Some might say that kids these days are kind of spoiled. If you’re old enough to be in school, you’re probably old enough to have a mobile phone so that you can call your parents or your parents can track you. That’s fine, mobile phones are incredibly useful tools for communications these days, but how many kids really understand how those magical devices really work? How many adults even understand how those magical devices really work?
I bought a Do It Yourself mobile phone kit originally called “MakerPhone” in its Kickstarter days, but now called “Ringo” by CircuitMess. It was about $89, but the current version is $169, so that’s a little more pricey now. My version only includes a 2G GSM radio though, while the new one has an upgraded 4G GSM radio component.
The kit comes as a box of parts. You’ve got bags full of screws and bolts and pins and buttons… a few circuit boards… a little screen… and a few cut sheets of plastic that will serve as the case.
There aren’t any instructions in the box, so we had to pull up the website on a computer to keep nearby for referencing. You can see the full assembly guide here.
One of the first steps involves cutting machined header pin sticks to have the right number of pins for the “brain board”. This is the circuit board that has the MicroSD card slot, processor, and power management.
My initial impression was that there would be “some soldering” during assembly of this phone, but it turned out to be A LOT of soldering! Our soldering iron’s point was a bit too big to really get into all of those tiny pins, so we had to take a break, drive to the local hobby shop, and buy a new soldering iron that has a finer tip point.
We also used a magnifying glass with some adjustable arm clips to hold the electronic parts in place. It can be difficult soldering the pin headers to each board in a perfectly perpendicular manner, so we assembled the boards with the pin headers first, clipped them together, and then started soldering the pins. This made it much more likely that the pins and boards would fit, since they are already being held together.
Placing the little buttons into the tiny holes of the mainboard was best done by smaller fingers. Still each button had 4 pins that had to be soldered to the mainboard on the other side.
It’s alive!! We did it, and it actually works! First thing on the list? Test out the games… (Before even finishing the case of course.)
The case is about 4 flat sheets of cut plastic that we screwed together in a sandwich format with some brass spacers. We chose the fluorescent green color, but there are a variety of color options available.
You may notice the “9” and “#” buttons are missing on our finished product. That was an accident where those two buttons were not set in all the way flat against the main board while we were soldering them. They may have become angled a bit due to gravity and we accidentally soldered them like that from the opposite side and now the plastic button covers don’t fit over the hardware. So you need a smaller pokey thing to press those buttons now.
Here’s a better view of the sides of the phone. Obviously it’s not water proof at all.
On this edge, you can see some of the header pins pointing up are a little too long and the external layer of clear casing plastic is being pushed up a bit. This is because we soldered these pins upside down. The longer ends should have been pointing the other way. Honest mistake, but it still works.
The back shows the battery and phone radio through the clear parts. You’re supposed to use the 3M tape to glue the battery to the clear case backing, but just letting it sit there works too.
Now that we’ve assembled the phone, it’s time to write some programs for it! The Scratch based CircuitBlocks development environment seemed like a good choice. It connected to the phone over USB just fine, but we couldn’t get anything to run on the phone at all. We couldn’t even get a “hello world” program to run. We couldn’t even get projects to save! So perhaps that IDE isn’t ready for prime time just yet. Needless to say, we gave up.
Now this version of the kit was a 2G GSM model, too. 2G GSM networks have been getting shut down recently and obviously there isn’t going to be any new 2G build out, so the reception and coverage for this phone is going to be severely limited. I used a T-Mobile SIM card with it which should still have GSM reception. My other phones do show 2G reception for T-Mobile, but we were in a pretty weak reception area. It turns out that the 2G GSM radio included in this kit is not very good at attaching to networks anyway, so we really weren’t able to make any calls.
Still, even though it wasn’t a complete success, building our own mobile phone was certainly a fun project and absolutely a great learning experience!