27 May 2012

Uncooking cooked electronic gadgets using cooking

Wheat bags are useful things. They're a natural, drug-free way to soothe headaches and other throbbing pains, and they double as a dry alternative to a hot water bottle. They're also very easy to make.

As if that weren't enough, it turns out that you can use them to fix electronics as well.

I have an Elgato EyeTV Hybrid TV tuner, which allows me to watch live TV on my MacBook Pro. I've had it for about five years: it works a treat, and the software makes it easy for me to take recordings away with me on my iPhone.

A few days ago, it stopped working. The EyeTV software wasn't appearing when I plugged in the tuner, and it didn't appear among my USB devices in System Information. This problem seems to crop up now and again among old EyeTV dongles: some intermittently mistake their connection for a USB1, and others stop responding altogether. It's not a plague, but it's not uncommon.

Oddly, when I took it to work to try it out there, my desktop PC detected it straight away and suggested an appropriate driver. When I got it back home, I tried it again but still came away with nothing. I went to the web to search for an answer.

The Elgato Systems Technical Support forum had a few obvious suggestions about re-initialising the software, in case it's just gotten muddled up somewhere. There is also the EyeTV Reporter utility, which can be used to save and restore the application's preferences in a ZIP file, to send along with tech support requests or for backup and migration purposes. None of this worked for me.

The Apple discussion forum had a suggestion that came from a bit further afield. The problem may be caused by a loose circuit connection inside the dongle itself - that is, something that is supposed to be soldered into place is slipping in and out of its solder.

The solution was to cook the dongle. Yes, really. They even had suggested cooking times for gas and electric ovens (medium oven for 20 minutes, if you're interested). For those of us for whom that seemed a little bit intense, we could try leaving the dongle on top of a radiator, or give it a blast on either side with a hairdryer.

Enter the wheat bag. I don't have either a radiator or a hairdryer, but I figured that the wheat bag would work via the same principle. After heating up the bad as per the instructions, I wrapped the newly-unplugged TV tuner in it and left it for a few minutes, until the device was hot to touch but not unbearably so.

Back to the computer, and bingo: it worked straight away, just like a bought one.

The theory is that if there is a loose connection inside the device, the heat is enough to get it sitting back in place again. This might explain why the oven trick was so prevalent: the longer cooking time might even be enough to soften the solder, so as it's gently heated up and gently cooled down, it sits better in the solder. The wheat bag might not have fixed it to that extent. My tuner failed a second time the next day, but the same trick brought it back to life.

I have no idea how this trick came about. I'd like to think that there was some scientific thinking behind it. It certainly sounds better than the desperate act of seeing what would happen to an electronic gadget that wasn't working anyway. Not that I can argue with the results, of course; I'm just interested to know. Perhaps someone tried this on a similar device, like an old and dying USB flash drive, and figured that if it worked for that, it might be worth trying again.

Whatever the history of it, I can add the wheat bag to the list of manners in which to revive your otherwise-dead TV tuner. It's also another string to the bow of wheat bags - as if they weren't useful enough already. You can be just a bit too talented sometimes.

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