By Joe Hadsall
Globe Features Editor
JOPLIN, Mo. —
Foxconn, the Chinese plants where iPods are made, was the focus of plenty of news coverage last year when stories about its miserable working conditions -- including crammed living quarters, long shifts and safety nets to alleviate suicide attempts from workers jumping off the roof -- got out.
After working on my stepson's iPod Touch last weekend, I kind of see the point.
I've written before about the wonders of the Internet in obtaining repair manuals for electronic devices. I have repaired lawnmowers, cars, laundry appliances and bathroom fixtures thanks to Internet resources.
That has extended to working with small electronics: I have replaced the screen on a netbook and the battery in my 30-GB fifth-generation iPod.
Seeing the inside of a netbook is stunning enough -- the way the components are wrapped around the motherboard in a way to make everything fit inside the space of a keyboard is absolutely incredible. Same with the iPod, when I changed the battery. It was hard for me to believe that my entire CD collection and more was in a chip about the size of a stamp.
But fixing Duncan's iPod Touch drove me crazy.
Duncan loves his iPod because he saved his own money for it and bought it himself (I have pictures). He uses it everywhere he can find a WiFi signal and saves up his money for games and apps.
His iPod is a symbol for a lot -- namely, his entertainment and my pride over his responsibility. He took care of that thing, keeping it clean and protected. He took better care of it than his cellphone, and the kid is awesome with his cellphone. How many 12-year-olds do you know who save up for their own iPod? Duncan is awesome.
So, when the iPod broke, we both felt like we'd been punched in the gut.
It slipped out of his pocket while he was adjusting a ceiling fan. It hit on the corner where the power button is, and the corner dent sent cracks across the screen like a glass door featured in a caught-on-video TV show.
The iPod still worked, it was just cracked. So, Duncan paid for a new glass screen (with his own money -- proud stepdad here) and trusted me to replace it.
If a car's transmission system is a magic box, according to stepson Mitchell, then an iPod Touch is pretty close to that. I found replacement parts and instructions easily enough.
But Apple is making its products less and less repair-friendly. First off, the glass cannot be ordered by itself. The screen is attached to the glass, so both must be ordered. Fine.
The only way into the guts of the iPod is to remove the glass, however. It's held to the unit by glue, which must be heated to allow the glass to be carefully pried off.
It's a process that involves a hair dryer and tweezers. As I worked, glass shards and dust got everywhere.
Also, some of the components of the iPod Touch are extremely fragile. The ribbon cable that allows operation of the side volume buttons might as well be made out of butterfly wings.
Working with all this gave me a fair amount of stress -- particularly the mix of my geek-dad hubris and my desire to repair one of my kid's favorite gadgets. Also, the geek in me really wanted to see the inside of a Touch device.
I managed to finish the replacement with precision screwdrivers, tweezers, plastic prying tools and reading glasses, which I used to magnify the small parts. I got the old screen off, the connections attached to the logic board and new adhesive strips positioned. I even industriously used extras from the adhesive strips to provide extra adhesive along the sides.
All I had to do was reattach the new glass, which worked just fine during the testing phase before reattaching it permanently to the device.
That's when I realized I had a big problem with this little device.
Stuck in a corner
The corner dent that had caused the original screen break was turned up too high. The new screen wouldn't seat correctly in the unit.
I wanted to cuss loudly. But, because I'm a geek, I instead used cuss words from "Battlestar Galactica" and "Firefly." (Seriously. Cussing in Chinese is oddly satisfying.)
It took two hours just to get the screen attached! Was I going to have to redo all that work?
I should have.
Instead, I tried to bend the corner down. I tried using a channel wrench with the business ends wrapped in a leather work glove, so I wouldn't scratch anything. I tried a makeshift vise using a thick metal awl. All with the new screen precariously nearby.
Nothing worked. But I didn't break the screen. Phew.
Plan B: I pulled out the fingernail file tool of a pocketknife and started filing the glass. If I couldn't bend the case, I'd make the glass fit.
Filing worked well, despite how long it took. I spent another 30 minutes carefully filing the corner, cleaning dust and avoiding chunks that would shatter the new glass.
In the process of trying to get it to fit -- snap. I broke the freaking glass.
I used real cuss words that time.
After wanting to chuck the thing through a window, likely breaking more glass in the process, I took a break and saw that it was only one crack -- and the new screen still worked.
So, I snapped off more shards of the glass to accommodate the corner bend and taped it with clear packing tape to prevent dust getting in.
And let my shame stew. I broke my kid's iPod.
Duncan took it a lot better than I did. He was thrilled to see that the screen had much less breakage than the first time. He is still using it for texting, games, music, Netflix and more. He's a good kid.
I told him I'd buy him another screen, because I broke that one. But I'm not so sure how to rebend the case. Also, buying a replacement case may not work, because so many iPod Touch components are glued to the back.
And I'm pretty confident that cracking into another one of those units would drive me five kinds of crazy.
Because of this experience, I know I am not cut out to be a Foxconn employee.