Is Your Phone Acting Up?
A week ago I wrote a review of the Alps / Star S9920, in which I highlighted some of the highs and lows of buying this popular S3 mini clone. Shortly after after writing the article I began receiving messages from fellow S9920 owners, who were also struggling with their devices. While I still don’t have a solution to all the problems that have been put to me (and I did look) there just isn’t that much documented on the S9920. This isn’t much of a surprise, when you think of the number of phones that come out of China. Unlike major brands such as Samsung, HTC or Apple, Alps constitute but a footnote in the Android device market.
In this article, I’ll try to address one of the main issues experienced by users of the S9920: ghost touching. It manifests itself in the form of icons randomly selecting themselves without the screen ever being touched. This fix may also help with some of the other problems associated with the digitizer / screen on the S9920.
Before we begin, I must stress that this is a very tricky fix and requires you have a steady hand for soldering. I would only recommend you attempt this fix after exhausting all other avenues. Make a mistake and you could very well damage your phone beyond repair. Know that you do this at your own risk, and I cannot be held responsible if you kill your phone. With the disclaimer out of the way, let us continue.
The Phone Blues
A month after receiving my phone, the tell tale signs that something wasn’t quite right, began to emerge. Sometimes I would pick up my phone and the screen would not register my finger swiping the screen, while on other occasions the phone would act as if it had been possessed, randomly opening apps, usually located at the bottom right of the screen, close to the back button. The only way I found to make it stop, was to place the phone on a flat surface and run a finger firmly across the screen, directly over where the back button icon is located.
A few minutes doing this and the phone usually would begin to act normally. However these bouts of the ‘crazies’ were becoming ever more frequent, making the phone very unreliable for daily use. After contacting Dracotek, the company I bought the phone from. I explained the problem I was having with the phone and their representative kindly offered to replace the faulty handset. This really is a Chinese company with good customer support, in fact the best I have encountered. Generous as the offer was, after reading all the articles I could about the S9920, I realised that a replacement would only delay the inevitable, as the S9920 clearly has an inherent flaw in regard to the touch screen. After making sure I had a back up phone, I decided to try out a suggestion I found online while reading up on the S9920. This involved carefully disassembling the phone, detaching the screen and removing the motherboard. Then, with a fine tip soldering iron, reflowing several points on the rear of the board. Without any photos to go on, this possible repair was really a shot in the dark, but I decided I to give it a go.
Things you will need:
To perform this fix you will require:
1x 25watt soldering iron
1x Set of Phillips screwdrivers
1x Small flat screw driver or plastic separating tool, as used in opening iPods
Disassembling your S9920
First make sure your phone is turned off, then remove the back cover and the battery, place them to one side. Next using a small Phillips screwdriver, remove the eight screws from the rear of the phone. The bottom right screw is covered with a white sticker. By breaking this you will void the warranty of your device, which means you won’t be able to return your phone, so be certain that you wish to continue.
With the screws removed, pick up the phone and examine the edge. You should see a series of small slots, this is where you will need your small flat headed screwdriver. Start by inserting it into these slots and gently prying the plastic apart. The back and front of the phone should gradually come apart. With the back removed, carefully unclip the two connectors indicated in the photo. These are for LCD screen and front facing camera. Before you go lifting out the motherboard, you will need to un-stick the power and volume buttons. First remove the plastic buttons that cover them. Underneath these are the switches, held in place with sticky back tape. Using a flat blade screwdriver, pry them away from the case. Remember be careful, replacement parts for the S9920 are scarce on the ground. Once you have them unstuck, lift the board up and away from the front case. You should now have the three parts of the phone laid out in front of you. The black rear shell, logic board and front case, which includes the LCD screen (See picture). Don’t lose the plastic home button, located at the bottom of the front case. Turn the logic board over so it looks like it does in the picture above. Now gently remove the yellow tape covering the solder points. There should be one large square at the top of the board and a smaller one at the bottom for the hardware button.
A steady hand will be needed for the next part. Using a fine tipped soldering iron, heat up the contacts you uncovered from under the tape and ONLY those. Don’t spend too long with the iron on the board, you only need to warm up the solder enough for it to reflow. You should be able to see it happen. The solder will visibly change in appearance, becoming shiny. The contacts pictured above are very fine and tricky, take your time and try not to rush. Once you have done these, finish off by reflowing the contacts you uncovered on the bottom half of the board.
*Additional note: After I reflowed all the contacts, I took a Stanley knife and scored the board between the tracks, just to eliminate the chances of bridges between the lines. You can do this as well if you wish, simply use a sharp blade and run it down between the contacts your have reflowed. Make sure you do not score the brown ribbon cable, it is fragile and will not react well to sharp blades.
Before you reassemble the phone, take a look at the board containing the hardware buttons (see picture). On my S9920 this narrow board was not sitting level, which meant it was not aligned well with the front case. This could easily have attributed to the problems I was having with the back button. The board is stuck down with double sided tape, but can be lifted off by sliding a something under it. Apply a little pressure with a flat bladed screw driver or Stanley knife, be careful as the board does flex and you do not want to snap it. Once it is unstuck, carefully reposition it and press it down, the tape will keep it in place. You can see how mine was slanted in the photo.
Well done! You have done the fix and hopefully your phone should behave a little better. Now you can carefully begin reassembling your phone. You can do this simply by reversing the process of taking it apart. Remember to be careful of the screen and camera cables as well as the volume and power buttons. Remember to place the home button back in the front case before you replace the motherboard.
So it has now been five days since I took my S9920 apart in a last ditched effort to get the phone performing properly, specifically the screen. I’m happy to report the repair seems to have worked! So if your screen is acting up as described above, this fix might and I must emphasis might! Restore your phone to normality. I was dubious as to whether reflowing the contacts have any effect, but it has. I can only conclude the traces on the board are simply not very good or perhaps scoring the board as I did, isolated the tracks and stopped any bridging that might have been occuring.
That’s all for now folks, keep on geeking!
Last November I found myself in need of a new smart phone, having opted for a sim only contract with “Three”.
Looking for a new phone is like shopping for any new device, if you don’t do your research, your taking a gamble with anything you buy. Which is why I spent several weeks simply researching Android smart phones. My budget wouldn’t stretch to a new model from any of the main brands, such as Samsung, HTC or Sony. So I was left to choose between a 2nd hand model or at the android phones being produce in China’s Shenzhen district. Most of which are clones of popular brands, iPhones, Samsung S3’s and Galaxy Tabs to name but a few. Admittedly, not all of them are good. It has only been in the past couple of years the quality of these clones has begun to resemble anything respectable. Usually these devices require a great deal of hacking before they can be usable. Which brings me to another issue. With almost any generic droid device you buy from China, support from the manufacturer is near on non-existent. More often the only support you will find, comes from online forums and user groups. That is so long as the device you have is popular enough to have a large user base.
Choosing A Smart Phone
While eBay is a great site to see all the handsets available, it does not really offer any insight to whether a device is good are bad. Which is where Amazon really does pick up the slack and offers a good alternative. From toasters to curling tongs, Amazon has amassed a impressive collection of user reviews for almost every device available via its website.
While I was looking my eye caught sight of the Star 9920, also known as the Alps S9920. Essentially a Samsung S3 Mini clone, the S9920 boasts the following specs.
-Dual core MTK6577 1.0 GHz CPU
-512mb ram and 4Gb Rom (2.5gb usable)
-GPU PowerVR SGX 531
-4” Capacitive Touch, TFT Display, 260K colours, 800×480 resolution
-Camera 5 MP 2560×1920 (Up to 12.0MP interpolation 4000×3000)
Compared to the Samsung S3 mini which has
-CPU 1 GHz dual-core Cortex-A9
-1GB Ram, 8/16 GB Rom
-4” Display Super AMOLED capacitive touchscreen, 16M colors, 480 x 800 pixels
-Camera 5 MP, 2592×1944 pixels, autofocus, LED flash, check quality
The S9920 may not compete with the S3 mini, but for a sub £100 smart phone. The specs offer good value for money to anyone who can’t afford the real thing. As I found myself in such a situation, I decided to order one from Amazon, after reading the reviews left by previous customers. I decided to buy my device from a company called Dracotek, who appeared to have developed a good reputation for delivering on time and offering good customer support. Something I later would later come to appreciate, after my first handset arrived with a paint defect. Dracotek happily replaced the device and had another out to me within a week.
The S9920 is ready to use out the box, it comes with two sim slots, but only the full size, secondary slot is 3G compatible. I had some issues with my 3G, which I later discovered was down to my sim being old. Three kindly upgraded my sim for free and I was soon experiencing faster 3G connectivity.
The S9920 apparently comes with a stock install of ice cream sandwich 4.1.1, however there is evidence to suggest it is actually ICS 4.0, which has been hacked to report a false version. Th version number isn’t the only part of the OS to have been altered. While using the S9920, I have noted missing menu’s and features, that are stock to ICS, but appear to be missing from the install on this phone. The built in music player and camera are an improvement over the stock apps on my HTC Wildfire S and perform pretty well.
For a sub £100 phone, the camera is not too shabby. In the time I have had the S9920, I have used the camera a fair deal and found the pictures more then adequate for Facebook, I wont be replacing my digital camera anytime soon. One of my first mistakes was to ramp the settings up to 12 megapixels, BAD BAD idea! The S9920 has a 5mp lens, interpolating pictures taken at higher resolution such as 12 megapixels. This results in images that are washed out, blurry and generally pretty poor quality. Even the Apple Quicktake 150 I reviewed recently, would laugh at them. Really do not use the 12mp setting, unless you want photo’s that look like a 90’s digital camera took them.
Display & Touch Screen
The display is pretty reasonable and I would say on par with my Wildfire S. Pictures are crisp and web browsing is a pleasant experience. The touch sensitivity is a little off, which can lead to typo’s and occasional bouts of phantom screen presses. This will manifest with the phone randomly acting like a part of the screen has been pressed when it has not. Causing text to be selected or buttons to be pressed. I’m not entirely sure why this happens, but you can bet it has something to do with the screen being constructed of plastic and not glass. I’ve notice after a months use, the phantom screen touches seem to be happening more and more often.
The screen seems hypersensitive to finger grease and as there is no calibration tool in 4.1, you can’t adjust the touch screen. The only way I found to make typing easier, was by installing the Google keyboard and enabling the gesture typing feature.
WIFI & Network
Occasionally the wifi does not connect to my router straight away. I think this is more a bug then a hardware problem. Also sometimes when I make a call, on connection the sound will be distorted and garbled. This is something I have had to put up with while on the Three network, but occurring with greater frequency since I switched to the S9920. Overall both wifi and antenna functions work fine 95% of the time.
Calling and Haptic feedback glitch
Now here is a real sore spot for me, that was driving me to despair. Something I noticed when making the first few calls using the S9920, was how the handset would vibrate whenever a call connected. Tried as I might, I was unable to find any settings within the Haptic feedback menu to disable it, and the longer I used the phone, the more it annoyed me. Especially when the vibrations were being picked up by the phone’s internal microphone. Making it audible to other people during a call. I spent the first week after receiving my S9920, searching for a means of turning the vibration off, which wasn’t made any easier due to the S9920’s hacked install of ICS. Which is missing parts of the OS, including those that control the vibration and haptic feedback settings. I was beginning to feel like I was truly up the creek without a paddle, when I fell upon some software on Playstore.
This handy piece of software is freeware and was made for the very issue the S9920 was suffering with. I can’t give enough praise to the developer for making this app available on Playstore and for free no less! Vibrafix requires a rooted android phone to work and superSU privileges. Once up and running, it completely disables the vibrate function of your phone and allows you to select what notifications are permitted to use the vibrate function. If you have bought a phone from China, the benefits of rooting your device really outweigh the zero chance of warranty support you can expect from the company you bought it from. In short, it’s a no brainer in my opinion.
After selecting “On Call” from the Vibrafix menu, I made a call and sure enough no annoying vibration. Finally my woe’s where over!
Phantom screen touch
While I’m still not sure why this is happening, I’m sure it is due to the budget construction of the TFT display. There are several reviews from customers on Amazon, who have experienced faulty screens on their handsets. This fault usually occurres several weeks after purchasing the device. So whether my handset will suffer a complete TFT failure as well, I don’t know. It could be a design fault with the device, so I will have to keep an eye on it.
The S9920 has proved to be a good handset, especially for the price. For the £79 that I paid, I honestly am impressed with what I have. There is still some room for improvement. Such as the plastic screen, which is more susceptible to scratching and bending than the glass alternative.
While the stock ICS install of Android is missing some functions, it does not hinder the phone from working as intended. As I found with Vibrafix, you can often find an app on the Playstore that will fill in for the part of the OS that is missing.