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Gavin Greig [userpic]


February 6th, 2009 (01:24 am)
current location: KY16 8SX

A few years ago, I was given an iPod as a freebie. As I think I’ve mentioned since then, I think the iPod is not a great design (clearly a significant proportion of the population disagrees with me), but it does play music and I couldn’t argue with the price.

Four and a half years later, one well known flaw in the design brought itself more forcefully to my attention. The battery died.

I can’t complain too much about the mere fact of battery death after so long; but I can (and intend to) ridicule the contemptible design æsthetic that considers it acceptable to build an expensive electronic device with a battery that isn’t designed to be replaced.

If the device was dead, so be it; I wasn’t losing much, not having paid for it in the first place. However, a quick search not only showed that the alternatives I’d vaguely heard of did exist, but they were available at the sort of price that made it an easy decision to attempt iLazarus surgery.

I experimented a little before sending off the moolah. iPodDoctor provide instructions online for opening up your iPod, so I was able – after a bit of nervous experimentation – to ascertain that I could open up my iPod. Reassured, I sent off a bit over a tenner for their big fat battery (there’s a slightly cheaper and less powerful one that’s easier to fit) and two days later it arrived.

The iPodDoctor instructions are pretty good, but fall down slightly in a couple of areas. One is regarding opening the iPod; although there’s a good, clear photo showing where to apply pressure to make the case flex and begin to open, it doesn’t make it quite clear enough exactly where you’re looking for a gap.

Perhaps slightly illogically, I was looking at the casing from the side, waiting for a gap to appear there between the white plastic front and the shiny scratched aluminium back. I was looking in the right place, but from the wrong angle. You need to watch from above, as the metal casing flexes slightly outwards from the white front, not downwards.

Once you see a small gap, you can insert an implement to pry the casing clips apart,and once you succeed in that (a bit fiddly) it’s quite straightforward to gingerly separate the two halves of the casing, taking care not to damage the printed circuit connector between the two.

As I wanted an idea of how difficult it was to open the iPod before ordering, I went ahead and opened it with a metal dental tool (very handy for sculpting Milliput when patching or remodelling miniatures). iPodDoctor provide plastic tools for this job with the battery, and if you wait for those you might manage to avoid the very slight buckling of the metal casing that I achieved in my ham-fistedness. However, you’ve got to look fairly closely to spot it.

The next hurdle is physically replacing the battery. The iPodDoctor battery claims to have something like a 70% greater capacity for charge than the one it’s replacing. The cheaper/less challenging battery they offer claims a 30% improvement. However, the 70% battery doesn’t just have a greater electrical capacity; it’s physically bigger.

In order to fit it in, you have to squeeze it under the circuit board that the external iPod connector is mounted on. This is the other area where the instructions fall down slightly.

The instructions just say you have to fit the end of it under that circuit board. If you are slavishly following the instructions (as I tend to, first time around with easily-busted electronics) it may not occur to you that this is the reason why iPodDoctor also include a little star screwdriver with their battery. It took me a while for the penny to drop; a bit dumb perhaps, but I genuinely think this is something that should be explicitly stated by the instructions. You should unscrew the circuit board, slip the battery in while it’s loose, then tighten the board down again on top of the battery.

It’s not rocket science, but if the instructions have been careful and clear on almost everything else, it can come as a bit of a surprise that such a crucial step is missed out.

Well, once that little problem was solved it all began to come together, and it wasn’t too long before everything was carefully snapped back together and the iPod could be plugged in to charge.

Everything worked, and for not much more than a tenner – and some frayed nerves! – I have an operational iPod again. I’m pleased that there was a cheap option to get it going, and for me as a geek it was kind of interesting, but you know what? It shouldn’t be that hard. Sorry, the iPod is a clever design, clearly a very commercially successful design, but I still think that fundamentally it’s kind of a bad design; a classic case of form triumphing over function.


Posted by: Marcus L. Rowland (ffutures)
Posted at: February 6th, 2009 07:38 am (UTC)

This seems to be true of a lot of the more recent Apple kit - it used to be VERY easy to change batteries for e.g. the iBook G4, so (for example) when I was at games cons I'd carry two and swap them when one ran low. But that all went away with the MacBook air, and I suspect that Apple aren't planning to make things that easy in any future model.

Posted by: Gavin Greig (ggreig)
Posted at: February 6th, 2009 09:04 am (UTC)

So long as they can get away with it, I'm sure it's very profitable for them. As a potential customer though, that approach puts me right off.

Posted by: Nik Whitehead (sharikkamur)
Posted at: February 6th, 2009 09:39 am (UTC)

I'm not a great fan of the iPod design either - why have a display that goes up and down and a control that goes round and round? It took me ages to recognise the round and round concept.

In some ways I think they're beginning to lose their focus on usability in order to increase the 'stylishness' of the design.

Yay you for changing the battery though!

Posted by: Toby Atkin-Wright (tobyaw)
Posted at: February 6th, 2009 10:04 am (UTC)

A control wheel to move a linear selection is common on other interfaces. Two non-iPod examples: my early Sony DVD player had a rotary control for track selection on its front panel (with a linear display of track numbers along the bottom of the display), and my car uses the BMW iDrive system - a single big button that turns, presses, or pushes up/down/left/right - with the turning action used to select in linear menus.

Both of these - and the iPod - have the advantage that a rotary control allows a lot of variation in speed in scrolling, with fast movement through a long list and precise small movements too.

Posted by: Gavin Greig (ggreig)
Posted at: February 6th, 2009 10:19 am (UTC)

While those are good points about the variation in speed, I think they're secondary to just not having to lift your finger because you have an infinite scrolling track. Scrolling speed variations could be (and in fact are) built into more linear scrolling solutions, they're just not so convenient because you have to keep lifting your mouse or finger in a long operation.

Posted by: Toby Atkin-Wright (tobyaw)
Posted at: February 6th, 2009 10:34 am (UTC)

True. So the conclusion we reach is that a physical rotary control is great for scrolling; the only problem is the conceptual mapping between circular and linear movement.

Posted by: Gavin Greig (ggreig)
Posted at: February 6th, 2009 10:59 am (UTC)

a physical rotary control is great for scrolling

Depends; I don't think the iPod style rotary control would be good in a driving situation (small target, precise movements), but the BMW one's scrolling abilities will be restricted (though not prevented, of course) because the human wrist doesn't turn through 360 degrees.

Horses for courses.

Probably both better than a linear scrolling device for their context, though.

There are a couple of successful linear scrolling devices I can think of, although interestingly they are both really rotary devices that are presented as linear because we interact with them edge-on rather than face-on: the scroll wheel on mice, and the jog wheel on certain handhelds.

Posted by: Toby Atkin-Wright (tobyaw)
Posted at: February 6th, 2009 10:40 am (UTC)

Repeated scrolling movements can be eliminated in different ways. On the iPhone lists have momentum; a flick on the display will start a list scrolling (with a quick finger movement scrolling the list faster). The list gradually slows, but a repeated flick continues the movement, and a tap stops it moving.

I don't think there are any rotary controls on the iPhone; I suspect they are unhelpful on touch screens.

Posted by: Gavin Greig (ggreig)
Posted at: February 6th, 2009 10:16 am (UTC)

I see your point, and it's a fair one, but I think the trade-off that really makes it worthwhile is simply that with a rotary control you don't have to repeatedly lift your finger to do long scrolling operations. If you compare that with trackpad on a laptop, and consider how long listings can be in the iPod, I think it becomes a big win.

Posted by: myceliumme (myceliumme)
Posted at: February 8th, 2009 11:47 pm (UTC)

hmm - thinking of my long lists of email boxes and contacts on jPhone: scrolling through these can be a pain. (It's reduced a bit for contacts by being able to 'tab' to initial letters. But then it takes another scroll or two to work through all the 'A's, 'B's, etc.) Maybe I need to develop tobyaw's finger-skills.

I doubt it's impossible to develop a software wheel. Modding a jPhone is certainly beyond me but not beyond these folk.

Posted by: Gavin Greig (ggreig)
Posted at: February 9th, 2009 12:05 am (UTC)

Snurk. I look forward to it hitting the shelves (since it's practically indestructible unless hit or dropped ;-).

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