fall out. You’ll need it at the end, so be mindful.

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Uh-oh. On the first five controllers I repaired, all four shoulder buttons stayed attached to the top half of the controller, where they belong. This white controller has some slight differences in design, however, and the trigger buttons popped out of place, going with the bottom half instead of staying with the top. We’ll put those back in place in a minute.

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Before you do anything else, you’ll need to pull out this ribbon cable. You can do it with your fingers if they’re small enough, but I used needle-nose pliers. It won’t take much force at all to pull it out.

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Okay, let’s take a look at the triggers. We have to get those springs on each into the proper position. If you didn’t manage to detach yours, just keep scrolling.

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The triggers themselves have a space on the post that faces the USB plug when they’re installed. Hang the spring on it like so, propping up the bottom side with your finger.

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See the little slot I’m indicating with my screwdriver? That’s where the bottom part of that spring should rest. With that in place, snap the trigger downward into place. It should feel correct when you press it, even outside the case.

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Pull the battery away carefully, then pinch the battery connector and pull it out of the plug. This reveals the final screw we need to remove, indicated here:

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Once that screw is removed, we have another ribbon cable to remove, in the upper-right area of the board.

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You can remove this with pliers or tweezers, like so:

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Keep the joystick face-down for now unless you want to chase buttons everywhere. With the joystick facing away from you, reach around and press in on the thumbsticks. The board should lift up and away from the shell. You’ll have to maneuver it around a little to get the thumbsticks free of the casing, but once you do that, you should be able to pivot the board toward you, being careful not to pull on the vibrator power leads.

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The bad thumbsticks will lift straight off.

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Press your new thumbsticks down onto the connectors. See how the post has two flat sides? Your replacement sticks should have at least one flat side, and that will inform you about how to orient them. It shouldn’t take much force to push the replacement thumbsticks onto the posts.

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Flop the board back over and insert the thumbsticks through the holes, then secure the board to the body with that one center screw. We need to reattach the ribbon cable at the top, which runs to the touchpad. I find it best to grip the tab firmly with needle-nose pliers or good, broad tweezers, and push it into the connector. It should not take much force to connect it properly as long as it’s lined up and you’re pushing it straight in. If it gets lopsided, STOP, remove the cable, and try again. This is what it should look like when correctly installed:

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With everything more or less stable, this is a great time to take a toothbrush to the edges and seams of your controller, since they’ll never be easier to clean than they are right now. This controller is filthy, but since I have to do six of them, I’m leaving the cleaning for my lackeys to do later. It’s good to be the king.

Plug the battery back in (it’ll only go one way) and re-place the battery in the tray. If during any of the preceding steps, a little round rubber plug fell out, you’ll need to replace it near the upper-right corner of the battery. Just below the “RESET” text. The plug has little wings which will help you align it correctly. The five black controllers I did previously had this round plug, but this white controller has an equivalent plastic piece attached to the battery housing. They look similar, though, so here you go:

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Now we need to connect the ribbon cable from the bottom half of the body to the connector on the top half. You’ll probably have to do some gymnastics and feel pretty silly trying to find the right angles for everything that will allow you to plug the cable in, but you should be able to do it with just your fingers, like so:

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Here’s what it should look like properly installed. Again, you want it to go STRAIGHT in. Don’t try to push harder if it’s lopsided.

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Maneuver the bottom half of the controller so that the triggers poke through it, like so:

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In this poorly-focused picture, you can see that the posts on either side barely block you from putting it back together. Bend them in just a hair and the whole assembly should come together with a very satisfying click.

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If the battery had any charge to it, your controller just had parts of itself amputated and reattached and is very confused. Use a paperclip to press the reset switch, which is through the hole I’m indicating here:

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Replace the four screws in the back, and you’re done!

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Put the old thumbsticks in the trash, where they should have gone during the DualShock 4’s R&D phase.

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