14 July 2023

Biting The Apple

I live in a house divided. I'm a Windows guy. KQ4IZK is an Apple gal. I take care of all the overhead - I make sure all the shared software license fees are paid, I keep the network up and available, make sure the streaming devices are working, pay all the IT-related bills and generally keep the home computing environment running. I also keep all the Windows and Android devices running. KQ4IZK lives and breaths Apple. She'd got her MacBook(s), iPad(s), iPhone(s) and there's even an Apple Watch laying around somewhere. And she's pretty darned good with all the Apple stuff. I get almost zero tech support calls (ha, ha) from her on things MacOS or iOS. She loves her Apple ecosystem, and it works well for her. 

There was a time when I was enchanted by Apple products. I've used Apple II+'s and early Mac's, and thought they were great, and I lusted after the early iPhones. I think a large part of my attraction was related directly to Steve Jobs. Jobs was a force of nature who could sell ice to an Eskimo and spin a vision like nobody else. And let's be honest, the iPhone and iPad really were foundational concepts that changed how we communicate and consume content. In my work I've had to support several generations of iPhones and iPads. I appreciate the app-focused ease of use found on these devices; they are far more dummy proof than Windows or Android devices. But I've always found iOS-based devices to be 'too much for too little'; the cost of the devices was much too high for the level of usability they provided. They were (and still are) viewed as prestige devices; you pay a premium for the name and the logo. I have far less experience with MacOS, but found it odd that when Apple switched from Motorola to Intel CPUs, all the Mac fans rejoiced because now they could finally run Windows natively on their Mac hardware. Hmmm...

I've always been impressed by the build quality of Apple's hardware. Across the board their products seem better built, with more attention to detail on the fit and finish. But over time some cracks developed in my Apple windshield. At work, where we use a LOT of iPads going back at least four device generations, we started to notice a lot of premature device failures. Some of them were clearly hardware related (cracked screens, non-responsive buttons, etc.). Some 'just died'; they worked yesterday but not today. Some would go off to IT for an OS upgrade, and would never come back. The response from the service desk was often, "we tried to upgrade it and it bricked itself". Were these failing at a higher rate than the cheaper Android tablets we bought, like the Samsung Tabs? Probably not, but we were paying around $250 for perfectly adequate Tab 8's, and over $500 for the 2020 iPads. And some really annoying Apple product positioning issues started to crop up. We needed iPads with GPS in them for outdoor data collection, but the basic level iPads don't come with GPS. If you want GPS you have to shell out an additional $100 per unit for the data plan ready model (the ones that can take a phone plan SIM card). Yet the much cheaper Tab 8's all came with GPS. More Hmmm....

Over time I became less and less enamored with Apple's hardware. The outward fit and finish was (and still is) very good, but the physical build just seemed lacking. They may be fine for schlepping around the Stanford University campus, but for field data collection at the world's busiest airport they were just not holding up as expected - particularly considering the price. In fact, I started to compare the service life of some of the MacBooks we use at work against a generic issue Windows laptop like a Dell Inspiron. The Dell was a lot cheaper, lasted just as long, and served the average user just as well as the Mac. The build quality of an Inspiron isn't as good as a MacBook, but if I crack the screen of an Inspiron I'm not going to cry like I would if I cracked the screen of a MacBook. I began to doubt the Mac hardware was really as good as Apple and Apple fanboys claim it is, but I didn't have any hard evidence beyond my very unscientific gut feeling.

But earlier this week I stumbled on this guy's YouTube channel, and found his Mac repair videos and commentary both revealing, and a bit humorous. Louis consolidates all that he finds wrong with Apple products into one 24 minute video.

The video is five years old, but I doubt Apple has improved things. In fact, Louis has plenty of recent videos laying out similar issues with current production Apple products.

To be fair, you'll find similar design and execution issues in any other manufacturer's range of laptops, including the highly regarded Lenovo ThinkPads. The big difference with Apple is that they've become expert at deflecting the blame for lousy hardware design and early product death back at the customer. They actually make the customer feel remorse for bringing the issues up. How else can you explain why customers who've been screwed over by Apple keep coming back time and again just because it's Apple, and everyone knows Apple is that edgy, forward thinking visionary company that keeps pushing the envelope? When in fact all they deliver is nicely packaged run-of-the-mill hardware that has lots of engineered-in planned obsolescence.

If you think I'm just another Apple hater, I invite you to read some of my pervious posts about Windows hardware, particularly the Microsoft Surface line.

 W8BYH out

08 July 2023

Pop Goes The Weasel

For the past two months I've been slowly working my way through the HardRock50 amplifier kit designed and manufactured by Jim Veatch at HobbyPCB. This is the second of these kits I've put together. The first one I bought off of QRZ.com last year. It was used, but new-in-the-box. The owner bought it from a friend, who had bought it from HobbyPCB. Neither of the two had the time to put the kit together so the last owner sold it to me at a significant discount. Everything was still in its factory fresh packaging. However, it was only after I got this kit that I realized it was an early 2014 vintage unit. HobbyPCB still supports them, but getting the amp to work with modern QRP rigs like the the IC-705 was going to be difficult. Lots of jumpering, some cutting of traces, etc. This unit works well with my Yaesu FT-817, but I still wanted something I could use with the IC-705. So, I bought a new kit from HobbyPCB and figured I could sell the old amp to help cover the cost of this new one.

HardRock50 paired with the Elecraft KX3

Construction of the HardRock50 is pretty straightforward, and Jim has tweaked the build instructions over the years to the point that everything is clearly described and diagrammed. Having already built one of these kits, this second build went quick and relatively easy. One of the upgrades Jim has introduced over the years is that a lot more of the components are now pre-installed at the factory. With the 2014 kit you got a bag of relays and instructions on how to stuff them on the board. With the current kit, the relays are already on the board. This cuts down on a lot of the tedious soldering. If you've soldered one relay, you've soldered them all.

Everything went pretty straight forward until I got to the step where you have to set the DC bias. There's a Rube Goldberg-esque setup in the manual that has you interconnect your power supply with your ammeter and the amplifier. I've done this a few times with my old amp, with no problems. Just take your time and follow the test lead and power connection instructions in the diagram.

OK, all cables connected and checked and re-checked. I reach over and hit the ON switch on my power supply and POP! Lots and lots of smoke coming out from under the board. Damn, damn, damn, damn, damn. I pull everything apart to get a look at the underside of the board and find that capacitor C36 - a pre-installed component, had popped. What the hell had I done wrong? I checked and re-checked my test lead setup, and everything looked good. But SOMETHING went wrong. The evidence was inescapable. Clearly I screwed up.

I contacted Jim and asked him if he had any ideas as to what could have caused this - something upstream in the build I had put in wrong? Maybe a solder bridge I didn't catch? Jim wrote back almost matter-of-factly,

"Tantalum caps have a habit of blowing the first time voltage is applied"

Oh really?! I'd heard 'tant caps' could be problematic. As the comedian Bill Engvall says, "Here's your sign".

So Jim is mailing me a new cap, and I'll report back on how well this one survives. At least this experience gives me the excuse I've been looking for to buy a hot air solder rework station.

W8BYH out