original Cybiko battery compartment door (left) and the 3D printed part (right)

One thing I've grown to appreciate about older electronics is how generally repairable they are. Where an increasing number of modern devices are designed to be disposed of when even a single otherwise replaceable component fails (to see how far this has gone, check out the battery replacement guides out there for each successive generation of iPod). But even beyond the luxurious and forgiving space of 70s and 80s PCBs, a little research, skill, and a willingness to experiment can often yield satisfying results.

Enter a recent visit of mine to a local thrift store, and an inevitable $5 dollar purchase:

Wrapped in all the attitude of late 90s translucent neon plastic, I found this curious artifact mislaid in a bin of calculators. I had almost dismissed it as another inconsequential electronic pocket PDA (as were the fashion in the 90s), until I noticed the label on the back with the big bold (ALL-CAPS) letters: "FREE GAMES", followed by a web address.

This is of course, for me, a clarion call I may not ignore.

Some Background

The Cybiko is an somewhat obscure handheld device targeted toward teens that was released near the start of the fresh new millennium (the year 2000, for the temporal passengers out there). The base features are unremarkable; standard calculator and address book PDA fare. But in nearly all other ways, the Cybiko was ahead of it's time. Where it's popular contemporaries (think Nintendo GBA and Bandai WonderSwan) were nowhere near ready for the digital revolution of communication and commerce the Internet had begun to deliver, the Cybiko came equipped with wireless P2P (and group) messaging and data transfer. It also provided online games and updates to download to your device; a novelty (particularly for game systems) at the time that would eventually become standard. Curiously, while it seems to be remembered by many, I wasn't able to find much information about it beyond the regurgitation of the same high-level information found on Wikipedia (excepting one decent video). XKCD has us covered though, of course.

The Problem

After I understood what this thing was, I was sufficiently motivated to get it running. First up, the common dread problem of older electronics; the batteries:

damaged batteries covered and inside Cybiko
Cybiko battery compartment uncovered
damaged batteries removed from Cybiko

The Cybiko has these "GP7M Size F6" rechargeable batteries, which are a bit flat and rectangular, but fortunately somewhat standard / still available. The batteries were intended to be left in the device for charging, so I'm appreciative that the door to the battery compartment is easily accessible without disassembly. That's where the good times end however, because the battery terminals in the rear enclosure have two prongs that, when the system is assembled, press against two pads on the board mounted to the front enclosure. This is apparently a common point of disaster with the Cybiko since, when the (possibly dodgy) batteries inevitably failed, the subsequent leakage would follow the terminal prongs and damage the board. In some cases, the damage was extensive enough to reach nearby chips and render the unit irreparable.

My unit had indeed suffered this fate, but after some careful cleaning with white vinegar (to neutralize the alkaline battery "acid") followed by 99% isopropyl alcohol to clean the remaining residue, I was able to verify functional continuity with my multimeter and some temporarily soldered wires from the board pads to the battery terminals. Normally, this is where I'd order new batteries, but I had a problem: I did not have a charger with the correct barrel size, much less proper power delivery (never mind that I'd ultimately be inviting the same battery failure scenario in the future). Since I had already decided I was not going to sink any more money into this project (a trap I've fallen into many times when making repairs), I decided some unconventional solution-ing was in order.

The Solution

Rechargeable battery tech has come a long way, but for my part, I'm rarely pleased to see some non-standard battery format inside an aging device. I've begun to favor devices with AA/AAA compatibility for their historical ubiquitousness without sacrificing recharge-ability (for me, the convenience of not having to pop out depleted batteries and pop in charged ones is rarely worth the tradeoff in device longevity). The biggest offender of this (in my opinion) is the Sony PSP, which not only had it's own (required) logic board, but a "spicy pillow" failure rate you could almost set a clock to (a problem which continues to plague after-market solutions to this day).

It is because of this and a suggestion by a Cybiko enthusiast blog post that I began to test powering the device with AAA batteries. After some soldering and fresh rechargeables, I hit the power switch:

external battery compartment wiring to Cybiko board
Cybiko powered on with external battery compartment

The screen blinked on and suddenly, I was in business! Unfortunately, wires and batteries hanging all about was not conducive to regular play, so I began to ponder how I might attach this external battery compartment to the Cybiko so that it would be out of the way while serving it's purpose.

As I've previously mentioned, my dilemma with 3D printing is that it has quickly become my de facto tool for problem solving. This case was no different, and after some quick modeling and a few iterations, I had a new battery door for the Cybiko that allowed me to mount the new battery compartment.

original Cybiko battery compartment door (left) and the 3D printed part (right)
replacement battery compartment door with mounted external battery compartment

At this point I was pleased; there was basic usability (lack of elegance notwithstanding) at no extra cost and my modifications were all easily and non-destructively reversible if I ever desired to return the unit to it's original state.

Cybiko assembled with replacement battery compartment door and external battery compartment

I began to play some of the included games, but then noticed the Cybiko was not emitting any sound. After checking the system settings, I concluded that the speaker had failed. It might have happened when I originally opened the unit, but re-soldering the contacts yielded no success. Stymied, I stepped away for a few days while I worked on other things. I was working on a GBA SP repair when I realized the speaker (on my nonfunctional donor SP) was about the right size to replace the Cybiko's original one. A quick solder and voila; the Cybiko began to sing again!

The Future, Here

Unfortunately, the Cybiko employs a proprietary data port and the cables for the port are rare, expensive, and apparently somewhat fragile. This means that I probably won't be loading any of those "FREE GAMES" preserved from the original Cybiko website any time soon. However, there is a solution to this from Kevin Norman, who worked out how to create a homebrew serial interface. This wasn't something I was feeling motivated to undertake at this point, but I'll throw up an update here if I do.