Fixing the “iPod Won’t Unlock” Problem

I belong to the “don’t have anything to lose” school of electronics repairs.

Six months ago I was profoundly irritated that my new-batteried iPod suddenly wouldn’t respond to its buttons. It could still play if attached to a computer, but that didn’t do me much good, so I had to replace it with a new iPod.

Or did I? Yesterday I ran across the old one in one of my boxes of “I’ll do something with this someday” electronic junk and thought “Maybe I can use this as a travelling extra hard drive.” I plugged it into my laptop and, sure enough, it was still perfectly recognizable by the system. I was able to delete all the data from it and reinstall the iPod software, though this did not fix the non-response problem.

I couldn’t do the usual iPod three-finger-salute to reset it because you first have to click on and off the lock button and, no matter which way I slid it, the lock symbol on the display remained on. The problem was clearly mechanical: the iPod wasn’t responding to the lock button.

I did a Google search and found an old post by danah boyd, whose blog I read regularly, but it’s not usually technical in that way: she had issued a cry for help with her own iPod. She ended up having hers replaced, but it was still under warranty – I didn’t have that option.

The numerous comments, however, provided my answer: a mechanical problem admits of a mechanical solution. Some suggested banging (well, tapping) it on a table, others pressing on the case until the two parts re-aligned properly.

I had a better option: I had kept the plastic doohickeys used to open the iPod to replace the battery as described above. I ran one of them around the join of the case at the top, where the button is. I heard a loud, satisfying click – and the iPod lit up, ready to play.

Repair Your Own iPod

iPod Replacement Batteries

Some of you will recall my problems with the first iPod I bought (originally for Ross, in 2003). I inherited it when she bought herself a fancier one, and resolved its “computers can’t see me” problems by connecting it via Ross’ new USB cable, instead of the FireWire cable it came with.

The remaining problem was the battery which, like most iPod batteries, was reduced to minimal capacity very quickly. If charged overnight, it would usually last through my morning and evening commute (2-3 hours total playing time), but if I forgot to charge it… And of course that wasn’t enough for long plane flights.

Back around November, the Washington Post or NYT, I forget which, ran an article about replacement iPod batteries from Sonnet Technology. There was the usual problem with the website – the credit form was not set up to accept payment from anywhere but the US or Canada. I wrote to the company, and someone quickly replied that I could put “Italy” into the form and they would process the payment. The battery cost $30, plus an obligatory $10 for FedEx overnight shipment (I had it sent to my friend Stephanie in the US when I was on my way there). An “official” replacement from Apple for an out-of-warranty iPod would have cost $60-90.

The Sonnet Tech kit contained just a battery (necessarily small), two plastic doohickeys, and a CD-ROM with video instructions.

Getting the iPod open was harder than it looked in the video – clearly the one they used had already been opened several times (not that it showed damage). You’re supposed to press the front and back of the case together hard enough to cause a seam on the side to gape a little, just enough to slide in the thin end of one of the doohickeys. You then work the doohickey all the way around the iPod, and eventually you’ll get it open.

After several nervous failures and some damage to the doohickey, I eventually got the thing open (I actually found it easier to start on a corner than on a side as instructed, but this may depend on the individual iPod). It was then easy, following the video instructions, to detach the hard disk and old battery, put in the new battery, put back the hard disk, and press the iPod shut again (the seams aren’t quite as seamless as before, oh well). I charged it overnight, and it’s been working perfectly ever since. I’m not sure how much battery life I actually have now – may or may not be the 12 hours+ that they promise – but it’s a lot longer than before, I can now go many days without charging it and can, as Sonnet’s tagline says “love my iPod even longer.”