Used to have a dream,
Moving pictures in each home,
Cost both low and high
This is a story of hope, frustration, and sadness. Mostly the last one.
This past Black Friday and Cyber Monday, while most people were probably scouring the web for deals on new electronics, I somehow found myself on Facebook Marketplace looking up cheap broken TVs that maybe I could fix. Maybe I was trying to offload some of my own broken/used stuff at the time, or I was looking for a cheap/temporary replacement for the cheap projector of mine that was effectively useless in the daytime with the blinds open. Regardless of the reason, I saw potential in some of the posts, and a few days later, my living room was littered with 4 large televisions in various states of disrepair, while my Ebay shopping cart was slowly filling up with replacement boards that I hoped would result in making these purchases a steal instead of a very (literally) heavy sunk cost.
To be clear, I was only committed in seeing if the appropriate replacement board could revitalize the TV. I had no intention (or ability) to debug component by component, or do much of anything if the LEDs or LCD panels were broken/cracked/chipped. It still amuses me that there are still people posting TV's with cracked screens onto Marketplace for 100s of dollars. As for everything else, pretty much all TVs seem to have the following (possibly defective) boards: main board (for processing the input signals), power board, LED inverter (to power the backlight), and a T-con board for converting the signal from the main board to the LCD. Based on the (incredibly vague) descriptions on Marketplace, I had (at the time) a fair amount of unbridled confidence that the issue wasn't as bad as the sellers believed.
My judgement is mediocre at best.
TV #1: Hisense 50H6570FA
This one is a bit of a cop-out. The seller just said the remote power button was broken, and he didn't feel like replacing the remote (or didn't realize it'd be super easy), so he was willing to part ways with it for 1/4 the original price. The seller didn't even know at the time of sale that the TV even had physical buttons, so maybe I should've played hardball a bit longer and gotten a better deal, but I figured I'd hedge my bets and snag as-close-to-a-sure-thing as possible while I could. For a 2019 TV, it wasn't a terrible deal beyond taking on the risk that the seller hadn't disclosed all the issues with it.
I pretty quickly replaced the remote for $9 off Amazon, and it's been great, without any further issues to date. However, I did take apart the faulty remote and was a bit surprised at the root cause of failure: apparently some food crumb had gotten stuck under the elastic covering to the power button and jammed against the PCB every time anyone would push the button, and over time, all that aggressive pushing must've damaged the area on the PCB around the power button. You could see an obvious dent on the board, and that must've affected the connectivity on contact. It's not like any remote is IP rated against any significant egress, but death by snack infiltration was not on the top of my list for examples of hardware failure.
That said, I've built and continue to build prototypes that are "sealed" with tape, so I really shouldn't judge.
TV #2: LG 50LN5200
Next up, an older TV from 2013, but one that the seller claimed only suffered from a loose HDMI connector and otherwise was perfectly functional. I should've asked more questions, because if the connector wasn't working, and they couldn't see an image, how did the seller have any idea that anything was still working? Upon closer inspection, the HDMI connector has totally fallen off the board and was just sort of bouncing around inside the TV enclosure. The broken TV was $20, and a replacement main board was under $50, so I was initially pretty excited about the prospect of a quick/easy fix.
The only thing worse than rhubarb pie is humble pie. (I apologize to rhubarb pie enthusiasts reading this)
Screen stayed black after the replacement of the main board, and not just no-picture black, but totally dark without any of the backlights seemingly on. I'm guessing some of the LED strips had gone bad, or maybe the T-con board was faulty, but just the risk of the former no longer made it worthwhile for me to attempt any more repairs. There's actually quite a few Youtube videos detailing LED strip replacement, and a full set would've only run me about $30 more, but that whole process looked tedious as hell, and I didn't have confidence I wouldn't wreck the more fragile LCD in the process.
TV #3: Samsung LN55C630K1F
This bad boy was heavy as hell and didn't come with a mount. The seller said "it got wet" and did not expand further. The TV didn't show a picture anymore, but it seemed like the backlight was fine. It was old (~2010) and risky, but it was also a 55" screen for $25 without any cracks. I can't remember my line of logic at the time, but I went with getting a replacement inverter board first, ignoring the T-con board altogether, and that proved totally fruitless, especially since nothing was evidently wrong with the LED backlight in the first place. When fiddling with the T-con board, I cleaned off the ribbon cables and managed to get a complete image to pop back up on the screen, albeit with a greyed strip overlaid across about a quarter of the screen. That was enough evidence to compel me to get the proper replacement T-con board only to get:
A blank screen.
Don't know if I damaged a ribbon cable during the repeated disassembly/re-assembly (apparently that's a thing too), if something else on the LCD side of the panel was also gummed up, or if the momentary success I had before was just a blip, but I was never able to get another picture to show back up. Similar to the LG model above, the next step of disassembling the back LED panel from the LCD is doable, but not something I wanted to risky further time or money on.
TV #4: Sharp Aquos LC-C5277UN
Apparently my parents have this exact model from 2009 at home in Texas, still chugging away, occasionally basking some guest room w/ its hazy 1080p glow. The seller said it had issues staying powered on but otherwise seemed to work fine before it automatically shut itself down. During (limited) testing, the flashing error code (a rarety in this day and age!) implied something was indeed wrong with the power supply, so I was hopeful that would be the only thing I'd need to replace.
Inexplicably, I managed to order the totally wrong power board on my first try. The correct board didn't make things worse, but nothing got better either. Still the same symptom: power shuts down after a few seconds of operation. My next thought was that maybe the main board was struggling as well and entered some sort of failsafe mode when it detected or thought it detected a fault. However, that line of thinking quickly became moot once I determined I couldn't actually find a replacement main board for sale. I guess 13 years is a bit too long for anyone to keep such an old board in stock.
And so ended my ambitions of being some sort of shady Facebook TV flipper. I came out of this with a 3-year old TV and a bunch of heavy junk I'll need to haul to the recycling center one at a time because I have a Civic. I also came out of this with a lot of thoughts:
- There's a market for used TV boards. For any given broken TV, even one that looks like it's been to hell and back, it's unlikely that every subcomponent inside is useless. Most are probably perfectly fine and could help repair or elongate the life of some other TV of the same model
- The market for used TV boards is very small. Even TVs of similar size from the same manufacturer seem to use totally different boards, so what's the incentive for any vendor to keep an item in stock that wouldn't really be utilized until many years after it's first made? In my search of replacement boards, I came across a vendor that claimed it couldn't find the listed product in their warehouse because they moved three years ago. In some other cases, I found listings for components ripped out of broken TVs of unknown failure without any guarantee that they would work.
- Plug-and-play can be more plug-and-pray. As components get smaller, I feel it's easier to mess up even the simplest of replacements, even as online tutorials for fixing various models get more detailed and commonplace. I may be haunted by one of my previous attempts at fixing my Google Pixel 3A, where I managed to crack the screen and mess up the speaker while trying to replace the charging port, but I do feel some surface-mount connectors are a firm tug away from completely ripping out. In every case where I was cleaning/re-connecting ribbon cables, I never felt confident I wasn't possibly damaging something there.
- Cost of repair may exceed cost of replacement. I ran into a situation with a broken projector displaying a burnt brown spot where the vendor sent me a brand new projector, no questions asked, and when I asked, very firmly and directly informed me that they do not sell, nor would they sell, the replacement LCD module separately. In that situation, it's possible that the projector vendor was merely a redistributor of a re-branded generic projector, but as devices get more compact, and the assembly processes get more complex (usually requiring special tools), the labor costs alone may exceed the hardware savings you'd get from repairing instead of replacing. That notion is a bit sad, as the economics of this problem seem to incentivize waste more as (ironically) our manufacturing capabilities get more advanced.
- There may or may not be a market for more interchangeable and easily swappable modules. I'm a bit split on this: would devices benefit from utilizing sub-modules that are easier for the average consumer to swap and replace themselves? There's additional incurred cost in adding the proper connectors and bulk in packaging the additional wiring as well, but surely there's value in making particularly fragile subcomponents swappable like fuses or cartridges. However, how much would we limit the functionality/performance of devices by forcing them to comply with the limitations of certain subcomponents? Would any manufacturers even agree to those design constraints if they didn't have to?
It seems that the most economically viable refurbish/repair operations are dependent on a significantly large number of units sold, and even some of the most successful products may not be enticing enough for the average joe to participate nowadays, and that's a real shame.